Racing Power- supporting muscular effort through nutrition

By Dr Catherine Dunnett

The powerhouse for a horse in training is found in its large muscle mass. Whilst genetic makeup within the Thoroughbred breed has a large impact on a horse’s innate racing ability, dietary factors will also influence subsequent performance.

 There are many elements found in a racehorse’s diet that will help to support muscle function. Hydrolysable carbohydrate (sugar and starch), assisted by fermentable fibre, will help to maintain important muscle stores of glycogen (a carbohydrate fuel).  Dietary electrolytes, which are integrally involved in muscle contraction, are essential to offset electrolyte loss in sweat. Key dietary antioxidants such as vitamins E and C and also antioxidant co-factors, such as copper, manganese, zinc and selenium, are also important as part of the body’s antioxidant team which strives to reduce the formation of free radicals or reactive oxygen species, and to limit their damaging effects on the body.  Free radical damage has previously been implicated in the process of exercise induced muscle damage.


One of the most important functions of the diet is to replenish the horse’s energy stores in muscle on an ongoing basis.    A racing ration needs to support the synthesis of glycogen to maintain the store of this important fuel, which is used in increasing amounts during exercise.  Glycogen, which consists of a large branched chain of glucose units, is stored in both skeletal muscle and the liver and it represents one of the largest potential energy stores in the body. Horses being natural athletes, have a relatively large muscle glycogen store when compared to other species.  As the glycogen content of horse muscle is influenced by the proportion of different muscle fibre types present, this means that there is a genetic influence on the overall glycogen content.   
Fast twitch fibres (Type IIb), which are found in increased numbers in talented sprinting horses, store relatively more glycogen than the slower type I and type IIa fibres.  However, both diet and training can influence the level of glycogen stored in muscle.  Exercise training for example has been reported to increase muscle glycogen content by 30-60% in horses.

Logically, diet should have a significant effect on the storage of muscle glycogen as it provides the building blocks for glycogen synthesis.  Glycogen can be synthesised efficiently from dietary starch, which is another polymer of glucose found in cereals.  Glycogen can also be produced from certain glycogenic amino acids, released from the protein content of feed. In addition, propionic acid, which is a significant volatile fatty acid produced in the horse’s hindgut during the fermentation process, can also ultimately be converted to muscle glycogen.   In terms of the day to day diet, starch is by far the most direct and most efficient precursor for glycogen and so it is therefore not surprising that cereals, which are high in starch, have been the mainstay of racing diets for many years.

In recent years we have seen the introduction of racing feeds that are lower in starch and sugar than traditional racing rations, with a greater emphasis being placed on digestible fibre and oil as energy sources. Whilst there are many health benefits attributable to this type of diet, the effect of changing the level of starch in the diet on muscle glycogen should always be considered.


Muscle glycogen is a major source of energy (ATP) to working muscle during intense exercise, which is characteristic of racing.  The amount of muscle glycogen used during training or racing will depend on its rate of utilisation, which in turn is affected by the speed and duration of the exercise undertaken.  In general terms, the higher the speed, the faster muscle glycogen is broken down and used. The duration of fast exercise is normally curtailed, which limits the overall amount of glycogen used.  During slower work, although the rate of glycogen utilisation is much lower, exercise can usually be continued for a much longer time allowing more glycogen to be utilised overall (see figure 1).

Total muscle glycogen content can be reduced by about 30% during a single bout of maximal exercise in horses.  However, as muscle is a mix of different fibre types, the depletion of glycogen in individual fibres may be greater than this depending on the pattern of fibre recruitment during the exercise.  Studies, however, have shown that even the IIB muscle fibres, which use glycogen at the fastest rate, are not totally depleted of glycogen following racing.  This supports the notion that although glycogen is an important fuel source for racehorses, glycogen depletion is not the most important factor in fatigue.  However, exercise studies do suggest that power output and exercise performance can be decreased in horses where muscle glycogen has failed to be adequately replaced following a previous race or piece of hard work.  This was the conclusion drawn by Lacombe and co-workers (2001) who reported that horses with replete muscle glycogen stores were able to run for longer periods during a maximal exercise test compared to horses whose muscle glycogen level remained low following a previous exercise bout.  
Whilst there are always horses that will buck the trend, this research emphasises the need to allow a suitable period of time between races, but also between bouts of fast work and subsequent racing to allow muscle glycogen stores to be replenished.

From a practical viewpoint, I would say that the ability of a racing diet to support muscle glycogen synthesis remains important.  In contrast to human athletes, muscle glycogen replenishment in horses is relatively slow.  Following racing or a hard work, research suggests that muscle glycogen can take up to 72 hours to return to pre-exercise levels when a traditional high cereal racing ration is fed.

Certainly research carried out in the past 3 years would suggest that a high glycemic racing ration would be better placed to support glycogen replenishment more quickly following racing or hard work.  There are many factors that affect the glycemic response to feed, which in simple terms describes the relative rise in blood glucose following feeding. The starch and sugar content of a feed, however, is one of the most significant factors affecting glycemic response.  Feeds that are high in starch and sugar e.g. a high cereal-containing mix produce a greater glycemic response compared with feeds that are very low in starch and sugar e.g. a forage only ration. 
Rate of glycogen synthesis following a glycogen depleting exercise bout was significantly higher in horses fed a high glycemic diet compared to those fed a very low glycemic control diet (Lacombe et al 2004, Lacombe et al 2006).  In addition, absolute glycogen concentration in muscle was significantly higher both 48 and 72 hours following exercise in the high glycemic group compared to the control horses and muscle glycogen concentration had returned to pre-exercise levels following 72 hours.   
The benefit of a high glycemic diet for glycogen repletion does, however, appear to be time dependent.  Jose-Cunelleras (et al 2006) reported a minimal difference in glycogen repletion in the first 24 hours following a glycogen depleting exercise bout between horses that were fed a high glycemic feed compared with a group where feed was withheld for 8 hours and another group of horses where only hay was fed.   A recent study also concluded that the route of administration of carbohydrate given post-exercise significantly affects the rate of glycogen replenishment.  Horses that were given an intravenous infusion of glucose following exercise exhibited significantly greater glycogen storage rates and glycogen concentration in the first 6 hours following exercise compared to horses fed a similar quantity of glucose orally.  In fact, the repletion of glycogen in response to oral glucose was minimal over this time period compared to the unsupplemented control horses (Geor et al 2007).
Whilst it is difficult to draw direct comparisons with feeding practices used in racing, it is worth appreciating the possible differences in the rate of glycogen repletion when very high glycemic feeds are fed compared to very low glycemic feeds.  The reality in many training yards I would suspect lies somewhere between these two extremes.


There are many health-related benefits to feeding a ration that is lower in starch and sugar.  However, one should be mindful of muscle glycogen when considering horses that are consistently fed a low glycemic diet.  Specifically horses may be fed this type of ration because they are behaviourally more manageable, or because a specific condition such as the muscular disease recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying up) (RER) is present.

A low starch diet is actively encouraged for horses that suffer from RER.  McKenzie (et al 2003) reported that plasma creatine kinase activity (CK), elevations of which can indicate muscle damage, was significantly reduced following exercise in RER horses fed a low starch high fat diet versus a high starch low fat diet.   In addition, lower resting heart rates have also been reported in horses fed a low starch high fat diet compared to the reverse.  A lower resting heart rate may be beneficial especially in RER horses where it reflects a calmer horse as stress has been implicated as a trigger factor for the condition. 

The current thinking on feed for horses with RER continues to be a low starch and sugar diet supplemented with oil.  It is also important that the diet is well balanced, especially with respect to calcium and phosphorus.  Adequate electrolyte provision is equally important, as is the intake of antioxidants such as vitamin E and other related trace minerals such as selenium.  Any potential individual limitation in mineral or electrolyte absorption and retention should be investigated further with veterinary assistance in order that individualised adjustments can be made to the diet.


Whilst we are all no doubt aware that the amino acids that make up protein are important for muscle development and repair, protein and its constituent amino acids have received very little attention in horses in terms of their potential to limit exercise induced muscle damage and aid muscle recovery.

In human athletes, co-consumption of a protein and carbohydrate drink during and after exercise appears to limit exercise induced muscle damage, ultimately allowing faster recovery (Baty et al 2007; Saunders et al 2004).  Recent introduction of ingredients containing partially hydrolysed protein may improve absorption of these amino acids and peptides possibly offering further benefit.

Finally, some nutraceutical ingredients including carnitine and creatine have been hailed as being beneficial to muscle function and recovery in human athletes.  Creatine, which has been studied in the horse, has failed to offer any great advantage, largely due to its poor absorption.  Likewise, carnitine has been reported to improve muscle blood flow during exercise in humans, helping to reduce muscle damage.  However, this aspect has not as yet been investigated in horses and previous dietary studies with carnitine were not unequivocal about the ability of oral carnitine to increase muscle carnitine content.

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