For the Love of Dogs and Humans: Nutritional and Hydration Needs

By Blynne Froke, 2012 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, California

Iditarod sled dogs are the most amazing athletes in the world, literally.  We love the challenge they embody, both personal and physical, as they run full tilt across the state of Alaska. It is a passion we share with our best friends.  But if our best friends are not in the most superior condition possible they cannot pursue the challenge and their joy evaporates like snow in sunshine.

Last summer I spent a few weeks visiting kennels and watching what was being done to condition Iditarod sled dogs off season and what I saw at Jeff King’s kennels near Denali was a unique approach to conditioning dogs in the heat of summer.  Jeff had, during the 1989 Yukon Quest, found himself in a frightening overflow situation that threatened the lives of his dogs and him.  That situation and others like it led him to devise a unique approach to summer time training.  He hooked up a team of dogs to a paddle boat on Goose Lake, adjacent to his property.  The dogs gained several advantages from this experience.  They gained confidence in this aquatic environment, they gained strength in the specific muscles required for swimming and they gained endurance unique to this specifically stressful situation.  Other advantages to this particular workout were allowing the dogs to stay cool while doing serious conditioning in the summer heat and attention to specific muscle groups that might otherwise be ignored.  This kind of cross-training is similar to what human marathoners do which allows them to run with less effort and more insurance against injury.  I can’t wait to ask Jeff if he thinks this conditioning had anything to do with the slow drop rate out of his team in the new soft snow on the early parts of the trail this year.

Martin Buser, at Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake, has for years worked with university researchers and dog food companies to develop dog food that efficiently fueled the unique requirements, ten to twelve thousand potent calories a day, of these dogs.  Now he has acquired the elephant treadmill cast off from the Anchorage Zoo and built a building around it.  (to control the environment?)  Who knows where that will lead?

Puppies are routinely born in the summer time when tourists eagerly visit mushing kennels across Alaska and wrap their affectionate arms around these furry little bundles.  The socialization gained from these experiences adds social and emotional balance to these dogs’ temperment allowing them to handle the stress of competition more easily and depend more confidently on their human counterparts.

The point is that the mushing community cares so dearly about the well being of their teammates that they are constantly studying and developing new methods to keep them in optimum physical and emotional health.  A healthier, happier team is a stronger, more resilient team – WIN and WIN.

To have my students understand these concerns more personally I have them study the nutritional and hydration needs of human marathoners as they train for their own long distance run.

Lesson Plan for Eat and Drink a Marathon

Lesson Summary:  Grades 7 – 12:

Physical Education

Students weigh themselves regularly before daily running activity, run 30 minutes (on top of stretching and warm-up activities) and weigh again immediately after running.  Time of day and temperature should also be recorded.  The weight loss is equivalent to the amount of water lost from the body during this exercise and time interval that needs to be replaced. Students read about the need for hydration for optimum muscle functioning and brain activity.

Students also learn about the 60-20-20 ratio for caloric intake for physical activity (carbs-fats-protein) then design and prepare high quality pre-run meals.