How fit do you need to be to ride cross-country? Sport scientist Rosa Dakin tackles this question and what you can do to prepare yourself for the challenge
Interest in rider fitness has grown over the past few years as riders become more aware of the importance of physical preparation out of the saddle to enhance performance in it. But what does rider fitness mean when it comes to the most physically demanding phase of eventing, cross-country?
Whether cross-country schooling or competing at the highest level, a series of physical events are triggered in the body when riding across country, similar to those that happen when cycling or running. These responses clearly indicate that riders, whether they recognise it or not, are athletes.
Riders must control their bodies by contracting muscle groups, such as those in their core, shifting their bodyweight in response to the horse’s movement to ensure they remain in balance. They must also make constant cognitive decisions.
These characteristics mean riding is a complex skill. When a rider’s muscles contract, for example during rising trot, the body responds by increasing heart and breathing rates which enable more oxygen to be transported to the working leg muscles. This reaction is similar to when a person runs up a flight of stairs as both heart and breathing rates increase.
How effectively the body responds to physical exertion will depend on the person’s fitness. A fitter rider with a well-developed cardio-respiratory system will have a larger, stronger heart that is able to pump more oxygenated blood to the working muscles.
Those who ride at least one horse daily will gain a level of fitness through the body adapting to this exercise stimulus. However, academic research has shown that riding alone is not enough to improve a rider’s fitness.
The correct physical preparation in and out of the saddle will enhance fitness levels and could provide riders with a competitive edge. In contrast, being unfit could lead to a decreased performance and increased risk of injury.
How fit does a rider need to be for cross-country?
Cross-country is the most physically demanding part of eventing for horse and rider for numerous reasons, including its intensity and duration. Riders must maintain a fast canter or gallop for most of the round. To work in harmony with the horse and allow it to move as freely as possible underneath them, riders assume a half-seat squat position.
In doing so, they demonstrate high levels of muscular endurance throughout their body, but particularly in their leg and core muscles. At five-star events, this position must be maintained for up to 12 minutes, all while balancing and recovering after every jumping effort.
Research shows that to meet the high-intensity demands of a cross-country round, a rider’s heart rate must average 184 beats per minute. An arbitrary gauge of a human’s maximum heart rate is 220 minus the individuals’ age.
This means that riders’ hearts can beat at 96% of their maximum during cross-country. This is comparable to 800m and 1500m runners and illustrates why riders should treat themselves as athletes.
In other sporting contexts, National Hunt racing jockeys or alpine skiers have reported heart rates of 184 and 169 beats per minute during competition. Both must assume a similar squat position to riders cross-country and control their bodies at speeds of up to 29 to 35mph for jockeys or 80mph for skiers.
Riders would never contemplate entering an unfit horse into a competition due to the likely risk of poor performance or injury. If riders themselves are not fit enough, they are at a similar disadvantage. A lack of fitness could increase reaction time, hinder performance and ultimately increase risk of injury.
Sport scientists regularly use the phrase “being fatigued” to describe being unable to complete exercise and feeling tired or exhausted. People might associate physical fatigue with muscles cramping or feeling heavy and tired. Fatigue is multifactorial in nature, the most commonly understood cause being a build-up of lactic acid which inhibits muscular contraction.
Mental fatigue can also present itself when a rider is not sufficiently fit. This results in reaction times increasing, as well as an inability to process information and make decisions, both necessities for successful cross-country rounds.
Any athlete who pushes themselves to their physical limits is likely to experience physical fatigue, but it takes longer to reach this boundary when the body is fitter.
Therefore, with targeted physical preparation, a fit rider will be able to optimise performance, avoiding both physical and psychological fatigue. This brings us to the question, “Is riding alone enough to get riders ‘fit’?”
Riders’ heart rate responses during cross-country suggest that riders are as much athletes as their equine counterparts.
Top-level athletes across all sports will complete some form of additional physical preparation either in the gym targeting muscular development, on-pitch targeting their cardiovascular fitness or usually a combination of the two.
Rugby players would never solely rely on playing rugby to ensure their fitness, nor would an alpine skier or 800m runner rely entirely on skiing or track running to get fit, so why should equestrian sports be any different?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for increasing physical fitness, as everyone’s physiology, training background and riding level will vary. But all event riders should aim to do at least three active sessions out of the saddle a week.
Two of these sessions should have a cardiovascular focus, meaning they increase heart rate above a resting level. Someone new to this should complete a brisk walk for 30 minutes twice a week before progressively introducing short running intervals. A rider who is already completing additional exercise may opt for a 5km run or 10km bike ride.
Irrespective of a rider’s starting fitness level, these sessions will enhance the body’s ability to transport oxygen to working muscles by increasing the efficiency of the cardio-respiratory system.
The third session should focus on developing muscular strength and endurance to allow riders to maintain riding positions. This can be achieved by completing bodyweight strength exercises.
There are several ways of achieving this goal dependent on the rider’s starting fitness level. Pilates is popular among riders and is a great way of introducing whole body flexibility and muscular strength development. It is also easily accessed at home through online platforms and requires little equipment.
However, if riders have a more experienced training background, then completing a more intense whole-body workout in the form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) may have greater challenge and appeal.
HIIT increases both cardio-respiratory and muscular fitness without needing to commit hours to exercise. It is used by jockeys during their initial training.
A basic HIIT training session would involve a circuit of whole-body exercises, such as a plank, squat, triceps dips and star jumps. Each activity is completed over a set time, usually 40 seconds, with a 20-second break between each exercise. These combined activities create one circuit and are repeated three times altogether. If new to HIIT training, riders may opt to take a minute of rest between circuits.
Varying the duration and intensity of exercises will alter the body’s physiological response and subsequent adaptation.
Before completing any additional exercise, it is important riders consider their health and fitness. Those new to additional exercise should progressively increase intensity and duration to build baseline fitness before completing a higher intensity workout.
Whatever additional exercise riders choose, they should view riding and physical preparation out of the saddle as complementary. By taking a combined approach to exercise, riders will give themselves the biggest opportunity to excel during competitions.
A basic high intensity interval training (HIIT) circuit
Each activity for 40 seconds, 20-second break between them. Repeat the circuit three times
About the author
Rosa Dakin is a sport scientist at the University of Birmingham, supporting elite scholar athletes on their sporting journeys. She graduated with an MSc in exercise physiology from Loughborough University in 2019, where her thesis focused on the physiological responses of event riders during cross-country competition. Rosa runs equestriansportscience.co.uk, a website and social media platform dedicated to supporting equestrian athletes.
Also published in H&H 11 March 2021
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