Monday, November 24, 2014

Fitness and Dressage

As I sit here, hamstrings and glutes screaming from a recent day of weight lifting, I can't help but think about the connection between riding and fitness. More specifically, the relationship between dressage riding and fitness.

You guys know I'm pretty serious about my fitness work. I run somewhere between 15-20 miles a week, no matter the weather, I typically try to get into the gym a couple of days a week to lift heavy things, and I do a yoga routine 2-3 times a week.

Lovely winter gym!
What you may not know, is why I run. I'm an asthmatic, and have been my entire life. The running gives me stronger lungs, with a better ability to clean themselves out and keep me from getting sick. It helps me build up respiratory strength and endurance, something incredibly hard for me to develop. I attribute my lack of bronchitis in the last few years directly to my running. Running is totally non-negotiable with me, and I'm lucky that I love doing it and that my body holds up to it very well.

My trainer, however, hates the fact that I run. See, running (and cycling and sitting!) acts to shorten your hip flexors. To get technical on you, the hip flexors are the long stringy bits of muscle around the hip and upper thighs that allow you to lift your knees up towards your face. When not regularly stretched out, or tight from overuse (read: sitting all day, or running all day), they easily overtake the abdominal or glutes. Tight flexors also act to change your posture, causing your butt to stick out and your lower back to overarch, also known as pelvic anterior tilt. A bad thing in riding. In dressage specifically, a shortened hip flexor can make riding with a long and relaxed leg impossible. Instead, every time your abs engage, the hip flexors will shorten and your leg will involuntarily come up. Hello immediate chair seat.

So running sounds pretty bad, but it alone doesn't contribute to riding issues. In fact, a lot of strength exercises end up working against dressage riding.

In dressage, you want a perfect relationship between a relaxed and allowing body and the stability needed for good contact, balance, and clear communication. In other words, you don't want to be just flopping around up there, but you can't be so rigid and stiff that you're squeezing the life out of your poor horse.

"I don't know how you do that! I wouldn't have the strength to ride like that. One horse, and I'd be exhausted for the rest of the day!" This from my trainer after watching me ride her training horses for the day. This was not a compliment. I was using my body against myself. Using all the strength in my legs to hold on to the horse while trying to use my ab strength to shove my upper body into position. I can't even describe to you how hard it was, but because I'm incredibly fit it seemed doable.

It turns out, relaxation is the name of the game. One day, my holding on muscles exhausted, I learned what it means to let my legs hang without holding. I noticed how I could now use my abs effectively, and easily communicate with my horse. Plus, Pig relaxed noticeably without me holding on so much. He started using his back a lot more. I joked with Nancy, "maybe I should stop working out and just get super flabby so I ride better." "Sounds like a good plan to me!" she shot back.

Another lesson learned.


The view from a recent run...
I've tailored my fitness routine recently to help my riding. I still run, a lot. I still lift weights, though now I am conscious to lift in a way that doesn't encourage my hip flexors to take over or tighten. And, I only do ab exercises on the machine that allows me to go past the horizontal, which disengages and stretches out my flexors. In addition, I follow up long runs with hip stretches and the use of a foam roller to relax and stretch my tight hip muscles. It's hard work, but necessary if I won't give up running. (Anyone else looking for stretches/exercises for this issue, click here.)

It's interesting to me how dressage takes such a flexible sort of fitness, compared to cross country/jumping. Has anyone else noticed this? Had to take action to make it work?

15 comments:

  1. I've definitely had to add in a lot of stretching to help with my leg/hips in dressage. I've slacked off on it a lot recently and I noticed a return to my right leg locking up - especially when I attempt a sitting trot. I attribute my stiffness to a sedentary lifestyle in front of a computer :(. I too have struggled with asthma, and I love how your running has helped you. Unfortunately running is a no-no for me. 4 months in ROTC with hard contact running and I nearly shot out my right knee. My family has a history of poor knee joints. Any other lung-strengthening exercises you might be able to suggest?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hm. When running is out, I'd done well substituting on an indoor rowing machine. There's always cycling, too. Of course, and kind of high intensity exercise is good for getting your lungs strengthened up. Endurance works well because you're stressing the lungs, but not to the degree where your asthma takes over and shuts them down.

      Delete
  2. Ohhh. Learned something! Good food for thought!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Working out isn't my prob its the stretching!! D: We should have a stretch club or something

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Omg. Yes. Stretching Accountability Club. Let's get on this.

      Delete
  4. Asthma person here too. Ever since I started running/cardio regularly (even just a little) I haven't needed my regular inhaler and have only needed the emergency one twice in the last year or so. I fail a bit though cause I did catch pneumonia this fall :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can't win them all, but it's still awesome that your asthma is more under control!! It's a tough thing to manage, and can really lay you out when it gets you. I'm severely allergic to cats. The last time I ended up in the hospital for asthma was due to spending time in a friend's cat-infested house. It's always an interesting toss up.

      Delete
  5. interesting post and analysis!! i definitely struggle to find that sweet spot of being stabilized in the saddle while remaining relaxed and soft. i want to tense everything up - but as my trainers say, a tense muscle is a short muscle and want our legs lonnnnnggg in dressage. it's so challenging!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So hard! One thing that helps me is thinking about lengthening the FRONT of your body. Those are the muscles you want long. Then, you get a feeling for what muscles you need to focus on loosening and lengthening. Obviously you can't have everything loose and relaxed, or you'd slip off. But, not holding on with your legs, and lengthening the front of your body goes a long way towards achieving that miraculous balance.

      Delete
  6. I used to event. The amount of time I spent out of the saddle- galloping, conditioning, jumping etc- was really made apparent to me when I tacked up my horse over the summer in his jumping gear and headed out to jump him over the 2' stuff that was out from a young rider's lesson that day. We used to jump 3'-3'6", so I figured we could handle 2'. What a wake up call. Aside from the fact I hadn't seriously schooled him over fences in two years and that he rushes little jumps like a bat out of hell, I actually got tired from using my leg muscles in that supporting fashion. Dressage and jumping really use different muscles! We worked for about 30 min, and I was so out of breath by the end. I can work any dressage stuff for an hour without puffing, but the jumping wow! I found the best way to relax those muscles is just to practice. Drop your stirrups and let your leg hang long, thinking about wrapping it around his belly. To do that, you have to relax every upper leg muscle, hold yourself with your core, and let your lower leg wrap around. Practice and make it a habit :)

    I had a gym membership, but I ended up cancelling it. I devote 11-12 hours of my day to getting ready for work (30-45 min), going to work (1 hr), being at work (8.5 hr), and getting home from work (1 hr). The barn is about 35-45 minutes away, if I ride for 45 min and allow 45 min for tacking up, putting away, I'm at almost 3 hours for barn stuff. Assume I spent 6am to 6pm doing work related things, 6pm-9pm to barn, I've only got 9 hours to make dinner, get ready for work the next day, shower, clean house or do whatever else I need to do, and still sleep. If I want to sleep for 7 hours, I've got 2 to do the rest of it. I had to pick something to drop and the gym was it (it certainly wasn't going to be the horse!). I really liked going too :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those jumping muscles are all about strength! Running and gym work have made sure I haven't lost them, but my ability to keep my leg solid over big fences is certainly gone. I jumped Pig over some 3ft fences this summer, and felt like a sloppy mess. I totally understand where you're coming from! I have complete respect for eventers at upper levels. The ability to ride a good dressage test, then go out and leap over those monster fences takes ridiculous amounts of varied strength.

      I am also a victim to Adult Amateur Time Crunch. I only ride 4-5x a week, so that helps me have time. I also live really close to work, which helps. In the summer, I usually fit in my running in the dark of early morning, In the winter I run on lunch breaks, or between work and riding. Having dinner for the week pre-prepared, being good at changing clothes quickly, and having a barn owner willing to keep my horse in for me in the winter make all of that possible. Often I'll get home from the barn at 9 or 9:30, only to heat up dinner and go straight to bed. On the nights I don't ride, I hit the gym, run a long distance run, and attempt to clean my house. It's certainly hard to fit it all in.

      Delete
  7. Hmmm I've never experienced any problems due to weight lifting, running, sitting, etc. The only thing I notice is that the stronger I am, the better I ride. And that this strength can come from anything really. In the past it was just riding lots of horses, now it's from crossfit and a ton of weighted situps. But if I have no strength, my core can't stabilize and then my SI goes out.

    I think it definitely has a lot to do with hip flexibility. My hips/pelvis are naturally really flexible (hence my SI injury) so my leg almost never creeps up.

    What I do have though is tight hamstrings, I'm totally on board for the Stretching Accountability Club.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm almost jealous of your naturally flexible hips, but my husband struggles with SI injuries and I know how much those suck. So, maybe I'll be content to have to stretch some flexibility in? I find if my core isn't strong enough, I end up stressing my hip flexors too much. That will result in hip flexor tears, which take FOREVER to heal. I did that a year ago, and everything from standing to riding was excruciating. So, I tend to keep really strong core muscles. Luckily, riding a ton of horses at the sitting trot will pretty much create a ridiculous core strength.

      Delete
  8. wow, I finally undestood why my hip flexors have been so tight. I sit a lot for work and have started riding. However, on vacation where I mostly hiked and did little running or sitting my hips were not sore at all. Hmm. I will continue to run and add in the stretching. I have found that Zumba has helped my riding- our instructor focusses a lot on core muscles and it has made a real difference

    ReplyDelete