A competition strategy that will help you optimise your endurance performance
Dr David Marlin is a scientist with more than 20 years experience in physiology and biochemistry. His specialist areas include exercise physiology, respiratory and cardiovascular physiology and disease, thermoregulation, physiological measurement, imaging and diagnostic devices. In this article he explains how endurance riders can optimise their performance by following his guidelines before and during a race.
Training prior to competition
The last serious piece of training should be around 10 days prior to a ride. In the 10 days prior to a ride, doing another four to five days’ training should have little effect on your horse’s fitness, as by this stage he should be race fit. If you do not consider your horse to be race fit 10 days before a race and feels that he needs an extra 10 days’ training to reach acceptable fitness for a race, then you should not be competing.
Daily training has a number of potentially adverse effects on the horse’s ability to perform. Training causes damage to muscles and reduces muscle and liver (glycogen) energy stores. After several days of reduced training, muscle strength and energy stores have been shown to increase in human subjects, and the same will be true in horses. Daily training also places wear and tear on joints, bone, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissues. A structured reduction in training leading up to a race gives the body time to repair and for minor problems to resolve. This process of reduction in training volume (hours of daily exercise) is known as tapering.
Tapering involves a reduction in the daily/weekly training time rather than the intensity of exercise. So it’s about cutting down the time spent on the horse rather than, for example, the speed. This should be a gradual reduction. The day prior to a ride your horse may only require, for instance, a lead out in hand for 15 minutes.
For some horses it may be necessary to cut back on the hard feed (not the hay!) as the amount of daily exercise is reduced, if the horses are putting on weight or if you see changes in behaviour. Also, take care when tapering horses with a history of tying-up (Setfast/Azoturia/Exertional Rhabdomyolysis).
A lot of riders seem to like doing a 40 or 60km run at race pace to check how things are going. If you are going to push a horse this hard, then it’s probably advisable to do this at least three weeks before a major ride.
Remember that transport can be tiring for horses. Being transported uses nearly as much energy as walking. If it’s warm, then the horse can sweat and lose significant amounts of electrolytes and water. Therefore, if you expect your horse to perform at his potential, you need to look at arriving at a time to allow sufficient recovery. For 120 and 160km rides and for journeys of up to six hours, I would allow a full 24-hour recovery as the very minimum. For example, if a ride was on a Sunday morning, I would aim to arrive Friday night at the latest and do no exercise on the Saturday. If I was travelling six to12 hours, I would be aiming to arrive on the Wednesday or Thursday morning.
Feeding as much hay (preferably soaked) as possible during transport is the best way to reduce the risk of colic, to reduce stress, and to minimise weight loss and disturbance to the gut.
One of the keys to endurance is maintaining feed and water intake. Good horses are almost always those that eat and drink well during transport, at rides and during the race itself. I am not in favour of making big changes in nutrition between training, travel and rides. Try to keep the diet as constant as possible. Electrolytes, for example, should be added to the feed on a daily basis and used in moderation during transport and at rides. A poor strategy is to feed little or no electrolytes in training and then suddenly start to pile it as the ride approaches. Most endurance horses in training will need supplemental salt (NaCl; sodium chloride).
The horse’s last feed before the race should ideally be no closer than four hours to the start. Remember good feeding practice. Never feed grain or cubes or pellets or nuts on their own. Always feed with hay or give some hay first. Do not try to give the horse an extra large meal the night before. Remember – small, frequent meals.
During the ride, I always take it as a good sign if a horse is eating. This indicates a good mental state. In many cases, what the horse consumes during the ride may be of relatively low benefit considering the time it will take for the food to pass along the GI tract and be digested. Exercise and dehydration slow passage of food and reduce digestion. The exceptions are electrolytes and soluble sugars (carbohydrates). Don’t, however, be tempted to use pure forms of sugar such as glucose, dextrose or fructose, for example. These have not been successful in endurance and result in large swings in blood glucose which are detrimental. By all means have a variety of feeds you know your horse likes to eat – apples, carrots, hay, etc. Use electrolytes carefully during rides. I always prefer to give pastes after a horse has eaten and drunk in case these suppress appetite and thirst, so just before the start of a new loop is a good time.
I am inclined to allow the horse more hay than normal and I would let the horse eat hay up until around two hours before the ride, and leave the water in right up until the last minute.
If you are looking to ride competitively, then look at previous rides and see what the winning speeds were. Don’t just look at the fastest horse, look at the top five places. It could be that the horse that won was exceptional and that the second horse was a long way behind. In that case it may be unlikely that another horse will match that speed. So if that horse is not racing this year, you might look to match the speed of the second horse. Also, know your competition. Look at the entries and look at what speeds these horses have been doing at other races.
You also need to consider the climate. If last year the race was won at 16km/h and the weather was cool, then this year, if it looks like it will be warmer, you may struggle to achieve 16km/h.
If the results for a ride are published and there is also loop information, then look at the pattern of the ride. If it’s the same course over a period of three to four years, what is the typical ride pattern, i.e. speed per loop?
If it’s a ride or course you are not so familiar with, then you need to consider the terrain (flat, uphill, downhill), the going (hard, soft, uneven) and the likely pattern of environmental conditions throughout the ride. The pace on the first course should be slightly lower than the rest of the ride. The loops to pick up the speed on are usually the ones in the middle. It’s not possible to predict the last loop, but if there are a number of horses in with a chance of winning, then you may not have much option but to stay with these horses if you want to be in with a chance of winning a racing finish. But there are other considerations. There’s not much point in having a target speed of say 20km/h on the first loop and then 24km/h on the second loop if the ground is soft and there are a lot of undulations and it’s likely to be 25°C.
As far as pace, although you should aim for an average speed for a loop, your strategy may have to be dynamic – changing as the race develops. It’s clearly no good maintaining a strategy if you are falling down the leader table.
In addition, when racing you should ride on heart rate (effort) and not on speed. If you are cantering on the flat at a heart rate of around 140bpm and you come to a moderate hill and continue to canter, then your horse’s heart rate may reach 200bpm. This can be very costly in terms of using up valuable muscle glycogen and it will reduce how much fat your horse can utilise. Downhill slopes are where you can make up speed for a low energy cost. But beware, working uphill shifts the weight from the forelimbs to the hind limbs, and downhill clearly does the opposite. And the load is increased with increasing speed. So if your horse has a predisposition to hind limb injury, be wary of making up time at fast downhill canter.
Ride strategy tip
Change gaits and paces. Many riders limit their horses by failing to change gait or change diagonal in trot or lead in canter.
Schroter, R.C. and Marlin, D.J. (2002) Modelling the oxygen cost of transport in competitions over ground of variable slope. Equine Vet J Suppl, 397-401.
Text: Dr David Marlin
David Marlin Consulting Ltd (www.davidmarlin.co.uk)
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Photography: Leana Erasmus