The Thighs Have It

Now that I ride 3 to 4 times a week, I have a lot less time for writing about riding. Which is a trade I’ll take any day. The riding has been particularly good lately, and I chalk that up to two things: 1) a happy horse and 2) strong thighs.

Dunnie has been in a great mood lately, since he started getting turned out at night in the big back paddock with his new girlfriend, who is appropriately named “Happy.” He’s so much less crabby than he had gotten lately, and is back to thinking it’s fun to play with me in the ring.

Dunnie, being happy with Happy.
Dunnie, being happy with Happy.

While one can’t possibly overvalue the merit of having a happy horse to ride, perhaps the even bigger improvement in our riding over the last two weeks has been how strong my legs have gotten. Part of this has been from consistent riding for a few months; the horse muscles are finally getting back to proper shape. The other part is that I have, in anticipation of an upcoming “milestone” birthday, become extra-focused on toning myself up, specifically in the thigh area.

Pinterest has about 3 billion suggestions for how to tone up your thighs, and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily workouts. In the mornings, I do some light thigh-centered calisthenics (leg lifts, fire hydrants, sumo squats, wall sits…I’ve tried them all) in circuits that switch up the exercises from day to day. I go for a half-hour to forty-five-minute ride around midday, hopefully before it gets hot as hell. Then sometimes in the afternoon I go to the gym and either do weight training (which is often upper-body-focused, cuz that’s important too), but also includes squats with a dumbbell over my shoulders, and the leg-press machine. Or I run on the treadmill, or, preferably, outside.

It’s amazing how much of a difference it has made in my riding, immediately. Before, at the lope I’d have a really difficult time going for more than half the ring. I’d be gripping with my legs inefficiently and huffing and puffing because of it. Also, in my weakness I was tensing up my lower back, making it rigid to try to hold on tighter but only succeeding in bouncing against my horse’s movement instead of flowing with it. I went back to Sally Swift’s Centered Riding to remind myself of the right movement for a rider at the different gaits, and it worked like a charm. I took that metaphorical metal rod right out of my back, and now I’m flowing along with Dunnie’s rhythm as we lope around the ring several times, doing large fast and small slow circles, and I don’t feel wiped out from it at all.

I’ve had this picture as my computer background image since approximately 2004. It has migrated across my computer screens through several different jobs. My coworkers would ask, “Hey, is that you?” and I’d reply “I wish.” It’s always been a touchstone for me, even though most of my life I’ve been an English rider. It’s an image that represents the little girl in me, who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “A cowgirl!” even though I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just knew it was someone who worked with horses.

Me (I wish).
Me (I wish).

Riding Dunnie this last week, I’ve had glimpses of this feeling. We’ll be loping around, and I’ll feel strong and centered and relaxed, and he’s happy and fit and collected, and it’s like I’ve clicked into a place that I’ve only dreamed about before. This mythical cowgirl riding her horse through the firey sunset isn’t just an image I’ve carried inside me for years in those moments; for a few seconds, I am her.

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Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining, Part 2

cliff

Last week I wrote about the destructive effects of overtraining. I recognized that I was pushing myself too hard and not allowing enough rest in between workouts and this was actually hampering my progress.

In my last post, I put together a new weekly schedule for working out 5 hours a week with scheduled rests. This is what that looked like:

Monday: rest

Tuesday: yoga class (1 hour)

Wednesday: calisthenics/leg and core toning (squats, lunges, crunches, etc) or upper body and core toning (planks, push-ups, crunches, etc)  at home (1 hour)

Thursday: rest

Friday: riding lesson (1 hour)

Saturday: cycling class/upper body weight machines (45 mins /15 mins=total 1 hour)

Sunday: treadmill intervals/lower body weight machines (30 mins / 30 mins= total 1 hour)

Well, none of that happened.

I was actually so shot from overtraining that I ended up taking the entire week off.

The body is so adaptable that it’s very easy to miss subtle signs, or to mischaracterize them. But there were things beyond “normal” tiredness that made me see that I needed a break. Like going up more than one flight of stairs made my thigh muscles feel as exhausted as doing several sets of squats.

So what did I do on my week off? Pretty much nothing. I did some stretching before bed, took some strolls around the park, but that was about it for physical activity. I also made some changes to how I’m eating, cutting sugar (almost) entirely out and adding more lean proteins and vegetables.

The surprising thing is that during that week off, I felt better than when I was working out. I mean “better” in the sense that my body felt leaner, lighter, and tighter–all the things I was aiming for with working out so hard. Towards the end of the week I noticed visual evidence of this as well. The lesson here: the body gets stronger during recovery. Rest is essential.

This is just another part of what I’ve realized is basically my life’s work for myself: finding balance. I’ve written before about my difficulty in finding balance in how hard I push myself physically; between perfectionism and a more lackadaisical approach.

I think where this comes from is a lack of self-knowledge; I don’t honestly know my own limits. Having never tried before to really be an athlete, to make my body the best it can be, I don’t know when I’m pushing myself too hard. I don’t know what is definitively beyond my capabilities and what is simply something I need to build up to. Exercise can be deceptive because in the moment it feels like you can do something and only later when you feel the consequences do you know that you overdid it. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

The Edge…there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.

After this week off, I see that my body was clearly telling me that I’d “gone over” with overtraining. But where? Exactly how much was too much? Now the only thing to do is slowly wade back into working out and patiently, systematically, try to find that edge so that from there I can find balance–the place where I am training only as much as I need to for performance to be optimal.

Equestrian Fitness: Stamina

Everyone who rides has been treated many times to the ignorant refrain of “You’re not an athlete–the horse is doing all the work!” But the truth is that riding a horse takes an incredible amount of stamina. Simply holding onto the horse uses so much energy, and you’ve got to make it pretty on top of that. You’re controlling the movements of an animal that is like 15 times your weight, mostly with your legs. I know that after cantering around the ring a few times, I’m blowing just as hard as my horse. After a course, I’m always winded.

I build muscle rather quickly. I can develop flexibility when I put my mind to it. But stamina has always been something I’ve lacked. In high school, I ran track for one year but was only able to do sprints (and hurdles, which destroyed my legs with shin splints for many years). The idea of long distance running was hellish to me; I thought the cross-country team was a perverse cult of masochists.

I need to build up my stamina for riding, but also because having more stamina will make me able to work out better to increase the other two aspects of equestrian fitness, strength and flexibility. To that end, I’ve tried a couple of things at the gym:

Running: Since I have always pretty much hated running, this has been a long, slow build up for me. I started out running on the treadmill and simply trying to run a whole mile without stopping. Then I tried to run two. Then three. This necessitated understanding my limits and learning to pace myself; those miles were pretty slow, 11-12 minutes apiece. Three miles is just about the farthest I’ve ever run, mostly due to the time limitations of going to the gym after work. Next I started focusing on increasing my speed; I dropped back down to one mile, but each time tried to do it faster. Eventually I decreased my time from 11 or 12 minutes down to a little bit over 9 minutes per mile.

After a few months of doing pretty much the same thing–a quick mile as a warm-up, then moving onto weights–it started to get pretty stale. Exercising without variety is not only problematic because it’s mentally unchallenging, it also doesn’t push your body enough to keep building stamina.

The recommendations about what exercises are “best” or “most effective” change about as often as the recommendations on what we should and shouldn’t eat, and so tend to be something I avoid making myself crazy trying to follow. But the current story seems to be that interval training has a lot of benefits: increased calorie burn, increased efficiency of oxygen getting to the muscles, greater efficiency of lactic acid breakdown, and a steady increase in overall stamina. I’ve done intervals before and they’re pretty fun, so I’m giving them a go again. Possibly the biggest benefit for me is that intervals are mentally engaging. It’s like a game: every time I try to beat my previous best.

Here’s what I’ve been doing: I run about a half mile at a medium pace to warm myself up, with a few short bursts of going slightly faster than is comfortable. Then I do about 5 intervals wherein I sprint all out, followed by a rest period of walking. I started out doing 30-second sprints, then upped it to 45 seconds, then a full minute. The last time I did this, two days ago, I went to a 1:15, and next time I’ll try to do 1:30. Each day it gets easier. I was gasping for air after my first few attempts at 30 seconds, and now at that point I’m still in the “I’m fine” territory. Picture a meter, like the temperature gauge on a car. At 30 seconds I’m still in the blue. Around 50-55 seconds I’m starting to redline and want to stop so desperately. But the important part of intervals is you have a set time you have to get to. I used to go into exercises with the mentality of “I’ll do this as long as I can,” but it’s always easier to punk out that way and not push yourself as hard as possible. It’s easy to convince myself it’s time to stop at that 50-55 second mark when my lungs are screaming at me that I have no air left, but if the goal is to get to 1:15, I always find a way to hold on until then.

One way in which I go fairly easy on myself is that I don’t define an amount of time for the recovery. I just slow down and walk until I catch my breath. It would be more effective if I pushed myself to recover more quickly, and that’s something I plan on working up to. But for now, I’m focused on extending the length of my sprints.

After the third or fourth interval in a given day, it starts to get harder and harder. Intervals really tire me out quickly. So I’ve adopted a rule for them called “One After Done.” That means that after the interval that feels like it has demolished me and I can’t do anymore and I’m absolutely done, I have to do one more. That way I know I’m going to my furthest limit and building as much stamina as possible.

Cycling: I also go to a cycling class once or twice a week. It’s called “Les Mill’s RPM,” part of a series of Les Mills classes that they do at my gym, 24 Hour Fitness. It’s also known as “that psychotic spin class,” which is how I’ll probably refer to it from here on out. Let me begin my saying that group exercise is not my fave. I don’t like other people looking at me when I work out. I chafe at an instructor deciding my limits for me, and I flat out will not tolerate being yelled at. So I was reluctant to try this class. But my boyfriend convinced me to try it. His point was that sometimes you really do need someone to push you past your limits and that I might get something out of it. He was right. The instructors I’ve taken the class with do encourage everyone to go faster and harder, but they are not the screamy types.

The class isn’t all intervals, but incorporates a lot of interval training. As you ride the stationary bike, there’s a knob to adjust the resistance on the pedals. The instructor tells you when to put it up and down as you go through a series of sprints and climbs, sitting down and standing up in the stirrups. It’s pretty amazing for building up thigh and core strength but it is really, really hard. The hardest part for me is of course the cardiovascular stamina. Whereas I am (perhaps too) kind to myself on the treadmill with letting myself totally catch my breath in between sprints, this class does not give you much time to recover. The next song comes on right away and you’re back at it. Sometimes I drape my body over the handlebars, put my head down and close my eyes for a couple of seconds just to breathe and convince myself I’m not dying.

The “One and Done” rule doesn’t really apply to this class, mostly because at the time I feel done there are usually several more songs to go. I just try to finish the class and do all the things the instructor is doing–keeping it at her speed and resistance. It’s getting easier, especially now that I’m going twice a week. But it also sort of never gets easier because you can always put the resistance higher, and as you get stronger it’s kind of necessary to do so in order to keep the pedals from getting out of control. I’ve started going to this class the night before my riding less, replacing the yoga class I was going to previously. I find this is a better workout before riding. My original thinking was that a low-intensity stretch the night before would do me better on the horse, but actually just blasting my thighs and core makes me feel looser and warmer the next morning for riding. It also hopefully gives me more stamina so I can continue challenging myself in the ring.

 

Equestrian Fitness: Upper Body

It’s obvious that in order to be a strong rider, you need to strengthen your core and your legs. But what about upper body? It seems like this is an area that riders–and women generally–tend to neglect in their fitness routine.

I’ve found, mostly by accident, that a strong upper body improves my riding in so many ways. I would go to the gym and do a bunch of lower body exercises: running, squats, cycling, and all the thigh-oriented weight machines. Those have all done great things for me and I’ll touch on them in another post. But I realized that if I was going to be all-over fit, I had to target the rest of my body too. My original goal was to lose some weight and to look a bit more toned. The rationale was that muscle burns more calories so putting more muscle everywhere on my body that I could would speed up the burn.

I think a lot of women avoid the upper body weights area at the gym for two reasons: 1) not wanting to look like a dude and 2) dudes. To address the first, I’ll say this: you won’t. Unless you’re taking steroids (which, just don’t) then your feminine form is safe; lifting even heavy weights is not going to make your arms muscled like a man’s. As for the second, it’s true that the free weights area is an especially testosteroney zone in the gym. For some reason the guys are all really hyped up over there about each other and there’s a whole lot of posturing going on that only gets worse when a girl is thrown into the mix. At first it really put me off, but I’ve learned to just ignore it and laugh about it in my head. I’ve found that the weights machines are a little less fraught and seem to have a more reasonable male-to-female demographic if that makes you more comfortable. Plus, if you’re just starting out, one benefit of the machines as opposed to free weights is that your movements are constrained and guided by the machine and you might be less likely to hurt yourself overextending your range of motion.

It might be tempting to go for the more simple-looking machines that target the familiar small muscle groups like the biceps and the triceps, but we’re going for more than just toned arms here. The goal here is to strengthen the chest and the back for better equitation posture, better airflow, and more control of your horse. Also, most of the machines that target these bigger muscle groups also work the smaller secondary ones as well, so you’ll still end up with nicely toned arms.

Historically, I have had pretty much zero upper body strength. On top of that, the tone I do have is completely lopsided; since it comes mostly from pitching softball for nearly a decade, I have this disproportionate right bicep that looks really big compared to the left one, but which really provides no strength since none of the other supporting muscles are strong.  I can do zero unassisted pull-ups at this time. I can do a decent amount of push-ups (20-30) if I am balancing on my knees, but can barely do any (maybe 3-5 on a good day) if I’m in full plank/push-up position. My back is a particular weak spot, having hunched over a desk forever. So there’s a lot of work that can be done.

My approach has just been to browse through the machines and keep trying new ones that look interesting. There’s a little diagram on each one that shows which muscles it targets and a few instructions on setting it up to your size. I make a guess about how much weight I think I can lift (sometimes based on checking out whoever used it before me) and make adjustments if necessary. I lift the heaviest amount of weight I can handle for 6-8 reps and do three sets of that. I used to do the opposite, putting the weight relatively low and doing a lot of reps because I thought I was going for tone and that’s the way most women go about it. But I’m going for strength and since I’ve started doing it this way I’ve gotten much better results.

Variety is a good thing here; before I had just a couple of machines that I was comfortable with and stuck to those but it’s important to branch out. I want my whole upper body to be shored up with muscle so that when I sit up tall in the saddle, it’s like a framework that already exists and I don’t spend mental and physical energy holding myself up all the time. I noticed a difference right away in my lessons. My posture was much more upright, my shoulder blades much more supple and able to support and open up my chest. My mid-back was much more still; I didn’t get pulled forward as easily by my mount tugging on the reins or being heavy on the forehand and I didn’t rock so much in the saddle at the canter.

So I keep trying as many of the different machines as possible to get an all-around strength. It’s important for creating that balance and harmony among the whole muscular system; you don’t want one thing to be really strong and another part of be really weak because it will pull you out of whack compensating for that. A good tip my boyfriend told me was that if you work a muscle by pulling, then you should also do the opposite motion and work it by pushing. (Think of the thigh adductor and abductor machines, aka “the inny and the outy” in my nonsensetalk language; the one where you use your inner thighs to push the pads between your knees together and the other one where you use your outer thighs to push the pads between your knees apart.)

That being said, here are a few of my favorite upper body machines specifically for building strength for riding:

1) Chest Press: This is the one where you sit and use the handles at chest height to push out until your arms are extended; it’s basically like a seated push-up. This has made the biggest difference in my posture of any exercise I’ve done. Opening and lifting the chest is one of the most important visual components of having perfect-looking equitation but there are a lot of practical reasons for that. Firstly, you can breathe a lot easier, giving you much more stamina for keeping that slowpoke horse from breaking or having enough air to get you through that long course. Second, it gives you better balance in the saddle, reinforcing that line we’re supposed to keep from shoulder to knee to ankle. If your chest is caved in and your back is rounded that throws the weight of your head and neck forward and down and limits the effectiveness of your seat. Thirdly, what follows naturally from having better balance in the saddle is your horse having better balance and you having more control. When you sit up with your chest open, your head and your hands come up and that brings your horse’s motion up as well. With an open chest you have so much more strength for sitting up to give your horse half halts to gain a little control, to enact smooth downward transitions and stop the horse completely, or even to stay on if he decides to buck. Finally, a strong chest will help you keep yourself lifted in jumping position so you don’t collapse on your horse’s neck on the landing. An added bonus of the chest press is that it works the triceps as well which will help you to pull back from the elbow on those reins. Another machine that also works the chest and triceps in a slightly different area is the Chest Fly, I like that one a lot, too.

2) Mid-row: This is the balancing movement to the chest press, working the middle of your back just below the shoulder blades. This will help your posture in all the ways described above, working in concert with your chest muscles. Sometimes I do the weight machine with this motion and sometimes I switch it up and do the rowing machine that simulates a row boat, where you put your feet in the stirrups and push with your legs while pulling on the row bar. That one is good because it also works your legs and adds a cardio component, but the resistance is lower than you can get by using the weight machine.

3) Lat pulldown: This works more of the upper shoulder blades and also the muscles down your spine to your spinal erectors. It will help create that framework I talked about earlier of holding up your entire upper body. It also works your biceps, which is a good counterpart to the tricep strengthening of the chest machines.

Finally, since this was an area where I’ve felt especially weak, I’m incorporating a daily challenge at home to really push myself. I’m doing this 30 Day Plank Challenge. To really get results quickly, I’m not only doing the one shown in the picture where you rest on your forearms; each day I’m also doing a full plank with arms extended and a full side plank on each arm.  This is great because it not only boosts your upper body strength, but works your entire core.

If you’re looking to increase your strength as a rider, don’t neglect your upper body! In equitation there are so many things to keep track of in your own position in addition to controlling the unpredictable 2,000 pounds beneath you. The only way I’ve found over the years to keep it all together is for some things to become second nature and drop from my immediate consciousness to free up space for what’s going on in the moment. I call this “dropping below the line.” Theoretically, it would be ideal for all considerations of position to be below that line and for perfect equitation to be instinctual. For years now, my upper body has been “above the line,” a constant focus and something my trainer often has to remind me of. Strengthening these previously-neglected muscles and creating a framework for my upper body has allowed me to drop that part of my position below the line of consciousness and frees me up to become a better, more present rider.

 

 

 

 

Fitness

My lesson yesterday left me pretty sore so this morning instead of going to the gym, I’m in recovery at home. When I’m tight and sore, the natural response is to not want to move at all. But I’ve learned that “recovery” is not simply about doing nothing–rest is important, but so is stretching and moving in a way that will help those muscles heal.

This morning while doing my own version of recovery–some light yoga and using these amazing things to work out the really painful kinks–I was thinking about my own fitness regimen. I’ve read many articles and blogs talking about the best exercises to get you in shape for horseback riding. All-over muscle tone, but particularly core and leg strength, is usually the focus. Clearly, the best way to develop riding strength is to ride often. But I’m finding that there are certain exercises that develop enough tone to make my lessons much more productive; having that “head start” of some tone in the muscle helps those parts of my body warm up more quickly and operate with more suppleness in the lesson, which in turn probably leads to building the muscle more quickly.

I thought I’d share what I’m finding here–basically through trial and error–in case it’s helpful for anyone else. The fitness regimen I’m trying to establish is not only for riding, although getting back into the best shape I can for that is one of my main goals. I’m also realizing how important fitness is as a part of life. I’m at the age where during the next several years, muscle tone will start sharply declining and I want to head that off at the pass as much as possible so I can continue leading an active life. Putting the work in now is setting me up to include fitness as a major part of my lifestyle for the rest of my life, and I need that.

As a child I was incredibly active. I was naturally athletic, energetic, and thin. As I’ve aged, my metabolism has changed and I’ve accepted that as a natural part of aging. I’ve continue to consider myself “active” since compared to most people, I was. I walked a lot. I played softball twice a week for half the year. I rode horses every other week. I tried to make it to the gym once or twice a week for a run on a treadmill and some weight-lifting. I occasionally rode my bike around the track in the park a few times. As I type that now, it sounds like a lot. But it’s not. At no point in any of those activities did I really consistently push myself.

In the last three to four years, I put on what for me was a lot of weight. Part of this can be attributed to turning 30. Part of it can be attributed to sitting in a dim hole of a cubicle without seeing a window for the better part of a year and my Seasonal Affective Disorder getting out of control. Much of it can be attributed to a great deal of stress from a variety of sources. I looked ok. I was still “thin” by most people’s standards, and my friends mostly told me to shut up because I was fine. But I didn’t feel fine. I felt like I wasn’t myself, like the body I was inhabiting wasn’t even mine. And a huge part of what felt integral to my personality–my ability to be active–was slipping away. Fatigue, muscle aches and worsening headaches became the norm rather than the exception. I started to become depressed at the thought that I’d never be able to feel energetic and healthy again.

Since moving out to LA about a month ago, I’ve gone to the gym almost every day. It’s a lot more accessible to do so, since I just hop in the car and drive for about 5 minutes to get there, instead of negotiating bringing all my gym clothes to work and convincing myself to get off the subway a few stops before home to walk several blocks in the cold to work out. The gym here also costs me about $40 a month less than it did in NY while at the same time being much nicer and having more equipment, classes, and amenities.

After this month of working out, I’m starting to feel a little bit better. But really, I’m just scratching the surface. It’s made me realize how much damage has actually been done by the complacency of my sedentary lifestyle. I realize that because fitness came so naturally and easily to me as a child and a teenager, I’ve expected it to be that easy as an adult. And it’s not. It’s hard. If I want the level of fitness and athleticism that I had before, I have to really, really push myself to get it.

I’ve also realized how important that is to me. I think there’s a kind of shitty peer pressure pervasive in our culture to not make fitness a huge priority because if you do, it makes the people who don’t feel bad about themselves. There’s the stereotype of an image-obsessed “gym rat” chick who is trying to get impossibly skinny, or the musclebound meathead guy who can’t put his arms down. The fitness world certainly does have its own particular breed of psychosis (as does every sort of niche); I’ve seen some of that here and I don’t even live in the really crazy part of town. But as with everything, balance is key. Pushing your body to freakish proportions is unhealthy and so is neglecting it entirely.

So, going forward in addition to my weekly lesson post, I’m going to also write about my adventures in getting in shape. I’ll mainly focus on what works and doesn’t work for me as a rider, since that’s the topic of this blog, but obviously there will be overlap on what just works generally. I want to become the best rider that I can be–I’m curious as to how good that really is when my body is also the best it can be.