Making Calories Count – A Jockey Perspective

Date: 2 August, 2017


Making calories count

Recent research into professional jockeys has shown that it is possible to use combined diet and exercise plans to make weight, allowing jockeys to eat more regularly and avoid some of the more extreme and more damaging ‘traditional’ regimes for weight loss.

Racing is tough, it is not just the early starts, the riding in all weathers, the risks involved in dealing with half a tonne of adrenaline fuelled horse, it is the unrelenting need to make weight. Jockeys need to be near their racing weight year round, often with as little as a day or two’s notice of what weight they will need to make on race day. For most jockeys, racing is far more than ‘sport’, it is their pay cheque, putting huge pressure on them to be as light as possible to maximise the number of rides available.

Unless you naturally have the physique of a twelve year old, most adults would struggle to make the 10 stone minimum for jump racing (including the saddle, body protector and clothing) let alone the 8 stone minimum for racing on the flat in the UK. It can be even harder for Apprentice and Conditional jockeys starting out on their careers with an extra weight allowance or ‘claim’ of 3 – 7 lbs, depending on how many winners they have had. Whilst this should help them to gain rides, as the lighter weight is designed to allow for their lack of race riding experience, it puts even more pressure on their need to make weight.

Until recently there has been relatively little research into jockeys in comparison to other athletes and historically jockeys have not had a culture of seeking professional support, such as nutritionists. This is slowly changing as more evidence is gathered about the unique challenges of race riding.

Risk is part of racing; there are not many sports where an ambulance continually follows the competitors. There are the more immediate risks of injuries that come with riding and working with horses, then there are other longer-term risks that come from years of restricting eating and drinking.

Dehydration from reduced fluid intake, as well as intentional fluid loss through the use of sweat suits, saunas and hot baths is routinely used. Even relatively minor dehydration can have short-term effects such as headaches, as well as impairing thinking and influencing mental state. Although dehydration is a common way to make weight it has been shown that even relatively moderate dehydration can impair a jockey’s ability to ride a simulated finish2 and is therefore likely to compromise their performance on race days.

Severe repeated dieting, skipping meals and generally poor diets will have short term health consequences ranging from fatigue, weakness and headaches, as well as longer term affects such as loss of muscle and reduced bone density. Research has found that half of jockeys in the study population showed signs of bone loss in either upper or lower body areas 3, increasing the risk of fractures as well as prolonging healing time after injuries.

The less talked about method of ‘Flipping’ (voluntarily vomiting after meals) carries additional risks from gum disease and teeth erosion through to permanently affecting the stomach’s sphincter, increasing the risk of involuntary vomiting and gastric reflux 4.

There have not been many studies looking at the more detailed nutritional status of jockeys. Most will be in energy ‘deficit’ at least part of the time in order to lose weight, but it is hard to estimate if vitamin and mineral intakes are sufficient based on self reported food diaries. However, studies have found that vitamin D levels in particular can be low, which has implications for bone health 5, 6. This could be of particular concern given the reduced bone density in some jockeys and the high risk of fractures in jump jockeys in particular.

Although now widely banned globally, evidence from international studies suggests that some jockeys still use diuretics and laxatives, as well as appetite suppressants to make weight. The fact that smoking rates tend to be higher in jockeys than in other comparable populations suggest that many also rely on smoking to help reduce appetite.

Then there is the psychological toll of constantly trying to make weight, which has been shown to influence jockey’s mental state or ‘mood’ in both flat and national hunt jockeys 5. Anyone that has tried to stick to any kind of diet, even short term, will recognise how difficult it can be because food and drink are such an integral part of day to day life, as well as being closely tied up with so many aspects of our culture from the celebratory drinks to food as comforter or treat.

Encouragingly, recent research into professional jockeys 1 has shown that it is possible to use a high protein diet alongside a fasted exercise plan to make weight, allowing jockeys to eat more regularly and avoid dehydration.

Body composition rather than body weight

Simplistically weight loss means eating less and moving more, so the body is using more calories than it is replenishing. It is easy to focus on ‘weight’ because weight is so easy to measure and it is after all what is measured on race days. However, it is body composition that is key for athletic performance and longer term health. Short term changes in weight, especially those that occur within a few days, are most likely to be through changes in body water content and to a lesser extent losses in muscle energy stores, such as muscle glycogen, both of which can compromise athletic performance.

The challenge is to alter body composition longer term, to reduce the level of, whilst maintaining the level of lean tissue and bone mineral density, as well as maintaining hydration, so that jockeys can perform to their maximum, as well as minimising the risks of injuries and improving recovery times.

The aim is to lose weight more slowly (1 – 2lbsor 0.5 – 1kg) per week, predominantly by reducing the body fat percentage, whilst maintaining or even increasing the levels lean of tissue, which is so important for muscle strength. Since muscle is active tissue and uses energy, maintaining lean tissue also maintains ‘metabolic rate’, essentially meaning you can consume slightly more calories to stay at a given weight.


Eating less and moving more

Ask a pretty much anyone and they will give you their own tips and ‘diets’ they have tried or know someone else that has tried it! While the more unusual or extreme methods can give encouraging short term changes in bodyweight, few have a proven track record of long term weight maintenance. In fact you could argue even the term ‘going on a diet’ is the wrong perspective. To achieve long term weight management requires a longer-term change in eating patterns and recognising your own eating habits is key to finding a solution for you that works longer term.

Keeping a food diary can be a surprisingly enlightening experience. Ideally pick a few straightforward routine days, as well as including some more challenging days, such as race days or when travelling away from home. Aim to record everything you eat and drink over a 24-hour period. This really does mean everything… from butter on the toast through to sugar in tea. Ideally carry your notes with you and write as you go, as it is almost impossible to remember accurately everything eaten and drunk over the whole day. For example, we have a habit of forgetting what we eat standing up, such as the snack eaten on the go or the bits of food it is easy to nibble on in the kitchen. Unconscious snacking of anything in arms reach whilst distracted watching TV or in the car is also scarily easy. The more days you can capture the better, as you should start to spot your own habitual patterns. This can not only offer real insight as to where you are eating less healthily and maybe consuming less ‘useful’ calories, but will also give you a good feel for the way you eat. It is always harder to change the way you eat alongside changing what you eat. You are far more likely to be successful and maintain changes long term if you can make smaller more achievable ‘tweaks’ than drastic changes.

Being aware of your activity levels is also extremely helpful. Whilst most jockeys will be riding out regularly as well as racing, it can be difficult to fit in other exercise. Firstly just increasing exercise levels is very helpful for increasing your overall calorie needs. Not only is it considerably more pleasant to be able to eat a little more, but it is extremely hard to eat a balanced diet and sufficient macro and micro nutrients within very small amounts of food.

Fasted exercise in particular can be helpful for triggering your metabolism to burn fat. Getting some exercise before breakfast can be very useful, especially if combined with some caffeine, such as a black coffee or green tea, which can also help fat metabolism. Running for example can be a very time efficient, cheap and portable method of exercise and fitting in a 30 – 60 min run on most days will have a significant influence on fat mass as well as maintaining lean tissue and may help with improving bone density. If too many horse-related injuries means your body won’t stand running, then cycling and swimming are good low impact alternatives. Even fast walking can be helpful, you will just need a longer duration to cover a similar distance and clock up a similar energy cost to a shorter run. Increasing your physical activity level also allows you to eat a little more to maintain your weight.

It is not just specific exercise that can contribute to the weight loss equation, incidental every day activity can help too. Again using some kind of more objective measure can help, even something as simple as a pedometer or activity tracker will show up the differences between your more active and more sedentary days. For example, you may identify days that are particularly sedentary, especially when spending more time travelling when there are very limited opportunities to expend extra calories.

What to eat and when to eat it…

Choosing food more strategically can really make a significant difference, not only in terms of absolute calories consumed, but the amount you can eat and how this can impact on appetite, as well as the quality of the diet to support athletic performance. A typical race day of nothing but tea or coffee followed by a bigger single meal at the end of the day is very common, but smaller, more regular snacks and meals will help to reduce hunger and maintain energy levels.

Although easy to find and quick to eat, try and avoid ‘empty’ calories which supply energy but little else useful, such as high sugar snacks, some sports drinks and poor quality convenience foods. Fruit and vegetables will contribute a host of different vitamins and minerals, plus being high in water means they contribute to hydration, while the higher fibre levels take longer to eat and help you feel full. For example, swapping chips for jacket potatoes, whilst snacks like crisps, chocolate and biscuits can be replaced with dried fruit, nuts, cereal bars or malt loaf. Aim to make good food more convenient, such as taking homemade wraps with you and getting decent containers to store fruit and salads on the go.


As an example wholemeal foods such as brown bread, brown rice, whole grain cereals and wholemeal pasta will contain similar calories to their more refined ‘white’ versions, but take more digesting. Technically termed glycemic index it is essentially how quickly a food is digested. Sugars and refined starches (such as white bread, white pasta) are digested more quickly and cause more rapid rises in blood sugar, whereas lower glycemic index foods take longer to digest, releasing their energy more slowly, so fuelling you for longer as well as delaying hunger. Keeping insulin levels lower in this way helps to encourage the body to use fat as an energy source.

There are also other ways to modify how quickly a food is digested, such as adding milk to breakfast cereal, which slows gastric emptying and lowers the glycaemic response. Even cooking and then cooling can have an affect as cold potatoes are slower to digest than freshly cooked ones that are still warm, as the cooling means the starch has had time to ‘clump’ back together. These are only small differences, but collectively they can add up.

Oils & Fats

Fats, including oils, are much more energy dense than carbohydrate and even protein. For example, a teaspoon of sugar (approx 5 grams) contains 20 kcal, compared to a teaspoon of fat or oil which contains 45 kcal. Being so energy dense means that keeping fats and oil levels as low as possible is a useful way to reduce overall calories.

Again there are small tweaks you can make to your every day diet that can help to add up overall. For example going for leaner meats, such as turkey or chicken breast, rather than drumsticks or meat with marbling, will make a significant difference. Swapping to semi skimmed or skimmed milk, replacing butter for low fat soft cheese when making sandwiches, or choosing lower fat more mature cheddar so you can use less for a similar taste. The cooking method can also have a significant influence, so pick grilled over fried, or if you are baking use non stick pans and spray or wipe with oil rather than pouring in a larger quantity.


Typical western diets supply more than enough protein for adults, however evidence shows that increasing your intake of protein above this level can help maintain lean tissue, and therefore muscle strength, particularly if you are restricting calorie intake. Adding lean protein can also help with appetite as humans tend to get a greater sense of satiety from higher protein foods, helping you feel fuller quicker and for longer. Try to include a source of protein within each meal, such as turkey or chicken breast, tuna, lean meat, eggs or vegetable sources such as pulses or even baked beans. Fish can also be a very useful protein source and you should aim to include a portion of ‘oily’ fish every week, such as salmon, as this will provide additional fat-soluble vitamins as well as omega 3 oils. Even small tinned sardines will be useful and opting for smaller fish where you also eat the bones can provide some additional calcium.

Avoiding Dehydration

Water is a simple calorie free way to stay hydrated but even replacing tea and coffee taken with milk and sugar, for a non-milk hot drink, such as green tea or black coffee, will make a difference, especially if you have several cups a day. Beware some ‘energy’ or ‘sports’ drinks can actually be relatively high in sugar, contributing largely empty calories. However, sports type drinks can be very useful for rehydration and topping up energy levels immediately post exercise or after racing. You can even make your own version with a half and half combination of water and pure fruit juice with an added pinch of salt, as this would contribute some additional vitamins and a little easily absorbed energy without too much additional sugars.

Jockeys are athletes and have much to gain from taking on board the support of sports professionals, such as physiotherapists, nutritionists and sports scientists. Seeking professional help can help you understand your own body composition and fitness levels, as well as giving insights as to where changes can be made to help you perform to your absolute best, whilst minimising the risk to health and hopefully helping to make weight less punishing.

More information can be found via the Professional Jockeys Association


1. Wilson, G. et al. Fasted Exercise and Increased Dietary Protein Reduces Body Fat and Improves Strength in Jockeys. Int. J. Sports Med. (2015). doi:10.1055/s-0035-1549920
2. Wilson, G. et al. Rapid weight-loss impairs simulated riding performance and strength in jockeys: implications for making-weight. J. Sports Sci. 32, 383–91 (2014).
3. Warrington, G. et al. Chronic weight control impacts on physiological function and bone health in elite jockeys. J. Sports Sci. 27, 543–550 (2009).
4. Forney, K.J. et al. The medical complications associated with purging.
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5. Wilson, G. et al. Markers of bone health, renal function, liver function, anthropometry and perception of mood: A comparison between flat and national hunt jockeys. Int. J. Sports Med. 34, 453–459 (2013).

6. Close, G. L. et al. Assessment of vitamin D concentration in non-supplemented professional athletes and healthy adults during the winter months in the UK: implications for skeletal muscle function. J. Sports Sci. 31, 344–353 (2013).

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