What an equestrian athlete consumes before, during and after riding is important for comfort and performance during exercise. While eating soon before riding doesn’t provide the bulk of the fuel needed for the activity it can prevent the distracting symptoms of hunger during a lesson. The major source of fuel for active muscles is stored in the days before exercise. This is one reason that the post-exercise meal is critical to recovery and being ready for the next riding session.
When to Eat
Riding or exercising on a full stomach is not the ideal. Food that remains in your stomach during an event may cause stomach upset, nausea, cramping and fatigue. To make sure you have enough energy, yet reduce stomach discomfort, you should allow a meal to fully digest before the start of the event. This generally takes one to four hours, depending upon what and how much you’ve eaten. Everyone is a bit different, and you should experiment prior to events to determine what works best for you.
If you have an early lesson or workout, it’s best to get up early enough to eat your pre-exercise meal. If not, you should try to eat or drink something easily digestible about 20-30 minutes before the event. The closer you are to the time of your event the less you should eat. You can have a liquid meal closer to your event than a solid meal because your stomach digests liquids faster.
What to Eat
Glucose is the preferred energy source for most exercise meals and pre-exercise meals should include foods that are high in carbohydrates and easy to digest. This includes foods such as pasta, fruits, breads, energy bars and sport drinks.
Planning is essential if you are competing in an all-day event, such as a horse show. Consider the time of your event, the amount of your meal and the energy required. Also, be aware of the amount of fluid you consume. You should plan ahead and prepare meals and snacks that you have tried before and know will sit well with you.
Eating before riding is something only the athlete can determine based upon experience, but some general guidelines include eating a solid meal four hours before exercise, a snack or a high carbohydrate energy drink two to three hours before exercise, and fluid replacement (sports drink) one hour before exercise.
One Hour Before
- Fruit, smoothie or vegetable juice such as orange, tomato, or V-8, and/or
- Fresh fruit such as apples, watermelon, peaches, grapes, or oranges and/or
- Energy gels or up to 1 and a half cups of a sports drink.
Two to Four Hours Before
- Fresh fruit, smoothie, fruit or vegetable juices.
- Bread, bagels
- Pasta with tomato sauce
- Baked potatoes
- Energy bar
- Cereal with low-fat milk
- Low-fat yogurt
- Toast/bread with limited peanut butter, lean meat, or low-fat cheese
- 30 oz of water or a sports drink
Any foods with a lot of fat can be very difficult and slow to digest and remain in the stomach a long time. They also will pull blood into the stomach to aid in digestion, which can cause cramping and discomfort. Meats, doughnuts, fries, potato chips and candy bars should be avoided in a pre-exercise meal.
While the pre-exercise meals can ensure that adequate glycogen stores are available for optimal performance, the post-exercise meal is critical to recovery and improves your ability to train consistently.
The first nutritional priority after exercise is to replace any fluid lost during exercise. Drink 20-24 ounces of water for every one pound lost. It is also important to consume carbohydrates, such as fruit or juice, within 15 minutes post-exercise to help restore glycogen. Eating 100-200 grams of carbohydrate within two hours of endurance exercise is essential to building adequate glycogen stores for continued training. Waiting longer than two hours to eat results in 50 percent less glycogen stored in the muscle. The reason for this is that carbohydrate consumption stimulates insulin production, which aids the production of muscle glycogen.
Combining protein with carbohydrate in the two hours after exercise nearly doubles the insulin response, which results in more stored glycogen. The optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio for this effect is 4:1 (four grams of carbohydrate for every one gram of protein). Protein provides the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle tissue that is damaged during intense, prolonged exercise. The amino acids in protein can also stimulate the immune system, making you more resistant to colds and other infections.
The best way to refuel your body after a long and strenuous endurance ride, a 4:1 combo of carbohydrate and protein seems to be your best choice. While solid foods can work just as well as a sports drink, a drink may be easier to digest make it easier to get the right ratio and meet the two-hour window.