What We Can Learn from the World’s Best Endurance Athletes: Dogs
One key to successful running is to always continue growing and learning the sport. With so many systems that are utilized during endurance exercise, it is impossible to entirely optimize every system as you progress throughout your training. Sometimes, the best way to determine how to become a better athlete is to learn from those who have exceptional skills. However, instead of learning from professional runners, why not look towards the world’s best endurance athletes? Described here are the observations1 scientists have made into the exceptional endurance capabilities of canines.
Maintain a High Metabolic Rate
Among mammals, dogs have been shown to have the highest sustained metabolic rate in the world of approximately 4,400 J / kg per day2. Essentially, this measurement describes how efficiently a mammal converts and expends energy. A high sustained metabolic rate is preferable, as it indicates the animal is better able to use energy from food. The alternative is to break down fat stores in the body; an energetically unfavorable process. In comparison, riders from Le Tour de France were found to have a sustained metabolic rate of 1400 J / kg per day3.
While humans will never be able to compete with the efficient metabolisms of canines, there are ways to improve metabolic rates in order to maximize efficiency. First, you should be eating frequently throughout the day, especially snacks that have plenty of protein. When you give your body a steady stream of calories the thermic effect of food4 results in a metabolic boost. When food sources are scarce (due to under-eating or improper calorie consumption) the body will naturally slow its metabolism.
High-intensity interval training5 (HIIT) is another proven way to increase your metabolic rate. During a HIIT workout, a runner will alternate short, but intense, bursts of speed with rest. An example workout is 10 x 2:00 at 5k pace followed by 1:00 of easy running. This type of training is crucial for sustaining lean body mass and teaching the body how to effectively convert energy.
To go along with HIIT, strength training6 is another proven method for improving metabolic rate. Researchers have found that the body’s natural repair mechanism following an intense lifting session can boost metabolism following the session. In addition, muscle naturally burns more calories than fat, and 1 lb of muscle can increase caloric burn by 30 – 50 cal.
Ultimately, by working to improve your metabolic rate you can improve lean muscle mass, reduce fat, and exercise more efficiently – much like a canine.
Improve your Aerobic Scope
Aerobic scope describes the ratio of VO2 max (the amount of oxygen that can be utilized at the cellular level during activity) to basal metabolic rate (the metabolic rate and oxygen usage when the body is resting). Why is aerobic scope important? This metric describes the ability of an animal to exercise at an aerobic, versus anaerobic, level.
Due to the dog’s high VO2 max, adaptations have occurred at the cellular, mitochondrial, vasculature, cardiac, and pulmonary systems. Due to these adaptations, dogs are able to run for long periods of time without the exercise becoming anaerobic. Essentially, a well-trained dog will never experience the “oxygen debt” that human athletes experience.
The aerobic scope for humans is lower, which is mostly due to our naturally lower VO2 max measurements. A typical elite runner has a VO2 max of approximately 80 ml/kg/min, while the average untrained athlete has a VO2 max of approximately 40 ml/kg/min, and a basal metabolic rate of 3.5 ml/kg/min. Therefore, aerobic scope of humans is approximately 11-23, with a higher number being preferable. For dogs, the aerobic range is 20 – 30. Therefore, an elite male athlete may be able to compete with the average untrained dog.
The key to improving aerobic scope is to improve VO2 max. Fortunately, exercise scientists are continually studying ways to improve this variable. One of the best ways to improve oxygen uptake is run interval workouts7 at your lactate threshold. These workouts should comprise approximately 5000 meters of running (i.e., 4 x 1200 m; 5 x 1000 m; 6 x 800 m; etc.) at the hardest effort you can sustain.
These types of workouts are proven to increase your VO2 max because they train the body to most efficiently use oxygen during times of distress. Exercise scientists have also shown that regular hill repeats and hill training8 can lead to increased VO2 max.
Another method to improve oxygen efficiency is to increase your training volume9. The upper limit of mileage in terms of VO2 max benefits is 70 – 75 miles per week, at which point any additional benefits appear to be solely based on improvements in running economy. High mileage runners tend to have a leaner physique, which also improves aerobic efficiency.
[Centuries of] Training Matters
Scientists have not only determined that dogs are far superior endurance athletes relative to humans, but there are variations among domestic canines. In the aforementioned paper published in Journal of Experimental Biology10, researchers compared the athletic ability of three dog types: northern breeds (i.e. Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes), hounds (i.e. beagles and German Shorthaired Pointers), and retrievers (i.e. Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers). Each breed was developed for a specific reason, which appears to have affected individual athletic ability.
After 23 canine study participants underwent treadmill tests in a metabolic chamber, the scientists found that northern breeds unsurprisingly had the lowest energetic cost during locomotion. Hounds and retrievers experienced little variation from one another, but were both approximately 8% less efficient than their northern ancestors.
What is the reasoning for these discrepancies? The prevailing theory is that the different breeds have adapted over time to meet the specific needs of their primary use. Even though all dogs have a common ancestor (wolves), selective breeding has changed the strengths of each breed. For instance, northern breeds were selected based on the ability to travel long distances in cold weather while pulling a significant load. On the other hand, a retrieving dog would be prized for short bursts of speed and the ability to listen to commands at a long range.
How can humans learn from these factors that affect a dog’s endurance capability? While a human cannot change its ancestry, the amount of time and energy put into running can be controlled. Malcolm Gladwell explains a popular theory that in order to be an expert at a given task or activity, one must spend 10,000 hours devoted to training. This hypothesis is based on a study of German violin players, which showed that the best violinists had put in the most amount of time practicing.
While the exact number of 10,000 hours has been widely debated, the overarching theme of this suggestion is true: In order to improve in a given field, one must spend a lot of time practicing. In the realm of dogs, this has led to important adaptations that improved each breed’s ability to perform specific tasks. For humans, a lifetime spent exercising will also lead to important exercise-specific adaptations11, primarily in the heart and lungs.
Reduce Your Energy Cost
The dogs that were shown to be the best athletes among canines also had something in common: Their bodies were built in such a way that energy costs were reduced in comparison to less efficient breeds. For instance, differences in head and leg angles appear to reduce the energy costs of the northern breeds, as opposed to the hounds and retrievers.
While humans are unable to change certain aspects of their genetics such as body build or leg length, they can work to improve their energy costs. As mentioned, one way to improve efficiency is to increase mileage9. Increased running forces the body to adapt in order to counteract the increased energy expenditure.
Another way to reduce energy cost is to improve running form. Even a small inefficiency, such as a flailing arm or outkicked heel can waste precious energy. Form drills such as A-Skip, B-Skip, and C-Skip are useful for reducing extraneous motion. In addition, improving core and overall body strength will also improve running economy and reduce energy cost.
Ultimately, the lessons we can learn from dogs is that the factors that most affect endurance are aerobic, metabolic, and energetic efficiencies. Although humans are unable to change their genetics, working to improve these areas through scientifically proven methods is important for becoming a better endurance athlete.
1. Bryce CM, Williams TM. Comparative locomotor costs of domestic dogs reveal energetic economy of wolf-like breeds. J Exp Biol. 2016 Nov 3. pii: jeb.144188. Link
2. Hinchcliff KW, Reinhart GA, Burr JR, Schreier CJ, Swenson RA. Metabolizable energy intake and sustained energy expenditure of Alaskan sled dogs during heavy exertion in the cold. Am J Vet Res (1997) 58:1457–62. Link
3. Westerterp KR, Saris WH, van Es M, ten Hoor F. Use of the doubly labeled water technique in humans during heavy sustained exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985) 1986;61:2162–2167. Link
4. Welle S, Lilavivat U, Campbell RG. Thermic effect of feeding in man: Increased plasma norepinephrine levels following glucose but not protein or fat consumption. Metabolism. 1981;30:953–958. Link
5. Laursen P. B., Jenkins D. G. (2002). The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes. Sports Med. 32, 53–73. 10.2165/00007256-200232010-00003 Link
6. Lemmer JT, Ivey FM, Ryan AS, Martel GF, Hurlbut DE, Metter JE, et al. Effect of strength training on resting metabolic rate and physical activity: age and gender comparisons. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Apr;33(4):532–41 Link
7. Poole DC, Gaesser GA. Response of ventilatory and lactate thresholds to continuous and interval training. J Appl Physiol. 1985;58:1115–1121. Link
8. Staab J. S., Agnew J. W., Siconolfi S. F. Metabolic and performance responses to uphill and downhill running in distance runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992;24(1):124–127. Link
9. Daniels JT, Yarbrough RA, Foster C. Changes in VO2 max and running performance with training. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1978;39:249–254. doi: 10.1007/BF00421448. Link
10. C. M. Bryce, T. M. Williams. Comparative locomotor costs of domestic dogs reveal energetic economy of wolf-like breeds. Journal of Experimental Biology 2016 : doi: 10.1242/jeb.144188 Link
11. Dowell RT. Cardiac adaptations to exercise. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1983;11:99-117. Link