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.

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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: 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)

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.