It’s a fair question to ponder & often if you ask many coaches you may find you get a very black & white yes or no answer. The fitness industry often gives you tons of information which leaves you thinking what the heck should I be doing & often more confused than when you started!
Riding is a highly demanding sport that requires many elements of fitness. As I have touched on before making sure you are training functionally is the key here, by that we mean making sure your training off horse replicates the same movement patterns, muscles & energy systems used when we ride. There is no right or wrong way of training but we do need to make sure that we train all elements of fitness so that our bodies can then handle the demands of riding.
Dependent on your individual discipline the requirements vary slightly but on the whole the same elements of fitness & demands apply to all riders;
-Anaerobic fitness-ability to work above & below anaerobic threshold
-Posterior chain strength
-Isometric lower body strength
-Proprioception; ability to sense body’s movement, location
All these elements make up the most effective rider possible so as you can see there are a number of aspects of rider fitness you should be focusing on which means that the answer to the above;
Strength or cardio?
Obviously, every rider is different & individual so you need to make sure that your training programme is specific & individualised to your needs just as you would each horse. But you should definitely be incorporating both into your training. Something that works for Karen isn’t necessarily going to work for you & it is important to remember that & focus on your own programme & needs.
Strength & cardio go hand in hand; without the strength, your aerobic fitness alone won’t be enough to get you through that tough last 2-3 minutes of cross country riding yet vice versa if you have the strongest seat in the world but your aerobic fitness is minimal then you are going to struggle to fight fatigue towards the end of a session, round or course meaning that you will not be riding at your best but also potentially end up hindering your horse! We’ve all had that annoying run out at the one from home where we were getting a little tired & weren’t quite there at the last minute, right?
Obviously, riding requires a large degree of strength; you are manoeuvring half a ton of unpredictable, fit, powerful animal so you need to make sure that you have the physical strength to be able to control that.
From a strength perspective to begin with I would suggest you aim to train 2-3 times a week focusing on strength work. Start with your compound movements that train multiple muscle groups & get your core stimulated & working with you as it would when in the saddle. Remember we want to stimulate similar movement to riding so jumping on a static machine that gives you no interference or requirement to engage your core won’t do a huge amount of good.
Squats, bridges, hip thrusts, push-ups, pulldowns, lunges are all movements you want to be focusing on. Making sure that you are hitting these key movement patterns each week will start to build your strength & then from here you can add in more specific work to target individual muscles such as the glutes or hamstrings & accessory work like your core strength.
From a safety point of view & as we all know riding is an incredibly dangerous sport (as well as a fun one) so safety should always be considered & at the forefront of your training programme. If you are aerobically fit but you lack strength as mentioned then this is going to lead you into trouble, you need to have the physical strength & capability to have full control of your horse whether in the dressage test or the last 3 minutes of your cross country course when he’s getting tired & strong.
Cardio wise every rider should be ideally aiming to hit 10-12,000 steps per day, now most of you (especially those who ride for a living) would think you are hugely active but honestly, if you tracked the steps you did for one day with no riding I think for most you’d probably be surprised & find your not actually as active as you think. Movement is the best solution to help improve your mobility & fitness so first focus on steps. Walking is a great way to build your cardiovascular endurance to start with & even with the best intentions getting out & running a 5k straight out the gate can leave you with injuries or niggles down the line if you don’t have the strength to support your running. Overtime aim to increase your aerobic work to 2 sessions per week.
Now the biggest thing here is to do something you enjoy. If you like running, run. If you love HIIT, do a HIIT class. But don’t do something you don’t enjoy. Why you ask?
Because if you don’t enjoy doing it you will NOT stick to it. So find what you enjoy. To start focus on building your endurance, steady-state fitness; keep your effort level low & keep the pace slow whether that be running, cycling or swimming. This will build your cardiovascular capacity & help your body to be able to resist fatigue & perform for longer periods of time which is exactly what we need as riders.
Then over time you can gradually begin to build the pace & effort and add in some threshold work. Riding leads to a very high heart rate that can often especially in eventing be near maximal, which would mean you are working over your anaerobic threshold. In eventing heart rates of up to 185 bpm have been recorded when riding cross country so training yourself at these intensities is important so you can cope with the high demand. When your heart rate is working at this intensity you are using your anaerobic system which means without oxygen; you can only utilise this system for a maximum of 2 minutes so having that base of endurance to then take over is essential.
To train yourself within these threshold markers you want to add in some high-intensity work & this is where HIIT can be a great option! Working for set periods of work time & rest where you push yourself to work at maximum capacity then rest & recover to go again, this will again help you to withstand fatigue when you’re riding. Setting up a small circuit such as a goblet squat into 30 seconds of battle ropes into banded pulldowns would be a great circuit to get that HR working at these anaerobic thresholds but challenging your fatigue as it would be when you're riding.
You need to be able to work at that high intensity but then the next second have the strength & fitness to be able to recover & get ready for the next task just as you would when jumping or playing a match. Having the ability to resist this fatigue is key.
So in summary you should be doing both but what is important is to find a balance that works for you. If time is an issue which for most busy Equestrians it is then try to hit all elements of your fitness within your session. This is perfectly doable but keep it simple.
Start with a mobility warm-up then into some activation work to get the muscles primed & ready for the compound movements. Follow up with your strength work then move towards a strength-based circuit that challenges your strength to be tested whilst also challenging your aerobic capacity for the end of the session.
Remember there is no right or wrong & finding what works for you is key but riding is an incredibly demanding & physically tiring sport that requires many components of fitness. Focus on implementing all elements of fitness into your programme & be consistent with your training, over time you will start to notice big differences & remembering that you are 50% of the partnership is key here!
I hope this helps & if you have any other questions on how you should be training then fire away!