Arf! Arf! (Train Like a Dog)

When it comes to the psychology of running, dogs know more than we do.

A dog expresses enthusiasm without prejudice, reservations, or very much discrimination. (Case in point.)

A dog doesn’t need to be begged to chase a ball. Yes! Yes! Let’s go! Throw the ball! Now!

Exercise is not burdensome for a dog. It’s a challenge that’s almost too exciting to bear. We’re running 10 miles today! Okay! Oh boy! Let’s start now! Why are you still sitting on the stairs?! Let’s go!

Dogs don’t waste time brooding about mistakes. Hey! Wow! I didn’t catch the ball! Great! Throw it again! Throw it again!

Dogs don’t run for health or weight-loss or longevity. They run because they run.

I recently started my Bow-Wow Training Plan. As my role models, I’ve chosen several runners, far more talented than I, who “train like dogs,” in the body-wiggling, tongue-hanging, tail-wagging, skipping and jumping positive sense of the phrase.

In the 1970s, when 2:14 marathoner Gary Fanelli was running Pennsylvania road races, he became famous for showing up at the starting line in full-tilt Blues Brothers regalia – dark shades, porkpie hat, white shirt, and black tie – and Gary Fanellirunning in the lead pack. A Runner’s World photo immortalized Gary’s John Belushi (aka Joliet “Jake” Blues) persona.

When psychologists studying elite runners tested Gary, he posted the highest scores they’d ever seen for positive attitude. (Photo: Gary playing a mannequin at a Brooks booth during a runners’ expo. He managed to fool most passersby until a small boy stomped on his foot and broke his pose.)

Gary still runs top times in his age group – last I heard, he’d run close to 50 minutes for 10 miles, at just under age 50. And he’s still wacky – a Christmas card from Gary shows him reclining on the fender of a clapped-out car amid his collection of scrap metal.

Running success and tail-wagging enthusiasm are inseparable. Consider Scott Dunlap. The Woodside, California high-tech CEO (of NearbyNow) is a hugely positive, friendly guy and ultramarathoner. Scott runs a 50K or longer race at least once a month. His energy is awesome, and his popular A Trail Runner’s Blog reveals a man who enjoys life, and who runs for the pure, barking-out-loud joy.

Or take Catra Corbett. The comprehensively pierced and tattooed NorCal Dirt Diva has outsized energy. Working up to 100-mile weeks and racing 100-milers wasn’t a grim project for Catra, requiring hardbitten fortitude – it was an all-engrossing, immensely creative and fun endeavor. How do I know? I talked with her while she was building her mileage and starting to run 100s. After the Vermont 100 on Saturday, she was back in California on Tuesday, working at the Palo Alto Whole Foods and yakking about her next race. (I’d be in bed for a week.)

No one personifies the joy of running more than Joe Henderson. Joe edited Runner’s World from 1970, four years after it was started, until 1985, when it was purchased by Rodale and moved to Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Joe stayed on as a columnist until 2003, when he was fired by the magazine’s ever-more marketing-driven publishers who shifted its target demographic from John and Jane Runner to Tiffany and Brock Spandex. Too bad – for the magazines best 33 years, Joe was its heart and soul.

Joe never met a runner he didn’t like. Through his Marathon & Beyond column and his books, he continues to express the thoughts of Every Runner. (Check the archive of Joe’s weekly online articles.) As I mentioned recently, we ran 10 miles of a marathon together several years ago. If Joe had a tail, he’d be barred from races – the wagging would endanger the other runners.

When I started running, at 26, each run was an adventure, a chance to explore new thoughts, feelings, textures, sounds, and smells. I ran with equal joy on beaches, pavement, tracks, and redwood trails, and I trained to the music of my own heart. But when I accepted a job at Runner’s World, I was introduced to the scientific approach, and the joy began to fade.

It took me 20 years to realize that science poses more questions for a runner than it answers. Science only studies one small piece of the training puzzle at a time. Tim Noakes, MD, author of the bestselling Lore of Running, concedes that very few scientific studies of actual training methods have ever been done, because most sports physiologists prefer to study single bodily systems in isolation. Noakes speculates that this may be because it’s easier to win research grants and garner awards for numbers-intensive research that focuses on individual organs, than with big, broad studies of training programs.

I solved the training puzzle to my own satisfaction when I realized that my body was telling me nearly everything I needed to know to improve fitness and find joy. I discovered that my common sense, aided by calm intuitive feeling and higher guidance, was enough.

And, guess what? Good training isn’t all that much different from the tail-wagging intuitive approach that got me started.

I spent 20 years testing dozens of training methods – often with grim determination. But too many of them led to dead ends. Forty years later, I’ve come full circle. I’m now following the Bow-Wow Sure-Fire Training Plan, which calls for running intelligently, with the gusto of a young hound dog.

Am I scientific? You bet. But the incentive – the doggie biscuit – is, as always, joy.

Here’s the plan: (a) enduring joy in any part of life is the byproduct of expansion of awareness – i.e., we find joy invariably when we achieve greater health, love, inner strength, wisdom, and soul-awareness. (b) Expansion as a runner requires effort and rest. (c) Thus, the Bow-Wow system includes both very hard and very easy running.

The science is simple. There are four pivotal running paces, measured by heart rate: 65%, 80%, 85-92%, and above 90%. Each has its own special purpose. But in order to get the full benefits, you must run each pace in a manner that makes your tail wag.

1. 65-70%: The body’s natural speed limit for warmups and recovery. If you aren’t fully recovered, running faster than about 65-70% feels joyless. Your body, speaking through subtle feeling, tells you that what you’re doing is “wrong.” You don’t get fitter, and you run with your tail between your legs. If you’re honest and stay within the recovery range, you feel good at the end. Your own nature rewards you with joy for doing the right, expansive (because health-building) thing.

2. Just under 80%. For improving fitness. After a warmup at under 65%, and a brief transition through 70-75%, running at 75-80% feels “just right.” It’s a pace that feels (if you’re rested) like you could sustain it all day. But if you go even a little above 80%, you find that you can’t run as far, and your recovery takes longer.

3. 85-92%. For tempo runs. Tempo runs don’t improve VO2Max anywhere nearly as much, or as quickly, as intervals and repeats. Nevertheless, short races and tempo runs do something special. I have no scientific evidence for this – only the experience of some very successful runners who’ve used short races as their only form of speedwork. But when I do a weekly run of 20-30 minutes at 85-92%, my “endurance at speed” improves. (Some runners claim they get the same effect through long intervals or repeats, e.g., repeat miles.)

4. Above 90%. Short, intense intervals and repeats improve VO2Max faster than any other kind of running. (See “How to Get Fast.”) They improve your ability to go fast easily, and they build endurance for the shorter distances, e.g., 5K.

Be scientific and shake your tail, and watch your running – and your mood – soar.

2 thoughts on “Arf! Arf! (Train Like a Dog)”

  1. Genius! I knew my training followed a plan, now I know it’s the Bow-Wow Plan. No surprise – I learned it all from my dog. 😉

    The Bow-Wow Plan has a fascinating way of “fueling” all other aspects of your life too. I regularly run into hard core runners that are exhausted at work or family because they are following some rigid plan. But if you pace for fun, exhilaration, and enlightenment, you bring more energy to the rest of your life. Can’t say I’ve quite figured out how it works, but I am practicing regularly!

    Awesome post. Thanks for the mention!


    Scott, thanks for the comment. Your blog in large measure inspired the Bow-Wow Plan, so – glad you approve! I love the spirit of A Trail Runner’s blog. – George

  2. Very interesting post! It’s not that all the information was new, but I liked the way you presented it. Very good way to make me think!

    I think other runners would enjoy this post – would it be possible for me to add this to our “know how” section in Runners’ Lounge (


    Hi Amy – I sure isn’t new, just seized the excuse to give myself a personal reminder – running like an (old) hound dog is so hugely important. At 66 it’s lovely to know that I can still run at the right pace, slow or fast, with the same enthusiasm – shuffle along and wag my tail and sniff the flowers, or gallop down the Shoreline Trail and bark at the waterfowl. (Of course you can copy the post. And thanks.) – George

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