4 minutes reading time (897 words)

RUNNING UP THAT HILL: Exercise physiology Pt1: the importance of warming up for our energy stores

 As an equestrian sports coach (focusing on endurance) it is always interesting to visit rides without taking part as a competitor. Crewing or volunteering can give fascinating insights into what some endurance riders get up to. It helps me finding issues people might need help with, and I can give something back to the ride organisers that are so valuable for making sure my much loved endurance rides can take place. Win-win!.

Once I was helping with the timekeeping at a ride early in the season. The start of this particular ride was straight up a hill. And as the parking was on hard standing there was nowhere to really do warm up work with some trotting or other work to prepare the muscles for higher intensity work. I must say that seeing the way some riders were starting their ride going up the slope was a bit of a shock. Thankfully I saw them all coming back safe and sound as well, but it made me realise a lot of people do not know how to utilise the energy within their equine athletes safely and sensibly.

Going uphill at the start of a ride requires sufficient warming up.

Starting at a hill can be tricky for the muscles, even with a decent amount of warming up. Now this was not a steep hill. But I barely saw anybody walk up that hill to gently wake up the muscles. First of all, I never understand why it seems to be common practise to let your horse canter (or worse gallop) up a hill anyway. But when cantering up when your horse is not adequately warmed-up at the very start of a ride, you really are asking for trouble. I saw a few riders wanted to take it slow, but they were challenged by their horses, as they were fresh and I presume often allowed to canter uphill. So they simply took over. Some riders just deliberately went flat out going up! (OMG!)I was very happy to also see there were a few sensible and experienced riders that just calmly walked up.

The whole theory around exercise physiology is quite scientific and complicated reading and for those of you that like to dive in deeper you can read my next blog on Exercise physiology pt2 - How do muscles utilise energy . In the one you are reading now, I have tried to simplify the complex clarifications by comparing exercise to a fire and the fuel it needs to get and keep burning.

We have different types of fuel, for endurance, we aim to burn fat as much as possible, but sometimes we have to use carbohydrates like glucose and glycogen as well):

  • Glycogen used with oxygen in an aerobic way: we compare this to a container of petrol
  • Glycogen used anaerobic: without oxygen: we can compare this to a gas cartridge
  • Fat can be compared to logs of wood that burns long and slow.

The intensity of the flames is the work that is being done. 

Different types of fuel

We aim to use as little glycogen as possible and try to work our horses on the more efficient and unlimited amount of fatty acids (the wood) in the system. But we will have to use some glucose (petrol ;) ) as well. When horses start exercising they use some petrol, perhaps added with a little gas (anaerobic work) out of the cartridge if they are very excited. Extra petrol (or gas) is used when:

  • The warm-up is insufficient
  • We have a surge of adrenaline (possibly anaerobic)
  • There are rapid accelerations or a sudden increase of workload (possibly anaerobic)
  • There are a lot of changes of pace
  • When the horse has a low aerobic capacity (i.e.: small hart and/or small lungs like we find in heavier breeds and more native types of horses and quarter horses)

So that will explain a lot about the dangers of little warm-up, the increase of workload uphill and sudden changes of pace when changing gear all of a sudden.

And as you saw, it is different per horse as well. An Arab will cope differently to a Thoroughbred and both are completely different compared to a native heavier type. This has to do with the size of heart and lungs, and the makeup of their muscles. This combination gives a very different way of burning per horse. 

So the use of gas, petrol and eventually, a log fire, is very dissimilar. All of them can be trained to carry more fuel, but the same principle will count at any ride: the amount of fuel you have at the start will have to last you until the end. 

Whatever type of horse you ride, some vital take-home realisations are:

  • your container of petrol needs to last you to the end of the ride and preferably not be empty.
  • if you empty the gas cartridge, your horse will have a lot of lactic acid to cope with and can be stiff and sore
  • it takes a minimum of 20-30 minutes to get a log fire burning a well enough for light exercise but going steady will save on your usage of glycogen. 
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