Whether you’re a long-time runner or you’re looking for ways to spend more time trekking in the forest with your dog, trail running is an excellent aerobic exercise to add to your weekly fitness regimen. Dogs are great running buddies, just say “outside” or grab their leash and watch their furry tails perk up. They’re enthusiastic, motivated and a good reminder that your workout is waiting.

The best part of trail running with dogs is there isn’t much gear involved. You just need shoes, a harness and a leash depending on where you’re running. In this beginner’s guide to trail running, we’ll share the gear, mindset, training, and running techniques you’ll need to go the distance with your dog.

Gear Up for the Trails

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Shoes

Let’s start with running shoes. It might be enticing to grab your old sneakers from the garage but don’t. The most common runner injuries – runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, ankle sprains, and blisters can all result from wearing the wrong shoes. Trust me, you don’t want to get all motivated to run with your dog and then have to rest for weeks or months because of an injury. The two main things to consider before purchasing a trail running shoe are what type of shoes your feet need (think neutral or stable, wide or narrow), and what type of shoes you need for the terrain you’re planning to run. With the latter, try to think about whether the trails you encounter are technical or smooth, flat or steep, have loose or firm footing, and whether or not you cross water. Go into a running store to get fitted. Try on different brands and styles, run on a treadmill if the store has one for demonstration, or run around the shop to test the shoe’s comfortable for your needs. 

Harness

A harness is a great tool for running with dogs. Whether it’s your dog pulling to the grass to pee, or the tension of the leash as you power your arms; a harness reduces the harm that all that leash jerking can cause. It allows your dog to run in front of you or beside you without jerking their neck or spine. It is also a safe option for dogs with pushed-in faces that restrict breathing such as pugs, dogs with trachea or throat problems, such as Pomeranians, and dogs with elongated, overly slender necks, such as Greyhounds. You want a harness for your dog that has the attachment on the back and is properly fitted for their body type. 

Hands-free Leash

Deciding which leash to use with your dog is one of the main considerations for trail running with them. The leash is your line of communication to your dog, it tells them which way to go, how slow, how fast, and reduces injury for both of you. When you’re running, you want to keep your elbows close to your body with your hands loose, moving your arms forward and back without twisting your torso or compromising your core stability. Choosing a hands-free leash over your standard 6-foot leash enables you to run safely and maintain control of your dog. 

Option add-ons:

  • Treats for training
  • Bear bell to attach to the dog harness
  • a doggy backpack to carry first aid supplies and water

Getting in the right mindset to run with your dog

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Beginning to run with your dog on the trails starts with adopting the right mindset. Running with dogs is a lot different than running by yourself – it takes a little more preparation and a lot of patience. In some instances your dog may slow your run down, for others, they’re the only ones keeping you going. In short, don’t go for a run with your dog expecting to PR. Any time you’re working with your dog you want to approach them with love and patience. Dogs are sentient beings and are capable of feeling positive emotions, like love and attachment. They’re also prone to getting their feelings hurt. 

If you haven’t been walking regularly, start slowly on a level surface for five to 10 minutes. As your energy levels rise and your muscles warm-up, pick up the pace to boost your heart rate. Remember, if you can talk easily while performing your routine, exercise harder. If you can’t carry a conversation at all, slow down a bit. Add five minutes every other day you walk until you reach your goal of 30 to 90 minutes. 

As for your dog, pay attention to their panting. The first time you go for a run with your dog you want to identify what their ideal speed is, how long into a run do they get tired or dehydrated? You also want to give them time to pee or poo before getting into the run. If you are starting with a very overweight or out-of-shape dog, split a workout into two sessions, walking twice a day for five to 10 minutes at a time. When you’re ready to progress into running, start with a 30-minute walk to allow time for potty breaks and then begin to job. Slow down if your dog starts lagging and take note of anything that causes anxiety or fear. Running with your dog is all about bonding and communicating so take things at your own pace.

Set an activity goal

Having a dog that can keep you accountable is the best thing ever! You’re both getting physical activity, which can help manage weight and lowers your risk of chronic diseases; you get fresh air and a dose of nature. Plus, it’s difficult to feel stressed or depressed if you see your dog loving every minute running in nature – head up, tail wagging, sniffing and peeing on everything. They’re happy whenever you’re outside together and that attitude is 100% contagious. 

Ideally, you should get out and actively walk or run with your dog at least 30 minutes five days a week, which is what the Physical Activity Guidelines recommend; the American College of Sports Medicine advises the same to lower the risk of weight gain. If you’re walking, that’s about 12 to 20 miles a week. That’s also the minimal activity level recommended if you want to lose weight, but you’ll lose more if you exercise up to 90 minutes five times a week. 

As with people, how much exercise your dog needs varies from dog to dog and is primarily dependent on age and health. A simple way to determine how much exercise your dog may need is to research their breed. In general, your dog should spend between 30 minutes to two hours on activities each day. Breeds in the hunting, working or herding groups need 60-90 minutes of exercise each day. This should include a long hike, playtime with other dogs, or trail running. Of course, if either you or your dog is out of shape or overweight, you’ll need to work up to these goals. 

Add intensity

Once you’ve achieved the distance and time you want, look for hills or steps to climb or sand to walk on during outings. You could also do intervals of moderate walking interspersed with faster walking or even running. Increase the length and intensity of your walk to a degree that’s challenging but not overwhelming for you and your dog. Cool down after every walk for five to 10 minutes. That means walking slowly until your heart rate and breathing return close to normal. This is a perfect time to let the dog take the lead again to explore their surroundings, pee or poop while you both catch your breath. Afterward, stretch your legs and calf muscles.

After the run

Fill the dog’s water bowl after each workout so they can drink freely and replenish their fluids. Be sure to check out your dog immediately after your walk or run to see how they handled the activity. If your dog is panting wildly with his tongue hanging out, is limping, sleeps for hours after a walk, or shows signs of overexertion, you’ll need to pull back on your activity level until his/her conditioning catches up to yours. 

Disclaimer: Pet parents are advised to check with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is old enough and healthy enough to run. Dogs’ bones and ligaments need to have fully formed before you should start running with them so let them get over their toddler years to avoid injuries for them further down the road. 


About the Author: Ashley Lose is a trail-runner and personal trainer traveling full-time in an RV with her husband and their two dogs. She hosts fitness boot camps for people and dogs to workout together. You can follow her adventures on Instagram