The Definitive Guide to Endurance Training—for Your Dog

How to raise an adventure companion who will keep up with you mile after mile

Want to endurance train with your dog? Look no further. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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There’s a scene in Happy People, Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary about life in Siberia, where trapper Nikolay returns to his village of Bakhtia on a snowmobile after spending several months in the backcountry. "The voyage is 150 kilometers along the frozen river," Herzog narrates, "and we should note that Nikolay’s dog never rides on the snowmobile. He covers the entire distance running behind."

Nikolay’s dog runs day and night, over ice and through knee-deep powder. The scene forces any dog-loving endurance athlete to wonder: Did Herzog stumble upon the canine equivalent of an Olympic athlete? Or is this type of endurance possible for most domesticated dogs? And if so, how can I get my dog to run like that?

A couple years ago, when I adopted my dog, Tucker, I was excited to take him mountain biking and running. But it turns out that not every dog behaves like Nikolay’s—Tucker preferred running around barking at anything that moved, rather than obediently running beside me. Training a new dog to be able to keep up with you all day takes patience, attention, and commitment. Most dogs have innate endurance ability, and if you approach their training right, you’ll have years of adventuring together. 

Here’s everything you need to know about getting outside with your four-legged best friend.

What Breed Is Best for Endurance? 

It's a good first question, and the answer, according to John Andersen, a veterinarian and ultrarunner in Crozet, Virginia, who often writes about animals and fitness, lies in the dog’s ancestor. "We can look at the gray wolf and learn about our own dogs’ inherent capabilities and instincts," he says.

Wolves are amazing distance runners, regularly traveling 30 to 40 miles per day. "When you look at their diet, which is high in protein and fat, and low in carbohydrates, in addition to their easy loping pace, you realize that they are the ultimate fat-adapted distance runners," says Andersen. They also have relatively light bodies distributed evenly over four legs, meaning they can handle the impacts of long-distance trips. 

There are some dogs that have been bred in specific ways that make them poor running-partner candidates. Avoid "short-faced dogs," Andersen says, like bulldogs, pugs, and Boston Terriers: they have a hard time breathing, perspiring, and, due to their size, keeping up. A big dog doesn’t guarantee a good runner, either. "Some of the giant breeds, such as St. Bernards, Mastiffs, and Great Danes, have a lot of orthopedic problems," he says.

Good candidates include most medium-sized (30 to 60 pounds) shorthaired dogs. Heather Simon-Buonocore, a veterinarian and ultrarunner in Hillsborough, New Jersey, recommends "dogs in the sporting, herding, and working breed groups, like a Vizsla, Weimaraner, Labrador Retriever, Australian Cattle dog, Border Collie, German Shorthaired Pointer, and Siberian Husky, but only if you don’t live in a hot climate." Don’t let that list limit you: a rescue mutt can also make a great runner.  

The last quality to look for is an intangible: a dog who loves to run. "Most dogs do love to run," says Andersen, "and with proper training and exposure, they can be great partners. Yet some dogs are just terrible runners, behaviorally. They seem bored, or they are reactive, lunging at cars and dogs, or they are just terrible on a leash. So having a good temperament for running is important."  

When Can I Start Running with My Puppy? 

When I adopted Tucker, I was excited to have a new running partner. But I was told repeatedly that we should wait until he was at least a year old before running together.  

"That’s a common myth," says Andersen. "I see people not running with their young dogs because they have been told not to, but then they’ll play high-intensity fetch instead, which is way more impact and potentially damaging on their joints." 

Instead of high-intensity ball games with a puppy, he recommends walking, hiking, and, when they reach a few months old, going on easy runs under a mile. 

"By three or four months," Andersen notes, "wolf pups start traveling with the pack on short hunting trips. They are also doing a lot of play, chase, and exploring with the adults and with littermates. By six months, the pups are traveling with the adults on longer hunting trips taking them many miles from their homes." 

How Long and Far Can We Run?  

The distance your dog can run depends mostly on his or her innate abilities and current fitness. "You need to learn to listen to your dog," Andersen says. "If your dog is pulling you on the leash and has constant energy during the whole run, you know you haven’t overdone it. But if they are trailing behind you, becoming less animated, panting hard, then you probably have." 

On your first few outings, go for easy hikes and see how they do. Use those hikes as a baseline when thinking about how long your runs together should be. And make sure to give your dog plenty of recovery time. "You shouldn’t just start running together five days a week, no matter how excited your dog is when you grab your running shoes," Andersen says. "They need time to adapt just like we do." 

As you think about adding mileage, do so just as you would for your own training: gradually. Simon-Buonocore recommends starting out easy with your young dog—around a mile to begin with—and “increasing overall weekly mileage by 10 to 15 percent. That could mean adding an extra day of running or adding to the length of any particular run." 

What About Really Long Runs? 

Once your dog is no longer a puppy and is in good shape, they may be able to keep up with you at any distance or speed. But not all dogs are like Nikolay’s, and there are a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re taking your companion out with you on your weekend-long run. 

"It comes down to training, outside temperature, and the dog’s individual ability to adapt," says Andersen. "One of my running buddies has a dog who regularly runs 18 to 20 miles with him and loves it." 

But take note: if you are a fast ultrarunner going on a long tempo run, you probably should leave your dog at home. "On long runs, you’ve got to give your dog time to take breaks, drink water, and run along at an easy pace," Andersen says. If you can’t take the time to do that during a run, don’t make your dog suffer. 

Should I Use a Leash? 

"Dogs are happiest when running free on trails in the woods, able to sniff, sprint, and run without an agenda," says Anderson. If you live in an area where you can trail run with your dog off-leash, that’s going to be the best option for both of you—assuming your dog will behave when you encounter other humans.

"Unfortunately, many dogs are just not good off leash," says Andersen, and if you need to use one, he recommends the kind that goes around your waist. "It’s hard enough to work on your running form on your own, but if you have a dog who is pulling or constantly stopping, you’re going to put a lot of torque on your upper body and throw off your form. When they are attached to your waist, you can run with them hands-free and better balanced, which makes it a more sustainable experience for you." 

If you live in a city or suburb far away from off-leash trails, "just respect that running on a leash is not natural for dogs and takes some getting used to," advises Andersen. Leash training is key.   

What Health Concerns Should I Be Looking For? 

"The number one thing to be careful of is overheating,” says Andersen. "You can train fitness, but you cannot train a dog to be okay running when it's 85 degrees outside." 

A good rule of thumb: above 70 degrees, be careful where you run (shaded forest versus open desert) and how far you go. And above 80 degrees, you should not be running with your dog unless you are running beside a creek that they can jump in and out of as needed. "Wolves in Yellowstone are not roaming around the park when it’s 90 degrees out," says Andersen. "They are chilling out under a tree." 

If your dog is lagging behind you on the leash, frequently stopping to lie down or "super panting"—a rapid, almost panicked panting—you should stop right away. 

If your dog is in a lot of pain or she’s limping for more than a day, take her to the vet. "Some of the most common injuries I see in dogs who run," says Simon-Buonocore, "are paw pad lacerations or abrasions and torn cruciate ligaments of their knee."

And at some point, your dog is going to slow down with age. That’s natural, and it doesn’t mean they can’t be active anymore, it just means they need more rest. "There is always a balance between making sure you give them rest and decreasing the mileage, but also keeping them active," advises Andersen. "Again, hiking is a great answer here." 

Does My Dog Need a Powerbar? 

During long runs, you should always have water available for your dog just as you would for yourself. Keep in mind that dogs can get giardia and leptospirosis, so if that’s a concern where you run, provide them with treated water. You can carry a lightweight collapsible bowl or just let them drink from your hands.  

"Do not feed your dog a large meal and then go out for a strenuous run," warns Simon-Buonocore. "That can predispose the larger, deep-chested breeds to developing a life-threatening problem called gastric dilatation volvulus, where their stomach flips on itself and then starts to fill with gas. A wiser option would be a smaller meal at least an hour or two prior to exercise or a meal after exercise."

Dogs, like humans, don’t really need food during a run less than 90 minutes long, but make sure that the amount of food you give your dog at the end of the day matches their activity level. And don’t feed them crap at home—feed them real food with real nutrients rather than a lot of cheap filler. Andersen recommends dog food with meat as the first ingredient that’s higher in fat and protein and lower in carbohydrates—much like the diet of wolves in the wild.   

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