Best Cardio For Riders
Cardiovascular fitness is a big component of all equestrian disciplines. Whether you are a polo player or a showjumper it’s important that you have a good base of aerobic capacity so that you have the stamina, endurance & fitness to perform at your best and sustain that effort for longer periods of time.
There are so many different forms of cardiovascular fitness and at the end of the day, any extra cardio work outside of your riding is only going to benefit your riding further whatever level or discipline you perform in!
Even though the horses are doing the majority of the work when we say are jumping a showjumping course or galloping across the country this still requires a lot of effort, control, and fitness from the rider on top as well. Ever seen a rider flopping up the neck towards the end of the course? Yep, that's because they've tired & not got the stamina to sustain the activity & then this is when you can't physically or mentally react quick enough to your horse & mistakes happen! Often towards the end of the course as your endurance is just not there!
It’s no good thinking just because you ride 5 or 6 times a week you’ll be fit enough, you need to be doing the extra work out of the saddle as well & it will seriously elevate your performance to the next level. This is what we incorporate in every rider's training programme at ERF, showing them how to increase their fitness to really intensity their riding game & get the best results!
First of all, you want to make sure that what you are doing is going to correlate to your specific discipline.
Think about the energy system that is being used primarily during your discipline. In polo it would be short, sharp bouts of exercise followed by short periods of rest and this would be a more anaerobic focus. As the polo match lasts a longer period of time in total play time there would also be a component of longer aerobic fitness so it’s important to train both energy systems.
Again cross country is pretty similar you’ll have long galloping periods where your longer aerobic fitness will be carrying you but then you have a tricky combination to jump with short bursts of exercise and movement and this requires a high level of anaerobic fitness so you can physically & mentally react quickly.
Aerobic exercise means with oxygen & are more endurance-type activities that increase your heart rate and breathing over a longer period of time. It is a sustainable effort that can be prolonged such as an hour's run. Whereas anaerobic exercise means without oxygen, where you’re working between 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate, this involves short, intense bursts of exercise followed by short rest such as in HIIT sessions. Again if you have other goals such as weight loss then you want to make sure you pick the cardio that is going to be most beneficial to meet your riding & personal goals.
From a coach's perspective, I would always make sure once a solid base of aerobic fitness is built that we work on both and include plenty of anaerobic work. Anaerobic work is also great for keeping you mentally sharp and learning how to withstand fatigue both physically and mentally which is crucial in Equestrian sports. You'll find that you can do the same activity or go a longer period of that activity & it will feel like less effort due to your increased fitness.
So first of all when it comes to aerobic fitness my first advice would be to make sure whatever you do you enjoy it, it doesn’t cause you pain and it’s something you can do long term.
If you know running hurts your knees or you absolutely hate slogging out the long run then don’t do it! Forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy is the best way to not be able to stick to it.
These days there are so many options out there to improve your cardiovascular fitness and benefit your riding so don’t think you only have to stick to a swim, bike or run! You could do cycling, tennis, squash, spin classes, a HIIT class, you could even try your hand at boxing or martial arts as those are great builders of aerobic fitness! It’s all about getting your heart & lungs working for a prolonged period of time which in turn makes you fitter, stronger & the flow of oxygen & blood in your body will also improve.
If you are interested in trying a new activity most clubs or classes will always give you a free trial pass so ask around and see what you enjoy. If you're nervous to start something new don't sweat it, that's totally normal as you're stepping out of your comfort zone but it may help to take a friend with you for moral support to get started.
Obviously keeping your cardio exercise relevant to your discipline is important to get the most out of your riding. If you're a dressage rider you don’t need that anaerobic fitness so you can focus more on longer steady state aerobic work.
So in your training, you’d want to be doing more endurance-based activities such as going for a 5K run, half an hour in the pool, or something like a tennis game. It won’t do you any harm to improve your anaerobic fitness too but you’re longer, steady-state fitness is what you should focus on first!
If you prefer to keep things on the lighter side you could always mix in a bit of mobility with your endurance activity.
How often you want to be training depends on your day-to-day lifestyle, what level you ride at and equally how active you are in your day job. If you work on the yard full-time then training will definitely help to improve your stamina further but equally, if you’re working physically hard all day on the yard you need to make sure you don’t overdo it in your training.
Aiming for 20 to 40 minutes of cardio 3 to 4 times a week would be plenty. If your job was more sedentary and you spend a lot of the day seated then be mindful of keeping yourself moving a little bit more frequently. Again aiming for around the same time would be good but maybe increase that 3 to 5 sessions over the week so you get yourself moving more frequently. Remember this could even be just going for a brisk walk a couple of times a week to get your heart & lungs working!
You don’t need to burn yourself into the ground and make sure you’re aware of the effort you are working at. If you’re doing more intensity-based training to work the anaerobic system then you should be working at a higher effort & heart rate. I always use the RPE chart to judge your effort and in these circumstances, you want to be somewhere between 7-9 on the effort scale.
In longer steady state activities such as swimming or running as it’s for a prolonged period of time we want to make sure we’re working at a lower intensity so we can sustain the effort. Somewhere around a 5 or a 6 will probably be most appropriate but again it may vary depending on the training intention!
The whole point of working on your cardio is to train your heart to be able to persevere through intense tasks that require more oxygen and require the heart & lungs to work harder as your body is put under more pressure. The better your cardiovascular fitness the easier activities will feel, the less strain your body will be under & you'll be able to withstand fatigue for longer. Oh & almost forgot to mention that the rush of endorphins & dopamine you get after a cardio session gives you such a natural, mental boost it is just awesome! I find cardio training a fantastic mental release & boost.
If you only ride and train at home you won’t be giving your body the extra conditioning it needs for competition scenarios and training days. All of us can do a little bit more and increasing your cardio fitness whatever level you ride at is going to hugely benefit your riding but also your general day-to-day health as well so it’s something you can all do right now and it doesn’t have to cost a penny!
Have a Google in your local area if you're interested in trying classes or if you’re not quite sure where to start. Try some new things and go with what you enjoy! You might not think boxing has a relation to riding but at the end of the day if you enjoy it, it gets you reacting faster, makes you stronger and builds your cardiovascular fitness then that is fantastic & win-win all around.
Think about those times you finish the showjumping or come through the finish of the cross country & you're blowing out of your ass! This is where cardio fitness is needed and really comes into its own in your training & will take your riding to the next level. Don’t neglect your cardio, make sure you push yourself to work harder and reap the rewards.