The importance of warm-up and cool-down in the racehorse


Human athletes pay great attention to detail when warming up and cooling down for competition. Research studies have shown that warming up prior to competition is an important factor in preparation to enhance performance and potentially reduce injury risk. Both the physiological and psychological benefits have been investigated, although human physiologists are divided in their opinions as to the benefits of warming up.

When it comes to cooling down the research is more unified, showing that active cooling down is more beneficial than passive cooling down. There is limited research available into the benefits of the warm-up and the cool-down in horses and racing, and it is certainly an area that warrants further investigation.

The importance of a warm-up period before racing How a warm-up programme is developed depends on the sport. The main considerations in warming up prior to racing are how long before the race to start warming up, how long to warm-up for and the intensity of exercise. The two main reasons for warming up are to improve performance, and to reduce the risk of injury. A period of warm-up will have both physiological and psychological effects; with direct effects on the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system and the neuromuscular system. Warm-up consists of an activity or series of exercises that raise the total body temperature, preparing the body for vigorous activity. As well as raising temperature, muscle blood flow and oxygenation are also increased. This enhances the ability of the muscles to work aerobically and to reduce lactic acid build up. Therefore a good warm-up should delay the onset of fatigue due to lactic acid accumulation. However, there may also be some negative physiological effects that can be attributed to excessive warm-up, so too long spent on it can be just as detrimental as too little. Increasing muscle temperature over its working optimum can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, as well as lactic acid production and therefore the onset of fatigue before the race. Warm-up can also increase the horse’s range of motion by lengthening the stride and improving gait coordination, resulting in a decreased likelihood of tears, sprains and strains. Warm-up should be adjusted depending on the environmental temperature. In cold weather it may take longer for muscles to reach their optimum working temperature than in hot weather.

Active warm-up prior to racing An active warm-up programme will begin with aerobic exercise such as walking and trotting, to raise heart rate (but to remain under 170 beats per minute) which will increase the muscle temperature. Most racehorses will routinely have an adequate period of aerobic warm-up prior to racing consisting of walking in the pre-parade and parade ring. This is followed by cantering down to the start which equates to the sports specific warm-up, and has the effect of preparing the muscles for the exercise ahead. Passive warm-up and products available Active warm-up is more beneficial than passive warm-up as it increases the heart rate. However, in some circumstances it may also be beneficial to use passive warm-up prior to active warm-up. Massage will increase the muscle temperature and will change the muscle tone. It will also have a relaxing effect, so it is important to get the timing right, and not to massage immediately prior to racing, although it does provide an opportunity to check that there is no muscle soreness that could have occurred during travel to the racecourse.

Massage is used extensively in human professional sports as part of warm-up, but there is very little research available into the effects of massage on injury prevention in the horse. However, there is some evidence from small studies that massage increases stride length and range of motion, and therefore potentially has a positive effect on performance. Stretching can be performed after massage (when the muscles are warm), but this is an area where research is available to show that although there are benefits from stretching, there are also some negative effects. New technology has recently been developed which uses the body’s own heat to enhanced physical performance and provide effective prevention and treatment of injuries.

For example, the Mirotec and Back On Track rugs can be used as a warm-up aid prior to exercise (and can also be used post-exercise to ease any muscle soreness), but are not a substitute for active warm-up. These rugs contain a heat reflective layer of metallic material, which can maintain body temperature and boost circulation. This is a relatively easy and cost effective way to warm up the muscles prior to any exercise, and may therefore a useful aid to warm-up, especially in colder climates. The aims of a cool-down period Active cooling down has been shown to be more beneficial than passive cooling down, therefore maintaining a slow trot or canter for a few minutes or so will have greater benefit than walking or standing still.

The aim of a cool-down period is a progressive reduction in exercise intensity allowing a gradual redistribution of blood flow, enhanced lactic acid removal from the muscles, and a reduction of body heat through convection and evaporation. If a horse is inadequately cooled after competing, any residual lactate in the system will affect performance if the horse is required to compete again within a short space of time. The application of cold water will result in heat loss by conduction from the skin to the water, thus reducing body temperature. The active cool-down will also result in an effective return to normal breathing and heart rate.

Actual post-race cool-down regimes These routinely consist of a slow canter back around the course to the exit, followed by a period of walking to where the saddle is removed. After this a horse will be washed with cold water and continually walked until heart rate and breathing return to normal. Shower systems are increasingly being used to aid quick and effective wash down. In hotter climate conditions the cool-down may include the application of iced water and iced blankets to ensure a return to normal body temperature in the shortest possible time. Products such as Equi-N-ice, cooling rugs and bandages are available to speed up cool-down. They use a combination of coolants and specialist fabrics to cool the skin and evaporate moisture more effectively. It is important that the horse is kept walking during the cool down period. When the horse is sufficiently cool many trainers will apply a cooling product to the legs before travelling home. The Zamar system is a portable system which provides thermostatically controlled cold therapy (or heat therapy) via insulated pipes to specially designed leg and body wraps. This particular product consists of a specially adapted refrigeration system that circulates a glycol liquid to produce the required temperature.

It maintains a pre-set consistent cold temperature for the required treatment time. The system also provides cyclical compression to the area treated. The application of Game Ready wraps after racing or a strenuous workout will minimise the inflammatory reaction and subsequent tissue damage that can result from strenuous activity. The technology behind this portable system is the continuous rapid circulation of ice water through circumferential wraps, thus providing ice treatment and compression. Post-race practical applications of these cold systems may be most effective when used on the tendons. The core temperature of tendons after racing is known to be over 40°C which can have a detrimental effect on the physiological function associated with the maintenance and repair of the tendons.

The immediate application of cold treatment can quickly and effectively cool the tendon core, returning the temperature to normal. The above mentioned cooling systems also have many other uses in the treatment of various injuries, and can provide more consistent colder temperatures than the application of ice or a cold hose, although these practices are still very popular and widespread within the racing industry. The combination of ice and compression causes capillary vasoconstriction and pressure on the connective tissue to restrict blood and fluid leakage from damaged tissue. The first 48 hours after injury are critical in the restriction of development of oedema or swelling. A simple but efficient way of applying immediate cold and compressive therapy post-race is to soak polo wraps in iced water before applying them.

The application of immediate cold and compression will minimise post-race inflammation and swelling. Cold water hosing is a cheap and effective way of applying cold treatment to the horse’s body and legs, but although this method will provide cooling of the skin surface, the temperature may not be low enough to affect deeper structures. There are also many other ice gel packs and ice boots available for cold therapy, which often provide a cost effective and simple way to provide cold treatment to the tendons and other structures. The application of ice is a well researched and excellent treatment modality in the prevention of swelling and inflammation after exercise.

Massage to aid recovery after racing Muscle soreness often develops 24 to 48 hours after racing or strenuous exercise, and is thought to be largely due to microtrauma. Until this pain disappears, the muscle is in a weakened condition, predisposing it to injury. Massage and stretching can be used to release muscle tension and reduce soreness. It may be beneficial to treat the horse with massage immediately post-race (when sufficiently cooled and with heart and breathing rate returned to normal). This can then be followed up with further regular massage treatments to restore suppleness and range of motion. The next issue of European Trainer will feature more detailed analysis of how the application of ice and cold therapy affects the horse both pre and post-race, including its benefits and physiological effects.


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