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Handler Fitness

Get fit to play sport. Donít play sport to get fit!

Making plans for your winter training? Usually we talk about warming up the dogs but perhaps there should be more emphasis on warming up the handlers, too. Ruth MacGill, fitness coach for Agility Team GB, thinks it would be a worthwhile investment in your time and effort. She has written an interesting and informative article on physical fitness, not just for top competitors but also for handlers at all levels.

Agility may not be an officially recognised sport, but running around a course and the physical demands that it places on our bodies are similar to what you would see or experience playing many sports such as hockey, football, squash or tennis.  

Many of us will spend a considerable amount of time improving our dogís fitness, but, if you are looking to make some improvements over the winter, then devoting some time developing your own fitness will be time well spent. Fitness is hard to gain but easy to lose, thus a little hard work is required on your part, but you will be fitter, stronger, more confident and thus better prepared for the season ahead.  

There are several components to fitness which are outlined in the diagram below.  Some are more important to the agility handler than others. These are highlighted in red.  Some components are closely related. For example, in order to be able to sprint quickly, you need to have powerful leg and core muscles to generate the speed to be able to sprint down the side of the dog walk.

When starting any form of training to improve fitness, then 'specificity' is key. For example, if you were training for the marathon, you would not choose to swim for 2-3 hours every day, but instead would follow a long distance endurance based running programme.  Exercises that are linked as closely as possible to what you would physically do whilst training and competing with your dog are preferable. Therefore, you should be doing exercises which focus on short sprinting, twisting, turning, bending, quick footwork, accelerating and decelerating.

Here are some tips to help set you on your way:-

  • Always warm-up for a minimum of five minutes prior to any form of exercise.  Some fast walking, gentle jogging, faster running and some footwork drills using a speed ladder are perfect.

  • Join a Pilates or yoga class or buy a book/DVD.  This is a great way to improve functional and core strength, flexibility and mobility.

  • Invest in a speed/agility ladder. There are lots of drills on line and will help develop movement skills and build quick footwork and for helping with warm-ups.

  • Try some 'Dog Walk Sprints.' Set up some cones or use a dog walk, sprint up and back, rest, then repeat three or four times.

  • Practice running around a course, without your dog, as fast as you can concentrating on any short sprints, twists e.g. rotating behind you to reconnect with your dog or turns such as a pivot, European style etc. This will help you to focus on your movement around the course and identify any weaknesses to work on later. It will also improve your speed and anaerobic fitness.

  • If you like to go out running, then do some short sprints up a hill or between lamp posts (10-20 seconds) to develop speed and add variety.

  • Keep things fun Ė try training with a friend or small group so you can challenge each other and maybe have some races!

  • If you have any doubts about doing physical exercise then consult your doctor.

About the author...
Ruth MacGill has played sport since a teenager, reaching junior international level hockey and later continued with high level representative hockey and cricket.  She studied Sport and Exercises Sciences, gaining a BSc Hons degree and have several sports coaching qualifications. 

Ruth began agility about ten years ago. She has been working with the GB Agility Team for the past five years, preparing handlers to compete at international level. 

Her day job is in military aviation and operational delivery.

Photo of Ruth Macgill and Natasha Wise courtesy of Simon Peachey

First published 22 November 2017