Periodization training in elite human athletes sparked the idea of applying periodization principles to sprint sled dog racers. As with humans, periodization had phenomenal success in sled dogs, boosting their performance and keeping the intense racers free of injuries throughout training and competition. A potential game-changer, periodization also can be used to train hardworking sporting dogs.
“Periodization is a concept we developed over the past 12 years that focuses on performance goals and how to optimize and restructure muscle systems using nutrition and conditioning periodization,” explains Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Arleigh Reynolds, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVN. “You manipulate training variables to maximize capacity and performance. During the season and before an event, you do things differently.”
Reynolds was one of four experts who presented talks on ways to enhance canine performance at the 2014 Purina Sporting Dog Summit held in July. The two-and-a-half day program, titled “Achieving a Performance Edge,” was held at the Purina Event Center in Gray Summit, Missouri. Some of the country’s top dog handlers and trainers, as well as sorting dog journalists, attended the Summit.
Reynolds’ concept of periodization is based on the following conditioning principles:
- Set goals — A trainer must have an end goal in mind. Decide which events you want your canine athletes to win each season.
- Incorporate available training options — It’s important to be able to adjust to weather conditions, varying terrain and other environmental elements.
- Evaluation — As a trainer, it’s crucial to be objective. Evaluate your training program after every season to determine what worked and what didn’t. Adjust accordingly.
- Adaptation cycle — To avoid overtraining, maximize rest. This is how you can help your retrievers get in better shape.
Based in Salcha, Alaska, Reynolds, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, evaluates the impact of nutrition on the performance of sled dogs—tremendous athletes that provide a good model for sporting dogs. Prior to using periodized conditioning, Reynolds realized his sled dogs failed to develop the aerobic base they needed for sprint racing competition. Gradually, as he introduced periodization, adding diverse and varied training stimuli, Reynolds began to notice performance changes in his dogs.
“You have to look at what a dog is capable of and then slowly increase or alter the conditioning stimulus over time, giving adequate periods of rest for recovery between sessions,” he says. “This builds muscle and red blood cells, and ultimately increases cardiac output.”
Developing muscle systems that provide optimal strength, speed and endurance involves starting easy and gradually increasing the workload. It takes four to eight weeks for a dog’s body to adapt to a stimulus that creates an overload. Once the body adjusts and becomes stronger, supercompensating for the overload, it is time to change the stimulus again.
Reynolds uses the following periods for his sled dogs:
- Foundation — 16 to 20 weeks building an aerobic foundation to support the training platform. Large-volume/low-intensity work, such as long-slow-distance (LSD) training, with small amounts of high-intensity work after four to eight weeks for fun.
- Preparation — 12 to 16 weeks devoted to moderate-volume/higher-intensity work, such as short-intense sprint races. Most sessions are at or just below the anaerobic threshold. Refresh with LSD training every 10 to 14 days to maintain an aerobic base. This is the most difficult period to stay focused.
- Specialization — Four to seven weeks of high-speed, intense racing competition. Sharp decrease in volume of work during recovery, focusing on short-pace runs and lots of rest. Reynolds advises to think of this period as peeling off the layers of a tremendous athlete using short-intense exercise paired with ample rest.
- Recovery — Four to eight weeks of nonspecific activities that dogs enjoy, such as free play, walks and hikes. Mental and physical recovery is the goal.
“As with Olympic athletes, you don’t want to push it to the limit every time you’re out,” Reynolds says. “The idea is to focus on different things and build on them.”