Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Cardio Interval Training for Better Riding

by Lori Albrough

Exhausted riderIt was just over twelve years ago that I showed up for my first dressage lesson. Excited and eager to learn proper technique from an accomplished coach, this was my first intro to true dressage riding, although I had been a rider for 25 years at that point. Less than ten minutes into the lesson, however, I found myself huffing, puffing, and overheating, and the only thing I was eager for was to take in enough oxygen and shed my top layers of clothing. And THAT was my introduction to what a physical workout riding can be!

Cardiovascular fitness refers to the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver enough oxygen to the muscles in a timely manner. Without sufficient cardiovascular fitness, you will feel yourself tiring after a short time in trot and canter, struggling to get enough air, and losing your ability to maintain a correct position and give aids correctly. And once you lose your ability to sit properly without struggle and tension, your horse will find it difficult to maintain his own self-carriage and do his work correctly.

You can certainly develop a degree of fitness from riding itself, as I found as I continued my dressage lessons, and noticed that the period before I needed to take a break and take off my vest gradually got longer and longer. But to develop enough fitness that you’ve got plenty to spare for each and every moment of the ride, will require some off-horse cardio training. Efficient dry-land training can give you a real boost in your riding enjoyment and performance, as well as improving your energy levels for day-to-day activities and increasing your metabolism.

For me, I found that traditional recommendations of 30 to 40 minutes of moderate intensity cardio workouts did not yield much noticeable benefit to my riding. Luckily I stumbled upon High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Interval training uses periods of high intensity exercise, alternating with moderate and low intensity, to deliver the most benefit for your body with the smallest time investment from you. After twenty minutes of HIIT you will FEEL as though you have really worked out, and experience an energy boost that lasts for hours.

The first interval training routine that I used was a total of twenty minutes, consisting of a warm-up, then eight sprints of 30 seconds each followed by 90 seconds of low to moderate intensity activity, then a cool-down. You could use any type of cardio activity like elliptical machine, treadmill, bike, running/walking outside, swimming, stair-stepper, etc. The sprint sessions are anything that makes you work much harder and get short of breath. Gradually work your way up to doing all eight sprints at a high intensity, to allow your body to get used to the increased demands.

I was interested to hear about a recent study at NSW University in Australia, which proved a number of benefits from incorporating bursts of high-intensity exercise into cardio workouts. Participants who did intervals experienced gains in endurance, aerobic power, increased lean muscles mass, and decreased abdominal fat with decreased waist circumference. These results were achieved with 20 minutes of exercise with alternating intensity, three times a week, as compared with other participants who did 40 minutes of steady-state exercise. In the NSW study, they alternated 8 seconds of high intensity followed immediately by 12 seconds of low intensity on a stationary cyle, and kept this up for twenty minutes. So even sprints of just 8 seconds in length are beneficial!

Sprint!At the biological level, the benefits of HIIT come from the body releasing beneficial hormones in response to the out-of-breath condition known as oxygen debt. After 8 to 10 seconds of 90 to 100 per cent maximal effort, or 20 to 30 seconds of 70 to 90 per cent effort, the body experiences oxygen debt. During recovery from this state, the body pays back the debt by increasing heart rate and supplying oxygen to the blood with hard rapid breathing, triggering the release of hormones which have fat-burning, metabolism-boosting effects in the body.

There are companies who put out music that you can play on your MP3 player to guide you through various interval training workouts. This makes it much easier to do the sprints without having to worry about timing them. Lifesprints has an 8-second / 12-second interval 20 minute workout that was used in the above study in Australia. I myself use a product called Cardio Coach which has a number of HIIT workouts set to their own original music. The voice of coach Sean guides you through each segment, giving directions, inspiration, and practical information. I’ve found Cardio Coach Volumes 1 and 2 to be more than challenging enough, giving me lots of room to grow with their optional extra challenges (what they call the sprints or groups of sprints).

If you’ve had a goal of improving your fitness for your riding so you don’t get tired and winded as quickly, and can maintain your performance so that your horse can maintain his, I can attest that high intensity interval training gives a whole lot of benefit for a small time investment.


2 Responses to “Cardio Interval Training for Better Riding”

  1. Mary wrote:

    Thank you so much! I’m going to give this a try! Sounds doable. I was in great shape in my younger years (no belly fat). But as my years have advanced, so has the weight, GAG! I also have a problem being low on energy (inertia) which having low blood pressure (healthy for my age–68) doesn’t help. Finding time is the hard part, I’m just going to have to make time and start a new habit. Because of my age, I have free gym membership (senior citizen), it is only 5 miles away, but takes 30 min to get there–dirt roads & then traffic when I get to town.
    I sure enjoy reading about your horses, success stories, etc. Thank you again for sharing. I only wish you were in So Calif. I would love to lesson with you.

  2. Toni wrote:


    I have started taking Pilates classes again and have noticed more strength and balance, but I also know I need more stamina. I am going to start HIIT with walking, jogging, walking, etc. I used to be a (fast) runner. I sustained a knee injury many years ago which kept me from running. I am going to start again. Thanks for your blog and encouraging way of introducing activity to your readers. I always enjoy your posts.


Leave a Comment