Updated: May 11
Riding is considered an aerobic sport. The importance of cardio is, however, often overlooked in rider fitness. Aerobic exercise, also known as “cardio”, involves the cardiovascular system efficiently delivering oxygen to the muscles. With training, that efficiency can be improved. The strongest muscles in the world cannot maintain sustained contraction without oxygen (have you ever noticed how hard it is to maintain your position in the sitting trot at the end of the trot tour of your test??).
Why is it so important to do cardio outside of riding? Riding is an aerobic sport-- that is true. But there's a catch. Riding like you would in competition is the intensity that is classified as aerobic. The "typical training ride"... not so much. At home we will tend to take a walk break when we start to feel that cardiovascular system working harder. With the exception of a tough lesson or clinic, the majority of our rides are probably not reaching levels that are actually improving our aerobic fitness. In order to improve the function and capacity of oxygen delivery to the muscles, the cardiovascular system needs to be consistently challenged.
To summarize: competing in an equestrian discipline is an aerobic activity; training is often not. It is impossible to perform at your best without training your body to optimize performance at that capacity. You do not want to be hitting your aerobic capacity (aka the limit of how hard your muscles can work) halfway through your extended trot! This is why incorporating cardio exercise into your fitness routine is essential for optimal riding performance.
Here are some examples of ways to incorporate cardio exercise into your off-the-horse fitness routine:
Steady State Training: Sustained periods of low-to-moderate intensity exercise. The duration of this type of exercise should be longer than the time you would be competing (for a rider who will be performing a 5 minute dressage test, he/she should be training at around 20-30 minutes of steady state exercise). Examples of steady state exercise could include:
Hiking on an incline
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): HIIT training is performed in short, intense bursts of high-intensity activity followed by brief periods of rest or active recovery. There are many different kinds of HIIT exercises with variable exercise-to-rest ratios. HIIT can help improve cardiovascular fitness in a shorter amount of time compared to steady state training. However, because it is performed at a high intensity, it's important to introduce and build up to HIIT training slowly. Many fitness classes and programs, such as CrossFit, utilize HIIT training. Other examples of HIIT-style exercises include:
Battle rope exercises
High-intensity sets of any other activity (biking, elliptical, stairs, etc)
An ideal cardio fitness routine for riders incorporates in both steady-state and high-intensity interval training to maximize the benefits of each. Along with strength training, cardiovascular exercise is an essential component of a fitness routine for a rider who wants to show up at his or her best best for themself and their equine partner in the sandbox.
Happy riding and training!