Athletes' Training Techniques May Make Dogs Faster

March 13, 2007 — -- A training technique that may have worked for Lance Armstrong is now being tried out on the star dogs of the Iditarod.

Jeff King, a four-time champion of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, is trying a new training technique for his Alaskan huskies, and it's often used by many cross-country trainers and cyclists.

He converted a barn into a high oxygen chamber, mimicking oxygen levels about 8,000 feet above sea level.

Arleigh Reynolds, a veterinarian who works with King, describes the technique as "live high and train low."

Reynolds says that they came up with the idea of the oxygen chamber from former four-time Iditarod champion Doug Swingley. Swingley lives and trains his dogs in Montana at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.

King, who lives in Gooselake, Alaska, at an altitude of about 2,000 feet, decided to move the high altitude to his dogs, rather than move his dogs and family to a higher altitude.

He created a sleeping chamber for his dogs that simulated oxygen levels at an altitude of 8,000 feet above sea level. The dogs sleep in what is known as a "mild hypoxic state."

Hypoxic refers to the change in a mammal's body -- human or canine -- when it experiences low oxygen levels that exist at high altitudes.

Runners experience a shortness of breath at an altitude of 6,000 feet above sea level. Many people even have trouble sleeping at altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.

According to Reynolds, King first experimented with having half his dogs sleep in a hypoxic chamber, noting the physiological differences between the the two groups.

He found that the dogs sleeping in the hypoxic chamber had a high level of red blood cells and were also able to clear lactic acid 60 percent faster than the dogs not sleeping in the chamber. By the first week of November last year, King had all his dogs sleeping in the chamber.

Reynolds says that the changes in the physiology allow mammals to be "more efficient at processing oxygen, and they maintain these changes when they return to sea level, allowing the dog to achieve greater speeds in a race."

Joe Wakshlag is a musher -- person who drives a dog sled -- and an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Wakshlag calls this an "interesting approach to promote oxygen in a dog's blood stream." He points out that, unlike humans, there is no placebo effect in dogs, because they have no idea that they are sleeping in a hypoxic chamber and will not get an artificial boost in being trained a certain way.

He says, however, that "the jury is still out" and that the benefits to a dog's physiology are still not clear.

"Though red blood cells increase and lactic acid in the body is down, there may be no bearing on long-term performance," according to Wakshlag.

Several high profile athletes like Lance Armstrong have reportedly used such enclosed chambers to increase red blood cells in their bodies and improve endurance. For generations before that, athletes traveled to high altitude locations to get the same results.

Now, special equipment known as hypoxic devices are able to artificially create the environment found at high altitudes. Such devices are quite controversial in the human sporting world, and the World Anti-Doping Agency is even considering banning their use.

King is currently lagging in the Iditarod and will likely not win the race.

Reynolds said, "King is a great competitor, but he would never hurt his dogs. He must have seen something that made him decide that staying behind was the best thing for his dogs' health."

Wakshlag points out that, had King been winning the Iditarod by a huge margin people would take notice of his new technique.

He added, "Now that King is doing worse than in years past there needs to be more proof of the effectiveness of this technique."