Marathon runners

Most of my professional life, it seems, has been spent trying to help pet owners deal with the health issues of unfit or overweight pets. The problems of pet obesity are so severe and widespread that I was caught off guard recently when a dog owner asked me for advice about having her dog run with her as she trained for a marathon.

While I'm always delighted to hear from pet owners who understand the value of exercise — for themselves and their animals — running for fitness is not my area of expertise. When you’re raised on a dairy farm as I was, fitness comes naturally, by way of being alive. We never stopped moving, and who needs weight-lifting when there are hay bales to move?

I do work out daily under the loving guidance of my wife, Teresa, who’s an expert in fitness and nutrition. And I still move those hay bales. But the running I do is pretty much in airports, which is why I turned to an expert for help with this topic. Bob Halpenny is an experienced distance runner who trains other people for marathons through his work at Fleet Feet in Sacramento, Calif. He is also the owner of On the Trail Dog Fitness, a service that takes dogs out for regular runs.

Halpenny, 63, has run for 40 years, and started racing in 2000. He prefers ultra-marathons himself, and routinely runs in 50-mile races. Last year, he met a lifetime goal and finished the Western States 100-mile run, and he's in training to repeat his accomplishment. Through much of his personal trail training, he has had a dog of his own alongside him. His current running companion, a year-old Border Collie named Roy, is still limited to what Halpenny calls “puppy trots” of two to three miles. "You can’t start real distance training until a dog is a year or even 18 months old,” he says. I agree, and as a veterinarian, I would add that in the same way humans are told to visit their doctor before starting any fitness program, checking in with your pet's veterinarian before heading out for a long run is highly recommended.

Should Your Dog Train With You?

Most of the dogs Halpenny runs with for clients are good for a couple of miles, he says, but most aren’t that interested in distance running. He mentions a Boxer named Sugar who has been running with him nearly all her life. “She loves our runs, but the two to three miles we do regularly is enough for her,” he says.

His own dogs have all been Border Collies, and even in that hard-working breed, Halpenny has had enthusiastic partners in distance running, and those who’d rather stick to shorter runs, even with good training to build their physical capabilities. “My dog Gemmy would do 20-mile mountain runs with me,” he said, “and go on all my client runs as well. She loved it.”

If you’re thinking of a dog for distance running, Halpenny recommends sticking to breeds or mixes of breeds developed for long periods of steady work. Herding dogs were developed to work for hours, as were many hunting and hound breeds, as well as sledding breeds. Smaller dogs may not be able to handle long-distance endurance running, says Halpenny, nor can dogs with compromised respiratory systems or abnormal anatomy, such as Bulldogs or Corgis  (although any dog can benefit from getting out for shorter walks or runs, he notes).

Halpenny stresses that even dogs who are designed to go the distance must be in good physical condition before they start training, and they must be trained not to pull on a six-foot leash, which is what he recommends using. “When I started my dog running business, I didn’t fully realize the stress a pulling dog would put on my body,” he said. “I injured myself pretty seriously and couldn't run for weeks.”

“While I do prefer a dog who’s trained not to pull, I have used head halters or no-pull harnesses,” he says. “These need to be properly fitted, and the harnesses, especially, need to be checked to make sure they’re not rubbing.”

Don’t Rush Things

Halpenny notes that a dog’s natural gait for covering distance is an efficient dog trot, and that’s the pace they should stay with — no sprinting or fast-paced running. Make sure you take breaks as needed — Halpenny runs river trails, so the dogs can take a dip — and bring food for your dog on long training runs as well as water. And of course, be watchful for signs your dog is struggling, especially in the heat.

“The most important thing in training for distance races is to go slow. Going too quickly is the biggest mistake people make for themselves,” he says, “and that’s true for your dog too. All bodies take time to build up for distance running.”

He says that learning to run long races means finding and getting into a natural rythmn that’s like meditation, and your dog needs be able to let you get into mindset without distracting you. “The dog has to be on board with what you’re doing, and learn how to go along and not disrupt you,” says Halpenny. "Your dog needs to find that rhythm as well, which is why they need to stay in that comfortable dog trot."

When you’re training in a group, your dog also has to leave other runners alone, and again, that comes back to training and preparation. The marathon training groups Halpenny works with are open to dogs, as long as the animals aren’t causing problems.

“It’s all about control,” he says. “You want to keep that trot going, you want to keep the heart rate low. A dog who’s in control will not be bothering other runners, and not getting in the way of your own training.”

Interested in other kinds of fitness options for your dog? Learn more about agility training.