Riders As Athletes From A Nutritional Perspective
Date: 10 May, 2018
‘Fuelling riders for performance’
Given the training and management needs of competition horses, it can be easy to overlook our own development and riders often forget that they are athletes as well. While equine nutrition is recognised as being a key element in horse performance and wellbeing, human nutrition for riders is a rarely a covered topic. Few riders would know their own energy expenditure whilst out on the cross-country course, or how much fluid they might need to take on during a morning of show jumping, especially whilst being stuck wearing a black jacket on a hot day.
However, getting rider nutrition and hydration right at home and when out competing is not just about small marginal gains, a lack of food and drink can significantly compromise our physical performance and mental ability. Most riders will also be familiar with getting home after a long day out competing, feeling exhausted and with a pounding headache. Whilst it is not always possible to completely avoid the effects of a long day, not having enough of the right food and drink is likely to have made you feel considerably worse.
Avoiding dehydration is extremely important as getting dehydrated reduces muscle strength and can affect balance as well as impairing judgment and reducing reaction times, all of which are crucial for riding. Although there is very little research specifically into horse riding, dehydration has been shown to reduce race-riding performance in jockeys. The good news is that even if you don’t get your fluid intake right, taking on some fluids will still help improve performance even if you haven’t drunk enough to completely reverse your dehydration.
Nutrition at Home
Day to day nutrition is important for general long-term health and eating healthy can help reduce your risk of many diseases, including heart disease and some cancers. Healthy eating will also support your training, as you can maximise your own performance and recovery. If you would benefit from reducing your body fat, or perhaps building more muscle tissue, then it is even more worthwhile looking at your overall diet.
It can be very enlightening to keep a food diary of everything you eat and drink for a few days. Try and capture your ‘usual’ diet, so this includes some ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days and ideally includes a competition day and some days when you are away from the yard. This can be as simple as taking a pen and paper with you (as it is virtually impossible to remember it accurately at the end of the day) or there are phone apps that can help you track what you consume. Getting a feel for your usual diet can help you identify days that are less healthy, such as weekends or competition days, as well as helping you recognise your own eating habits, such as when and where you tend to snack. It is always easier to make small tweaks to what and when you usually eat, rather than trying to make more radical change to your entire diet, especially if you want to maintain these changes longer term.
Eating for Health
Aim to include plenty of fruit and vegetables with every meal and to replace some of your snacks, as this will help to achieve the recommended five portions a day, but in reality the more you can fit in the better. These do not need to be fresh; dried, frozen or tinned are all helpful. Not only will these help you feel full but they are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, as well as other useful nutrients. It is useful to keep in mind that it is not just the amount but the variety that is important too, so try to include as many different types and colours as you can. Eating whatever is in season will give you some natural variation, as well as tending to be cheaper!
Base meals around a good helping of carbohydrate, as this will give you energy and help refuel muscles in particular. Where possible opt for carbohydrates that are higher in fibre, as these will be digested more slowly, giving you a more sustained release of energy, as well as helping you feel full for longer. For example, swapping from white bread or pasta to brown or wholemeal versions. Look for whole grain versions and such as brown rice or other grains, such as couscous or quinoa.
Include some lean meat, fish or beans and pulses to give you protein. Sufficient good quality protein will help to support muscle development if you are training and if you are trying to lose weight protein will help you feel full for longer. Look for naturally low fat protein such as turkey and chicken breast, or if eating red meat trim off visible fat. Fish is also an excellent source of protein and choosing oily types of fish, such as salmon, will also provide essential fatty acids. Small fish where you eat the bones, such as skippers or sardines are particularly useful as they are a good source of calcium.
Dairy products, such as milk and cheese are also a good source of calcium. While there is still much we do not understand about the human ‘biome’ there is increasing evidence that topping up your gut flora with ‘probiotic’ foods, such as live yoghurt, or kefir are helpful.
Lastly, routinely most adults that eat a relatively healthy and varied diet should not need a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement. However, there is increasing evidence that taking vitamin D is helpful especially during the winter months when you get less exposure to sunlight, as the body is not always able to make sufficient vitamin D.
Ideas for Eating on the go (or on the Yard!)
Anyone that looks after horses will be familiar with the difficulties of eating well, whether that is grabbing lunch whilst at the yard, or attempting to find something to eat at a competition venue. At events, riders are often faced with the ‘choice’ of bacon bap or burger, with chips as the only ‘vegi’ option. It can vary considerably what is available, but often the catering is more focused towards spectators, who may well be delighted to see a burger or ice-cream van. Logistically it can also be difficult to find the time to get over to the catering area, especially when these tend to be located to suit spectators.
Invest in some decent containers of varying sizes and with good lids, which should stand up to being stored the wrong way up or being dropped. If you buy plastic ones look for those specifically marked as being ‘BPA free’, especially if you are going to be leaving food in the containers for a while. These should also be microwave safe too, as this gives you the option of reheating food when away from home. Travel mugs and flasks are also very useful, especially those with wider necks, as these can be used for soups and pastas, giving you the option of something hot even when there is no kettle or microwave.
Soaked oats are surprisingly nice even cold and these can be made with milk or dairy alternatives, such as almond milk. Leave the oats to soak over-night and then add a handful dried fruit, nuts or seeds in the morning. If you prefer your breakfast crunchy then try layering yoghurt and fruit (dried, tinned or fresh) with a topping of granola. If you fill the pot to the top and use a water-tight lid then even if it gets tipped around you should still find your granola doesn’t get too soggy.
Soup can be great for a warm lunch, especially if you can make some at home in advance or can make bigger batches to freeze. Many tinned and readymade soups are also very good, just watch salt levels as these can be high (adults are supposed to have less than 6 grams of salt per day and some soups may contain as much as half of this). You can also add cooked pasta or noodles to soup to make it more filling, or add home-made croutons just before eating. Alternatively, if you have access to a kettle you can make a home-made noodle lunch, as thin noodles will ‘cook’ through if you add boiling water and allow it to stand for a few minutes. The noodles can be combined with a part of a stock cube or some herbs, spices or chilli flakes, along with some small pieces of frozen or tinned vegetables, such as peas or sweetcorn and even some chopped cooked chicken or meat.
Crisps and chocolate bars can be the default choice to grab, especially as these are so widely available. However, packing something in advance can save some money as well as saving your willpower.
- Hot cross buns or malt loaf (with or without butter)
- Oatcakes or rice cakes (with or without cream cheese)
- Mini pancakes (with or without jam)
- Cereal bars (check the labels as these can be higher in fat and sugars than chocolate bars)
- Pot of nuts, beans, pulses or dried fruit etc. (or buy ready-made versions)
- Bananas are excellent snacks nutritionally and don’t need washing or preparation but they do not travel well so stash them in a suitable container with some kitchen roll for padding or buy a proper banana guard
Taking drinks with you can also really help, as it ensures you have what you need easily to hand. Find a reusable water bottle that you get on with and buy several, so you can keep one in the car or lorry and stash a few at the yard. If you are not a fan of ‘plain’ water then there are bottles that allow you to add fresh fruit for extra flavour or these can be used to make home-made fruit ‘tea’ if you add hot water. Any drink will help to top up your fluid levels, even tea and coffee, although avoid these if they might be stronger than you are used to as caffeine can have a diuretic effect.
Sports drinks can also be useful but check the labels as some are quite high in sugar and may also contain additional caffeine if they are aimed as an ‘energy drink’. Alternatively, make your own hydration drink and take it with you especially if you do not like the taste of branded sports drinks. A home-made combination of 50:50 water and some fresh fruit juice will give you close to the ideal level of carbohydrates to encourage rapid rehydration and will also provide a small amount of sugar to top off energy levels whilst exercising. If you add a small pinch of salt to the bottle it will also act as an electrolyte to make an isotonic drink, which again helps with rehydration.
A little additional preparation and thought can help you to make good food as convenient as possible, reducing the need to rely on less healthy ‘convenience’ foods. Getting your diet as healthy as possible will help you support your day to day training and ensure that low blood sugar or dehydration don’t compromise your performance on competition days.