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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Easy Going

Before striking out more on my own—and while I wait for Dunnie’s current lease to end—I’m taking a few group lessons. This week there was some stormy weather that made my trainer move the lesson up and combine two, making it somewhat of a hectic conglomeration of different styles and levels—but this ended up being perfect for my purposes.

My half of the lesson group was about 5 of us in a large outdoor ring, and much of the lesson was devoted to strengthening exercises, which is exactly what I need to get back up to speed after 6 months out of the saddle. We warmed up walking and posting without stirrups. We trotted around doing “7-7-7,” which consists of sitting 7 beats, posting 7 beats, and 2-point for 7 beats. We played a game where we spread out on the rail and had to control our speed and stride length to avoid either passing each other or breaking. Given the trainer’s divided attention, she actually did a great job of giving me just as much attention as I needed—some tips and explanations about how my position should be in the Western saddle—and the rest of the time I was left to my own devices, feeling out my body and my horse and forming new relationships with both.

Despite the long absence from the saddle, and therefore lack of “rider fitness,” I am perhaps at the highest level of general fitness I’ve ever had as an adult, due to lots of weight and cardio training at the gym over the last few months. This is immediately apparent to me when I am riding now, as I’ve focused particularly on building upper-body muscles that contribute to postural strength, especially in my chest and back. Combine that with longer stirrups and a more comfy saddle that encourages the rider to sit back rather than perch forward, and I feel so much longer and taller on my horse than I’ve ever felt.

Dunnie is an incredibly sensitive horse. Not in the tweaky Thoroughbred way, just in the smart and very well-trained way. He knows his job, and he knows his cues, and he’s such a pleasure to ride because of it. In the lesson, I focused on learning his responses to my aides, and realizing that I actually had to tamp them down, using less and less until I found the threshold where he didn’t respond anymore. The biggest example of this was when asking for the canter. Historically, I have preferred to ride horses that required as little hand intervention as possible, and have worked hard to cultivate soft hands. But this is a whole new level. You’re supposed to ride with your reins so much longer, and I’m only holding them in one hand, which sparks some small control issues for me until I remember that I don’t even need the reins to stop—Dunnie will halt with just sitting back and saying “woah.” So the trainer did remind me a couple of times that I could put my hands even further forward, and every time I did, it produced better results in the form of a more connected and energetic stride. When asking for the canter, I was having a tough time getting him started. He was being a bit prickly after having picked up the wrong lead and when we did pick up the right one, he was charging into it. After a quick interval where the trainer jumped on to school him, I got back on and tried again. After a moment of confusion where I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go forward, I realized it was me—my hand, which felt like it had barely any contact on his mouth at all, was too high. The second I dropped my hand, he moved right away into a rounded, smooth canter.

Everything about the Western saddle is more comfortable to me than an English saddle—except, for some reason, the left stirrup. I think this might be a peculiarity of this particular saddle, but for some reason, the left stirrup twists in such a way that my ankle is turned in and it’s very hard to keep the stirrup when cantering. It’s probably just a matter of adjustment and remembering to keep my weight even, but that’s something I’ll have to work on.

Looking forward to next week and hopefully focusing more on learning reining techniques. But I also find, after just two rides, that I’m looking forward to spending time with Dunnie again and getting to know him better.

 

Equestrian Fitness: Yoga Tune Up® for Recovery

One of the problems with the methods of training I use (running, cycling, and weightlifting) is that they all result in a lot of muscle tightness that builds up over time, making me inflexible, sore, and irritable–all things that make me want to avoid working out.

Since riding itself can contribute to muscle tightness, especially in the hips and lower back, I’ve found a number of ways to combat this unfortunate downside of my training regimen.

Swimming

Getting in the water is a great way to ease sore muscles. Swimming is itself an excellent full-body workout that is especially helpful to sore joints because of its lack of impact. But even going for a dip without doing laps can be quite restorative.

After a hard run or weightlifting session, getting in the pool and relaxing helps my muscles recover more quickly. Doing some flowing movements and stretches in the pool stimulates the muscles with a light resistance created by the water, preventing them from getting stiff as they heal.

Yoga

I’ve written before about the benefits of yoga for a rider’s flexibility, and in my opinion, yoga is the best cross-training for riding and all of my other training methods. It contributes to the length and suppleness of the muscles, a perfect counterbalance to the tightening caused by building strength.

But what if you don’t have access to a pool and can’t find the time for a regular yoga practice?

I found a very inexpensive, effective solution that I can do at home: Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls.

I was actually introduced to these amazing things back at my yoga studio in Brooklyn and recently I’ve been incorporating them more often into my recovery program.

They’re basically two racquetball-sized balls that are used for self-massage, not dissimilar to the rollers found at the gym. The balls target trigger points and can get in deep to alleviate muscle pain in more specific areas than the rollers.

It’s quite an experience. Laying down on your back with them underneath you, you find all sorts of amazing mayhem in your muscles that you weren’t even aware of. The beauty of self-massage is that you can do it as long as it takes to alleviate the pain in each muscle, without being rushed off a masseuse’s table or trying to air-traffic-control your significant other to massage just the right spots.

Spinal erectors.
Spinal erectors

For me, the most productive area seems to be my lower back. The long muscles going parallel to my spine–the spinal erectors–became extremely tight, and are often the source of my hip pain. Hamstring tightness contributes as well, and my poor hips become pulled between these two very large muscle groups.

After using the Therapy Balls, I feel a huge difference. Often, I can feel the release while I am using them, as a muscle finally lets go of its tension and everything around it relaxes. I used the balls yesterday afternoon and then went for a run in the evening. My body felt refreshed, limber, and there was a spring in my step that hasn’t been there for a couple of weeks.

I’m going to try incorporating the Therapy Balls once or twice a week–especially after I ride–to see if more regular usage keeps helping my muscles retain their flexibility and elasticity.

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.

Housekeeping, Getting Connected

I had to skip my lesson this week to take care of some things at home, but as a consolation for depriving you of a lesson post I’ve now branched out and connected Urban Equestrian to two new sites: Pinterest and Instagram.

On the Pinterest page, you’ll find boards for equestrian fitness, exercises to do with your horse, horse- and equestrian-related books, horse photography, and more.

On the Instagram page, you’ll find photos of horses I’m riding, shots from around the barn, and beautiful places that I’d love to ride through.

Please follow me and enjoy!

 

Equestrian Fitness: Overtraining

This is not me, but it's what I look like when I'm dying in the psychotic spin class.
This is not me, but it’s what I look like when I’m dying in the psychotic spin class.

After my lesson on Friday where my muscles and cardiovascular system seemed unusually exhausted, I had to stop and consider what I was doing wrong. Nearly every day, I have been doing something to get into shape, building strength, flexibility and stamina. But how much is too much?

Obviously that answer is different for everyone, but there are a few common signs that you may be overtraining. “Overtraining” specifically refers to a workout intensity that exceeds the body’s capacity for recovery. If you don’t let your body recover, it can’t get stronger. I know that if I don’t work out for a day or two, I feel an internal pressure to be doing something, like I’m wasting time that I could be using to get better. But overdoing it is actually counterproductive to my goals. Here are some consequences/symptoms of overtraining:

  • decreased performance
  • chronic fatigue
  • irritability and moodiness
  • insomnia
  • depressed immune system functioning

In the last couple of days, I have definitely experienced these symptoms. I skipped the psychotic spin class on Thursday night because I just didn’t feel up to it. At riding on Friday, my leg muscles simply didn’t respond, getting fatigued extremely quickly and I found myself huffing and puffing an inordinate amount after jumping a course. After I came home from my lesson, I fell into a nap so deep that I felt like I couldn’t move upon waking. All of yesterday I felt under the weather like I was coming down with something.

So today is a day of true rest and recovery. It’s also a day where my boyfriend (who is experiencing the same thing in training for hockey) and I sat down and made a more sensible weekly training schedule for ourselves, keeping it to 5 hours a week. Here’s the new schedule I’m going to try:

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)

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.