RIDER NUTRITION PROJECT – Hydration

Louise Morgan

 As equestrians we are all for marginal gains. We will spend thousands of our hard earned pounds on anatomical bridles and girths, therapy equipment, training aids and an A-Z of supplements for our horses. However, recently I have been learning that one of the most powerful performance enhancing substance is not only absolutely FREE and readily available but it is also one of our basic human rights! We should be getting between 1.5-2 litres of the stuff a day.

You probably guessed it! I’m talking about water. Our body is around 60% water and it is involved in almost every bodily function and is lost from our bodies through sweat, breathing and urination but during exercise you can loose up to a litre per hour. If these fluids are not replenished it will cause you to become dehydrated, having detrimental effects on your performance. 

When breaking down our performance, all aspects fall into two categories; physical performance and mental performance. The negative effects of dehydration on our physical performance is widely known. Water in our bodies regulates our body temperature and being dehydrated during exercise will make your core temperature rise faster and puts more strain on your heart than usual. Our muscle cells are made up of nearly three quarters water so it stands to reason that dehydration also leads to the onset of muscle cramps, seriously compromising your physical performance.

One of the more surprising effects of dehydration is the profound impact that even mild levels of dehydration can have on your mental performance. Sports psychologists have identified a pyramid of 9 mental key skills present in successful athletes. These are; Base (level I) skills, these are the day to day skills implemented by an athlete and include motivation, attitude, goals & commitment and people skills. Preparatory (level II) skills are the skills which are put into play immediately prior to engaging in performance behaviour and are the mental skills required to put yourself into a positive mindset to perform, these include, Self-Talk and Mental Imagery and are the skills required to get yourself ‘in the zone’. This might be picturing yourself performing that perfect dressage test, or imagining yourself jumping clear through your showjumping course or jumping through a tricky cross country combination and telling yourself that you are going to ride positively and therefore produce a positive result. Performance (level III) skills are what is going through your head at the same time as you are actively performing, these skills are; Managing Anxiety, Managing Emotions and Concentration.   

Almost all of these mental factors can be impaired by not having adequate levels of water in your body. The body’s thirst response is not activated until you are already at a level of between 1.5-2% dehydration. A study by Loughborough University conducted in 2015 showed that at 2% dehydration participation performing a task performed equally as poorly as  participants performing similar tasks while at the threshold of the legal blood alcohol limit, as dehydration alters the sodium and electrolyte levels in the brain leading to impaired cognitive function. This suggests that at even such low levels of dehydration, where you may only just be becoming aware that you feel thirsty, your ability to concentrate and your reaction times are reduced to such an extent that you would be almost considered unsafe to be behind the wheel of a motor vehicle! This absolutely shocking revelation really highlights the importance of keeping ourselves hydrated as event riders. Imagine all those split section decisions we need to make whilst riding cross country and how fast our reactions must be in order to potentially prevent a fall or how fast we must react in the the middle of a related distance when showjumping to either take a slight pull to shorten a stride or to push to make the distance in order to not knock a potentially very costly pole! How often are events won and lost on just one showjump, and how much would you kick yourself to realise that after all that time, money and effort, just taking regular sips of water throughout the day could be all it takes to sharpen up those reaction times. 

There have also been several studies linked dehydration with anxiety and mood fluctuations, also linking into our level 3 performance skills. I’m sure many riders will be able to relate to the feeling of being so nervous and wracked with anxiety that you get down the centre line and suddenly have no idea what your own name is, let alone whether you are supposed to be tracking left or right, and even if by some miracle your rider satnav does kick in and you remember exactly where you are supposed to be going that you actually forget how to ride any form of presentable and respectable scoring dressage test, or I’m certain I won’t be the first rider to have got myself eliminated for jumping the wrong showjumping course before, right?! Well feelings or dehydration or hunger leave you feeling shaky, dizzy, confused and light headed. All these feelings are also symptoms related to anxiety, making mood and anxiety management all the more challenging. Even more disastrous if you, like many riders opted for several cups of coffee or caffeinated high sugar energy drinks to provide your body with the energy you require to get through the physically demanding day that is a one day event, more likely than not because many riders are guilty for having such low energy levels on competition days due to skipping breakfast and making poor food choices. Not only is caffeine a diuretic which will increase the amount of urine you produce and therefore strip your body of yet more precious water but also the symptoms of a caffeine hit include an irregular heart rhythm producing sensations similar to those experienced by a person experiencing a panic attack. This is clearly counterproductive when you are desperately trying to manage your competition anxiety and keep your cool ready to perform in a calm and level headed manner needing to be successful in our sports. Let’s not forget that our horses pick up on our anxiety too and therefore we are more likely to produce tension in our horses. 

Also when taking our performance skills out of the equation, if you are regularly dehydrated this will dramatically reduce your day to day energy levels, lowering your levels of motivation and effecting your commitment to training. Remember we train so that our muscle memory will produce perfection when competing without having to think about it, however, if we are training badly then guess what…? This is exactly what you will produce in competition.

We invest so much of our time and money into our sport that can any of us really afford to not be at pinnacle of our performance? We owe it to ourselves to take our hydration levels into more serious consideration and we owe it to our horses too. Just by trying to be more conscious of your liquid intake I’m sure you will definitely notice a difference in your levels of alertness and performance.

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