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.