The four-legged friend gives man energy, and the man is the decision-maker. However, the most experienced competitors sometimes wonder which party in their team is really in charge.
A trained dog sled team can easily run 5 km with an average speed of 50 km/h. Of course, it all depends on the terrain and the type of surface, but such a result is impressive and obviously unreachable for runners. Four legs instead of two and a heart made for running all help. We as humans can use this power.
People who do canicross would all tell you that any dog can do this sport. The Polish Sleddog Sports Association adds that “any” means a dog weighing at least 12 kg (and we are not talking about obese dachshunds), at least if you want to enter a competition organised by the Association.
“The idea is that the dog should be big enough”, says Mateusz Brylewski from Żnin, a Poland international and vice-European champion in Canicross. “If it is too small, but with a big heart for running, it may accidentally hurt itself with too much effort.”
What breeds are best to start? Of course, all the northern races are almost genetically designed for running and mushing sports. Primarily, the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute. However, they may well be German Shepherds or pointing breeds. The fundamental rule is that the dog we want to prepare for canicross has enthusiasm for running, is obedient and confident, but also gentle enough not to cause conflicts with other dogs.
The principle is simple. The dog runs ahead wearing a special harness, which does not, however, restrain its movements. Attached to it is a line, at least 2.5 m long, fitted with an elastic shock absorber. It reduces shock to both human and dog. The runner wears a waist belt which transfers the dog’s energy and makes it easier to run.
“Apart from that, there’s no need of any other equipment. We use trail shoes, and it’s prohibited to use spikes because of the dog’s safety. Canicross is the easiest of all mushing sports”, adds Brylewski.
The owner of almost every dog knows that the dog needs to be discouraged from pulling rather than encouraged to do so. This very feature of the canine psyche is used in canicross. But the trick is to make the dog pull exactly in the direction in which the runner wants to go. This requires training and synchronization between the man and the dog.
“For many years, I ran alone, but then I had a longing for a dog. I didn’t want a couch potato dog though. So I bought a husky as I read online that I could run with it. And this is how it started”, recalls Mateusz Brylewski. “It took me about half a year to teach the dog basic commands. The main thing is get it into the habit so that after the ‘forward’ command it focuses only on going ahead – without sniffing around, provoking other dogs or enjoying the sights.”
Then it is time to teach other commands: ‘right turn’, ‘left turn’, ‘faster’, ‘slower’, and ‘stop’. The carrot and stick method has proven to work best. After the dog has obeyed a command, it gets a reward. It is also important not to keep training on the same routes. Dogs are inclined to learn them by heart and commands become of secondary importance.
The question remains where it is best to practice. We know that asphalt can be lethal to human joints, even if the man is wearing cushioned shoes. We can only imagine what havoc long-distance running on such a surface may create with a dog’s joints. Therefore, canicross training and competitions generally take place on natural unpaved surface. The shape of the terrain is of secondary importance. It should be emphasized, however, that the competitions are often held in hilly areas, so try to take this into account in your training plan.
“We start with a sprint, midway through we accelerate, and at the end we run at breakneck speed”, this is how Hubert Kiljan, multiple medallist of the World Championships and European Canicross Championships describes his strategy. It differs significantly from that adopted by professional runners. “There’s no place for saving energy because the basic principle of canicross is not to slow down the dog.”
Dogs, in contrast to men, are never aware of how far they have to run. Therefore, regardless of whether the finish line is around the first bend or 5 km away, the dog begins by running at its best. At this stage, the human runner lifts their legs high to benefit as much as possible from the strength of the towing dog. Halfway through, the animal gets a bit weaker – it is time for the man to lift the dog’s spirits and encourage it to keep running.
“About a kilometre before the finish, I shout ‘Roxy, finish!’, and then she starts pulling ahead because she knows that the race is about to end. I clench my teeth and try to keep up with her. At the finish line, it is usually me who falls down from exhaustion”, adds Kiljan.
Most canicross competitions are run over distances of 2 to 5 km. The routes are not certified, so they are usually a few dozen metres longer or shorter. To prepare for these competitions, professionals use separate training plans for the dog and for themselves.
“My personal training is typical for people participating in 5 and 10 km races. Due to the nature of canicross, I put greater emphasis on strength. We run cross country. In the run-up to the season, I run about 150 km a week”, says Mateusz Brylewski.
“To build up strength, we do bikejoring. I sit on a bike and the dog pulls me. I build my dog’s strength by running long distances of up to 15-20 km. High-speed training involves letting my dog loose to chase after a car, a motorcycle or a quad. It is then able to run several kilometres at a speed in excess of 50 km/h. It amazes me invariably”, smiles Hubert Kiljan.
Training distances should be twice as long as those during a competition.
“The idea is that the dog shouldn’t be tired after crossing the finish line, or worse, before that” explains Kiljan.
What are the average times in canicross? The best manage to go below 2 min 30 sec per kilometre. Over a distance of 5 km, the result is better than the current world record held by Kenenisa Bekele (running without a dog, of course). Results of 13-14 min at 5 km during competitions are quite common. Records do not exist, because each race is different.
The most titled runners emphasize, however, that the foundation of their success is the mutual understanding between man and dog.
“I schedule the timing of our training with the dog in mind. In the summer, when it’s hot, we go out to train at 5 or 6 in the morning or late in the evening, at about 8 or 9. The idea is that the dog doesn’t overheat during training”, explains Brylewski. He adds that it is essential to observe the dog during training. If the animal does not want to run, is panting or keeps trying to lie down, forget training and simply play with it or go home.
“My habits, exercise regime and consistency are all put aside in such situations. The dog is more important. You have to be able to sense its needs.”
Hubert Kiljan adds that before one gets serious about training canicross, it is worth going to a competition organized by the Polish Sleddog Sports Association, have a look, and talk to the experts.
“The dog is always fed after training and after a competition. If it starts with a full stomach, it can get twisted, which requires a complicated operation. Such knowledge is essential for Canicross to be safe both for humans and, most importantly, for the dogs.”
Autumn sees the most Polish Cup competitions (for those more advanced), but also Dog Sledding League competitions (for amateurs – including for beginners). Of course, one does not exclude the other, and runners who are successful in canicross also take part in street races throughout Poland.
“I’ve been running with my dog to add variety to my running training, and I’d recommend it to all who like being on the move”, stresses Mateusz Brylewski, and immediately adds “canicross is so addictive that you may soon find yourself running on a leash only”.
The best canicross breeds include the Greyster, the Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Malamute (sled dogs), pointing breeds and sighthounds (hunting dogs).
Mushing – a general term for a sport or transport method powered by dogs.
Canicross – running with a dog attached to the runner with an elastic line with a shock absorber.
Dogtrekking – hiking with a dog.
Dryland – dog carting events held in non-snow season.
Bikejoring – a discipline where one or two dog pull a cyclist.
Filip Springer, Człowiek na smyczy [Man on a Leash], Bieganie, December 2010