Despite the differences in physiology between horses and human, there is much to be learned from the feeding of human athletes, especially when it comes to muscle function. Professor Ron Maughan delivered an interesting lecture about human sports nutrition at the recent Equine Nutrition and Training Conference in Bonn, Germany. Below is a summary of the main points.
Nutrition strategies should be individually tailored taking into account the athlete’s physiological characteristics, training load and competition goals.
Whilst nutrition is important, it is lower down the scale of importance compared to talent, motivation, training and avoiding injury.
Not all athletes automatically need a high energy intake, and more technical sports where skills are practiced may have a low overall energy requirement.
The timing of protein intake may be more important than the actual amount. Protein ingested in the hours after a training bout may help the muscles adapt to the training response, particularly after resistance (strength) training. Protein deficiency will limit muscle development, but excess dietary protein is simply wasteful and will not promote muscle development.
Maximising carbohydrate use during exercise will enhance performance, so we should be thinking about how to maximise carbohydrate use, rather than trying to spare it. Performance in human athletes seems to be reduced with high fat diets. Oxidising carbs is more efficient than oxidising fat, and since oxygen use could be the limiting factor in exercise, it makes sense to burn carbs rather than fat. Fat needs more oxygen than carbs for the same exercise output.
Carbohydrate deficiencies are thought to increase the athlete’s susceptibility to minor infections by increasing levels of stress hormones.
Supplements should come from reputable sources if contamination with banned substances is to be avoided.
Hydration and electrolyte intake are important but more research for more knowledge is essential before good guidance can be given. Exercising in a dehydrated state reduces performance of both high intensity and endurance exercise.
Fatigue may originate more in the central nervous system (CNS) than the muscle level, so agents acting on the CNS may be effective in delaying the onset of fatigue. A carbohydrate mouthwash was shown in research to increase the drive to working muscles from the brain, despite these carbs not being available as a fuel.
Metabolic profiling to understand an individual athlete’s adaption to training and nutritional requirements is likely to be overtaken by genetic profiling in the future. This technology will allow more individually tailored advice to be given.
Exactly how these points apply to horses is yet to be understood, but perhaps some ideas that could be considered include:
- Not all sports horses necessarily have high energy requirements e.g. dressage horses undergoing skill training
- Feeding a protein-rich meal after high intensity training may help muscle adaptations
- High fat diets can be useful, but should probably be limited to 10% of total dietary energy intake
- Supplements should come from reputable sources to ensure they are safe and free from contamination with banned substances
- Dehydration limits performance so ensure the sports horse is fully hydrated before training and competition
- Strategies that impact CNS perception of fatigue are an exciting area for future research
- Eventually we should be able to tailor nutritional recommendations to individual horses, but this will require much development of profiling and an affordable way of running such profiles