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: Pre-Ride Workout

Riding itself is a workout, so it may seem that a pre-ride workout is a little bit of an overkill. However, I’ve found that warming up my muscles before I get on the horse results in a much more pleasant and productive ride.

I like to ride in the morning, so this workout is also about waking up and taking the kinks out of sleepy muscles. Usually I do this routine, then I have a cup of tea and a light, but high-protein breakfast before heading out the door.

Here’s my pre-ride workout:

1. Jumping Jacks:

25 of ’em, right off the bat, just to get the blood flowing.

2. Standing Toe Touches

I actually am not sure what these are called, but what I do is stand up with my arms straight out to the sides. I then lift my leg straight and twist to touch the opposite hand to my toes. Alternate legs and arms, 10x.

While standing, lift leg straight and touch toes with opposite hand, just like this creepy diagram shows.
While standing, lift leg straight and touch toes with opposite hand, just like this creepy diagram shows.

3. Squats

Nothing crazy, just a few to warm up the legs. I do maybe 15 or so.

4. Yoga

I go through a quick sort of modified sun salutation routine that focuses on opening up the hips and stretching out the thigh and back muscles.

Starting in downward dog, I move out to plank, then lower myself down to chaturanga. Then I push myself up to cobra and then back up to downward dog.

Next, I lift one leg straight up behind me and then bend it at the knee. I circle that leg a couple times in one direction and then in the opposite direction to open my hips, then hold the position for a stretch.

hip-opener-dd-734x618
Hip opener stretch in downward dog.

After that, I straighten the leg out behind me again and bring it forward between my hands for a low lunge.

Low lunge.
Low lunge.

Next, I lift my arms for a high lunge, then move into warrior 2, triangle pose, and twisting low lunge.

warrior 2
Warrior 2
triangle
Triangle
TwistingLunge-p117
Twisting lunge

 

 

 

 

 

From the twisting low lunge, I place both hands down on the floor inside the front leg for a really nice hip and hamstring stretch. If I’m feeling particularly flexible that day I go down on my forearms.

Low-lunge-dropped-knee
An amazing stretch for your hips and your hamstrings.

From here, I go back into downward dog, go through another plank-chaturanga-cobra routine and then back to downward dog to repeat the sequence with the other leg.

After all of this is done, I lay down on my back and go into happy baby pose, and then pull my knee across my body for another twist. Return to happy baby pose again, and then repeat with the opposite leg.

happy baby
Happy baby pose makes for happy hamstrings when you’re in jumping position.
knee-down-twist
This twist is so wonderful on your lower back.

5. Abs

To get my core warmed up, I do 25 Bicycle Crunches followed by 25 hip lifts. Then I repeat that.

Hip raises.
Hip raises.

6. Gracilis Stretch

To finish off the workout, I end with this intense but lovely stretch for my gracilis muscle. I wrote before in my post on flexibility about how tight that one can get. When I found this stretch, I noticed a big difference in the efficacy of my leg while riding. I have more flexibility to lengthen and wrap my leg around my horse, and this gives me more stability to hold myself in the saddle. It also allows for more suppleness throughout the interior of my thigh, so my legs don’t become so fatigued while squeezing my horse forward.

On your knees, move them as far apart as they will go. Keeping your lower back flat, bend forward from the hips (like you do in jumping position) and come forward to rest on your forearms. If you’re able to, come even further forward and make a pillow with your hands to rest your head on the floor. Breathe. This is an intense stretch, but if you relax into it for a moment, you will feel those inner thighs loosen up.

The best inner-thigh stretch!
The best inner-thigh stretch!

This routine isn’t set in stone. Sometimes I do more of something, sometimes less. Sometimes I leave some of this out, sometimes I add other things, especially different yoga poses if I feel particularly tight somewhere. All throughout, I throw in little movements and stretches as it strikes me (like a neck roll or an ankle roll). The point is just to get limber, however works best for you. This routine offers a little bit of cardio to get the blood flowing and then stretches everything out, focusing on the areas that tend to become the tightest while on the horse.

Equestrian Fitness: Flexibility

I think there are three aspects to equestrian fitness. The first two are strength and stamina, and I think the third is one that is often left out: flexibility.

I’ve found this to be the most difficult thing about coming back to riding as an adult. When I started riding again about two years ago after my nearly decade-long hiatus, of course my muscles were not in shape. It was hard to grip with my legs; it was even more difficult to squeeze a slow horse to move on. It was very hard to hold my upper body still. But I had muscle memory helping me out there. So my muscles knew what to do and would instinctually do it even though they weren’t really strong enough. It’s a lot faster and easier to train muscles that already know what to do and simply need to get stronger to do it than it is to start from scratch and teach them what to do. It’s something my riding buddy and I talked about a lot, how we couldn’t fathom starting to ride at our age if we hadn’t had so much experience in our youth.

Training my muscles to get stronger wasn’t too difficult, and I noticed a difference there right away. Every time I’d go to the gym to run or to do the leg weight machines, I’d see results; I’d be able to run faster and longer, or I’d have to put the weight up on the machines. But I wasn’t seeing the same results when I rode. My legs were objectively stronger, yet not a great deal more effective at doing the things they were supposed to do on the horse.

The amount of time it took me to warm up seemed to be the issue. I’ve noticed as I’ve aged that in general it takes longer to warm up. This is even true on the pitching mound, where I used to be able to throw a few warm-ups and then step right into the first inning and now if I don’t get to a game early and go through a whole warm-up routine, I won’t hit my stride until the second or third. In my riding lessons, it was taking me most of the lesson to get warm—flatwork was agony and it was like I was just getting started when I took my first jump. I tried stretching at home before the lesson, doing a little light yoga and calisthenics to get the blood flowing, but by the time we drove out there and mounted up I would be cold and inflexible again.

Warming up before a big exertion is useful and necessary, but there’s a lot of controversy about whether stretching before exercise is helpful at all for performance and recovery. But it’s not just on the horse that I feel my flexibility has become limited; it’s all the time. The area between my lower back and my knees, including lumbar muscles, my hips, hamstrings, and IT band seem to be all jammed up all the time. I feel them tightening and pulling on each other when I walk or sit. So warming up isn’t the only issue, it’s my general flexibility.

All of this has led me to do some research into the anatomy of these areas. The thighs are particularly interesting. Most people are familiar with the quads and the hamstrings, but there is a whole group of muscles called the adductors on the interior of the thigh that work to keep your knee rotated correctly and your leg stable. Looking at a diagram of these muscles, I was able to pinpoint the one that seems to be the hardest for me to stretch when I’m riding: the gracilis muscle. It’s the most superficial of the muscles on the interior of your thigh; a long, thin muscle that goes from your pubic bone all the way down to your knee. It is involved in the flexion of both your hip and knee and it’s the muscle that prevents all of us from being able to do the splits. When you’re riding, it’s the muscle that is directly against the saddle, the first line in holding yourself onto the horse and keeping your knee closed and bent at the correct angle.

gracilis
The gracilis muscle extends all the way to the knee.
adductors
Adductor muscles in the thigh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merely strengthening this muscle is not enough. I’ve spent plenty of time over the last several months using the adductor machine at the gym (and its counterpart, the abductor) to strengthen those muscles. But when they are tight, they aren’t particularly useful to me. I can’t access the strength I need from them–to let my leg really lengthen and wrap around the horse–if there’s no flexibility there.

So now I’m trying to seek out exercises that will specifically target flexibility in that area. My first thought is yoga. I’ve been going to a class once a week for the last few weeks but haven’t gotten much out of it physically because it was very meditation-focused; I’ve now found a different class that is more anatomy-focused and it seems to be a better fit. I’ve only gone to that one once but will continue to go weekly to build flexibility throughout my body. I will probably also do some practice at home using poses that are focused on this region. I found this informative blog post with a list of poses helpful for healing, strengthening, and stretching the adductor muscles.

 

Yoga of Riding

In the past couple of months I’ve started going to yoga the day after my riding lessons. Riding is hard on the body (especially in conjunction with my almost completely sedentary lifestyle) and yoga has really helped with putting my body back together and strengthening my back muscles. Usually I ride on Saturdays and then go to a Sunday afternoon yoga class; it’s also a nice start to the week. This week I ended up riding Sunday morning and therefore will do both on the same day. It got me thinking about how there are a lot of similarities between the two disciplines.

When you ride with equitation in mind, there is a great deal of body awareness needed to not only keep yourself in correct position, but to effectively communicate with your horse. For example, I have a tendency to twist my right wrist about 90 degrees at this one part of the ring that is slightly downhill. This spot is a challenge for a few reasons: 1) it is near the entrance/exit to the ring, which the horses have a heightened awareness of since it is the path back to their warm, hay-filled stalls and 2) because of the slight downhill grade, it presents difficulty in the horse’s footing, balance, and stride. The ideal is to keep your horse at an even pace and stride throughout the ring; on a completely flat surface this is easier. But going downhill, the horse’s weight is shifted unevenly between front and back hooves. Being that this hill is on a turn, they also have a tendency to drop their left shoulders and cut the corner, throwing their left-right balance off as well. As a rider, going downhill can pull you forward. It’s important to keep your back straight, chest open and head up while sitting slightly back on your sit bones. If you keep your balance this way, you can help your horse keep his front-back balance. In addition, slight pressure with the inside leg and a small amount of tension on the outside rein will prevent him from cutting the corner, keeping him left-right balanced and making a nice round bend around the turn. This is where my wrist twist comes in. I was unaware that I was doing it, so focused on all the other elements of the turn. My instructor pointed it out to me. She often makes position suggestions based on first looking at how the horse is moving and then searching for the problem in the rider’s position. She saw that my horse’s gait was not flowing smoothly. We were generally balanced but kind of choppy and awkward going down the hill. Once she pointed out my incorrect wrist position and reminded me to achieve tension on the reins through a give and take from my elbows instead, everything changed in an instant. My horse’s head came up, his weight shifted, and his stride smoothed out. And that made everything else I was focused so hard on much easier too.

That feels so much like what happens in a yoga class. When moving into a new pose, I’m thinking hard about trying to juggle all the pieces of my body into place. Sometimes the instructor reminds the class to bring awareness to a part of the body that might be neglected in thinking about the more obvious parts. It’s amazing when you make one little adjustment, one tiny change and everything just clicks. Your body seems to flow and you stop thinking so hard. You breathe and relax into the position and that, for me, is kind of what it’s all about whether I’m doing yoga, or horseback riding, or anything else I do. That’s the moment where I feel free and powerful and right.

In Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, he talks about bringing awareness to every aspect of life. There are talking mynah birds all over the island trained to speak the words “Attention” and “Here and now, boys” as a reminder to sustain this awareness.  He writes:

“Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”

As I continue to learn to bring awareness to myself and my horse, I feel like I’m engaging in the yoga of riding.