Last year I shared Running With a Dog That Pulls and included a ton of other running tips I’ve picked up along this slowwwww journey of ours.
This weekend, I’ll run my longest distance yet–a 10k–with sights set toward a half marathon in the fall. That, btw, is my uppermost limit. I’m never going to train for anything longer than that, but once I finish the half, I need a new goal.
Here’s my confession: I still don’t like running. I haven’t liked it since I started the C25k trainer app several years ago, and adding miles hasn’t added any love. It’s a slog. I’ve never experienced a “runner’s high.” Instead, I’m usually experiencing something I’ve coined “runner’s relief” when it’s over!
However, I’m committed to it partly because I want to be stronger, partly because I want to feel like I can do it, and partly because it’s Cooper’s greatest joy in all the universe. I can’t rob him of that just because it’s hard, ya know?
So, I’ve decided on trail running. (The photo below is clearly not us! I don’t know how to get a scenic shot of us trail running without, like, bringing a photographer running with us. HA! Plus, there’s nothing so mountainous in central Indiana!)
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I love hiking. I love being outside in the woods, breathing fresh air, enjoying nature. I love the feeling of tired legs after navigating rough terrain, and I love the look on Cooper’s face at the end… that happy, mouth-open pant that means he just had fun. Welp. Why not combine the two!?
You guys know me… as soon as I decided on that idea, I dug into the research. I compiled a lot of useful tips and info, so I want to share that with you in case you’re interested in starting a trail running habit with your dog!
How to start trail running with your dog
First thing’s first: Unless you’re in an off-leash-specific area, never let your dog off leash to run on the trails. It’s disrespectful to other people and dogs in the park, and it’s disrespectful to the wildlife. Trails are cut for a reason. Stay on them and keep your dog on leash. And, obviously (it’s obvious, right? I mean, it should be…) pick up after your dog. Yes, that might mean running miles with a poop bag, but that’s just part of the deal.
With that foundation, here are three tips to get you started running trails with your dog:
- Avoid injury. Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon your first day out, you don’t want to clock tons of miles in the beginning of trail running. It’s so much harder than running on pavement or on a track. Your ankles and knees need time, plus you’re using some subtly different muscle groups when you’re trying to stay balanced on terrain than a flat stretch. When this idea first popped into my head, I made a point to jog little stretches of trail on my hikes with Coop. Train like you would for any other race. In fact, it might be smart to start an app or program like C25k on trails even if you’ve already achieved that distance on pavement. It’s good for you and it’s good for your dog to take it slowly. No injuries!
- Avoid overheating. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. That goes for you and for your dog. Dehydration can be sneaky, especially if you’re in the shade or at an elevation that feels cool. You’re still sweating a ton, and you and your dog are working really hard. Take water breaks and avoid overheating. And always bring water, even if you’re going a short distance. You just never know, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Set limits. It’s your responsibility to make sure your dog doesn’t overdo it. I mean, for you too, of course, but your dog won’t necessarily tell you if he’s sore, tired, or in pain. Caution is the name of the game. This rule also helps ease you into trail running! Start small and slowly build up your miles. Right now, Coop and I run intervals: We run for four minutes and walk for one. We started with less total time, around 30 minutes, and are building up our duration. Today’s run, for instance, was 55 minutes with those intervals. It helps build strength and duration while implementing a set limit–which is good for both you and your dog!
Otherwise, the best way to start is to just start! Hit a trail closest to you and give it a whirl! You won’t get anywhere unless you take those first few steps, ya know?
Trail running gear for your dog… and for you, too!
There’s an entire industry dedicated to gear, but I’m a firm believe in simplifying. You need good shoes. You need a way to hydrate. Your dog needs a collar and harness. Depending on terrain, your dog might also need boots. Beyond that, it’s your choice. You can suit up in all kinds of technical fabrics and carry bits and pieces of gear. I wear a thick pair of running tights from Athleta (thick because I often get sliced by brambles and thorns), layered tops depending on the weather, and a hat. That’s it! Here are a handful of other things to consider:
Water belt: You want to be as hands-free as possible. You’re already holding the leash, and at least for me, I like to have a totally free hand to help with balance. A water belt lets you carry your water, plus a lot fit your phone and a roll of poop bags. This one comes highly recommended, and John uses this one.
Shoes: I live in central Indiana. We have very little rugged terrain. Plus, I’m not conditioned for super steep or rocky stuff yet, so I honestly just wear plain old running shoes. These are my current ones, and I love them. If I were to get super technical with trail running, I’d probably look into this brand because it’s so renowned for trail shoes. Maybe someday. Regardless, I’m a firm believer in just being where you are in the process, so there’s no need to spend a ton on shoes unless you want or need to.
Harness: I absolutely do not recommend running with just a collar + leash because it puts too much pressure on your pup’s neck. Cooper wears this one most often, which we selected for visibility. You can’t miss him in that thing. However, it doesn’t quite adjust to a perfect fit on him because he has unique proportions. I’m in the process of looking for another option that’s at least equally visible. The other one we use is this one if I need him to carry some of his own stuff, like pickup bags or a water dish.
Bug spray: Both Coop and I seem to be tick magnets. He’s on a preventative, but I also spray us both down with a bug spray before we hit the trails (except in winter months). And to be completely honest? I just spray myself with the spray I buy for Coop and the cats, which is Easy Defense from Only Natural Pet.
Sunscreen: I advocate for sunscreen 365 days a year for any activity, but it’s especially important to have a good one when you’re sweating. I love the Sun Bum brand in both the lotion and the spray. For your dog, consider a product like nose protection.
Paw butter: For a post-run treatment, a paw butter helps soothe rough spots. We currently use this one, although we did get a free sample of it about a year ago so don’t have other brands to compare it to… although it has lasted a whole year, so there’s that!
Once you’re ready to go, there are a few other things you need to think about:
Weather: Dress for the conditions where you live, obviously, but I suggest layers. It’s easier to take a jacket off and tie it around your waist than it is to freeze because it’s cooler under the tree canopy than you prepared for. Stash some dry clothes in your car–along with a towel–to deal with mud or water. And if it’s too hot, don’t run. It’s not worth it for you or for your dog.
Animals: Most of the time, you can avoid wild animals by staying on cut trails. You’ll make plenty of noise together to keep most animals at bay. Don’t go off trail, and don’t let your dog off leash.
Dehydration and exhaustion: Stay hydrated. Bring something to munch on for you and your dog if you’re going a long distance. Wear sunscreen and appropriate layers. Set–and follow–limits for you and your dog.
Know before you go: I recommend starting your training on trails you know, but if you’re exploring somewhere new, check an online map first. Read reviews or blog posts of the trails. Get a sense of what you’re getting into before you go so you can dress and pack your supplies accordingly.
Trail running with your dog is FUN!
If you’re prepared and willing to work into it, trail running with your dog is super fun! It’s far more interesting to breathe fresh air and look at trees than it is to breathe exhaust and look at rows of houses. And it’s a different kind of challenge than just running on pavement.
Have you ever tried trail running with your pup? I tried to cover all the 101-level stuff I could think of here, but if I left you with any questions, please leave them in the comments! Or, if you have experience running trails with your pup, what would you add to this list? Have I missed anything important or do you have any extra tips? I’d love to learn in the comments!