Athletic performance is a combination of genetics, training, and advanced nutrition. As with humans, before embarking on any extreme exercise program or athletic training, a complete physical exam is highly recommended.
Finding a veterinarian to give this exam, in and of itself, can be a challenge, as the type of conditioning we are looking for in our canine athletes is different than the average pet home. However, there are a lot of wonderful veterinarians (including those who specialize in sports and orthopedics) so it is possible to find a very qualified doctor.
For some sports such as Agility, Frisbee, or Flyball I recommend a complete set of x-rays to check for soundness. Dogs will adjust for pain and continue to work, putting undue stress on other parts of the body. This can result in injuries and possibly early retirement due to impact stress induced lameness.
Personally, I have had dogs who hid hip dysplasia, IVDD (intervertebral disc disease), OCD, and other conditions that I most likely would have not discovered before a serious injury due to the condition had I not done health screening prior to pursuing my sport with them. Yes, these exams can be expensive, but so is the surgery and rehab that results from serious injuries. (P.S. I highly recommend you consider health insurance for your dog if you are thinking about or already do a dog sport. Personally, I use, love, and recommend Figo.)
Training for athletic condition can be divided into three categories based on intensity and duration:
1. Sprinting: high intensity activities that can be sustained less than two minutes.
2. Intermediate: activities lasting a few minutes to a few hours.
3. Endurance: activities that last many hours. The majority of canine athletes fit into the intermediate category.
Athletes in the intermediate category require a great deal of cardio (sprinting and sustained running) and strength training (muscle building) for optimal performance and prevention of injury.
An often-overlooked component of the canine athlete is training for flexibility. Prior to any demanding sport, especially a sport requiring jumping skills, it is vital to stretch your performance canine. Please remember stretching with cold muscles should be avoided!
I recommend a warm up of three to five minutes of jogging or running prior to any stretching. Do not attempt to warm up with jumping exercises. Jumping with cold, tight muscles might result in injury.
But what about nutrition?
One characteristic of exercise is increased metabolism. Providing the right amount of energy from the right sources is paramount to feeding canine athletes.
Energy for exercise comes from fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. For extremely athletic dogs, the energy contribution from protein is small. Fats and carbohydrates are the primary energy providers for exercise for these dogs.
Many commercial diets are adequate for normal activity but are deficient for an athlete. The diet should be changed or balanced to meet the athlete’s needs.
The nutrient requirements of canine athletes are unique. Dogs have a greater capacity for fat oxidation than humans both at rest and during exercise.
In dogs undertaking endurance exercise, high fat (>50% of energy) diets increase stamina and maximize energy production, and high protein (>30% of energy) diets prevent training-induced anemia.
Nutrient requirements differ, however, for sprint racing dogs. Canines run faster when fed moderately increased dietary fat, but run more slowly when dietary protein is increased. Therefore, dietary fat should be increased as the amount of work increases.
However, part-time athletes during the off-season should be fed the same as other dogs. A major concern for the off-season is weight gain, so adjust meals accordingly.
There is little information, however, concerning the vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient requirements of athletic dogs. A good rule of thumb is to supplement with caution and follow manufacturer directions to avoid vitamin toxicity.
I also recommend consulting with a professional versed on the athletic canine needs for additional supplementation guidance.
I do a combination of commercially prepared diets for my dogs and home-cooked. While I’ve done a lot of research for my home-cooked recipe, rotating it with commercially prepared foods makes me feel a little more confident my dogs are getting what they need. Plus, since I travel frequently with my dogs, the commercially prepared foods give me a convenient option for our adventures!
The MOST important element of nutrition and training for your dog:
I would like to leave you with this thought…. Be careful of asking your dog to be a weekend warrior. Use the week wisely for conditioning all aspects of your canine athlete: cardio, strength, and flexibility.
Optimal training and nutrition will provide the best possible advantage to your dog’s success in competition.
You can only expect a result equal to your efforts.