Sports Nutrition for Riders

show jumping

It was around this time last year that I had the pleasure of working with sports nutritionist Nanci S. Guest for an article on nutritional strategies for riders (for Horse Sport Magazine). With most of my writing  focused on the health of the horse, this was a fun and interesting divergence. And a valuable one too – how many of us know far more about our horse’s nutritional needs than our own?

In this post I’m going to share some of my key take-away points from our conversation. But if you have the time and inclination – or if you missed it the first time – you can read the full article here: Sports Nutrition for the Rider.


Key Nutrition Tips for Riders

Your muscles need protein!

Muscles need the amino acids from protein to repair and recover after exercise (also essential for building and bulking up those muscles too). Unlike carbs and fats, the body can’t store protein so its essential that we include it in our diet when we need it most.

Chocolate milk is a great recovery food after physical exertion because it is high in leucine – an amino acid that is used up at higher rates during exercise. It also has carbs to replace the fuel that is burned.

And don’t overlook breakfast either. Following an overnight fast during sleep, it’s important to get those amino acids back in the system, particularly when in training or during competition. Nanci likens them to the bricks in building a house. “Even if the frame of the house is there and the workers are ready, they can’t begin building without the bricks.”

Keep yourself hydrated

Even low levels of dehydration have been shown to reduce mental acuity and performance. And if you have been sweating a lot, water alone may not be enough (and could ultimately dehydrate you further).

The body likes to maintain a set balance between salts (electrolytes) and water. If you have lost a lot of salt through sweating and drink more water without food or electrolytes, you will end up diluting the concentration of salts further. In response your body will eliminate the excess water through urination.

Sports drinks, even diluted at a 50/50 ratio with water, are a great solution.

Leave enough time to digest your meals

Bananas, dates and raisins make good snacks because the carbs, which provide fuel for muscles, are quickly absorbed. Things with a higher fibre content take longer to digest, and fats take the longest.

Nanci recommends allowing 45 minutes to an hour to digest a low-fat meal during competition, with the majority of healthy fats being consumed in the evening, when the day’s work is done.

“With exercise, your blood supply is channelled to the muscles, but when there’s a battle between the muscles and digestion, digestion usually wins. If it doesn’t and your exercise is too intense, you’ll end up taking the blood supply away from digestion, which can cause nausea.”

It’s not just what you eat during competition, but your every-day diet that is important

A balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits of vegetables of different colours, as well as sources of healthy fats and protein is what we are striving for.

Where a diet may be deficient in some vitamins and micronutrients, Nanci recommends a multi-vitamin supplement three times a week as a safe-guard, but cautions against over-supplementation. “It’s important that supplements aren’t used to replace food. A poor diet with nutritional supplements is still a poor diet.”

-> Ultimately what I learned from Nanci is that what we eat can really help or hinder us when we get on our horses – whether in the show ring or when schooling at home. As she says, “The better you are able to perform, the better chance you give your horse.” And I think we would all agree with that.


This post is based on information from the article “Sports Nutrition for the Rider,” which was published in the September 2012 issue of Horse Sport Magazine. Many thanks to Nanci S. Guest, MSc, RD, CSCS, registered dietician, certified personal trainer and certified strength and conditioning specialist, for sharing her expertise and insight. A competitive rider herself for 15 years, Nancy provides services in both Toronto and Vancouver through her business Power Play


About Lindsay Day, REMT

Lindsay Day is a Registered Equine Massage Therapist and award-winning writer based in Ontario, Canada. She is a graduate of the two-year equine massage therapy program at D'Arcy Lane, and brings to her practice over 20 years experience riding and working with horses. With a strong commitment to promoting the health and welfare of horses through her work, Lindsay uses massage to help horses find ease of movement and comfort in their bodies, so they can feel and perform their best.