Bailee Cooper, PhD, RDN, LD
As summer run comes to a close and performance time becomes more critical, nutrition can be the key to final performance. Packing the rig, especially for a long haul, can be quite tedious. Depending how many horses you are taking, how long you are out on the road and how many hauling partners jump in, the trailer can quickly get loaded down. Planning out hay, grain, medications, equipment and buckets can take a few days. If not planned out accordingly, you can be stuck spending more cash or time on the road than expected. While planning out packing for your equine performance partner is important, packing the rig for your personal health should be at the top of the list.
Foods that provide energy
While carbohydrates can typically get a bad rap, there is no better macronutrient to energize our bodies. Drinks that have caffeine or other herbals supplements may give us the ‘feeling’ of energy that is short lived and we actually put our body at higher risk for fatigue.
Carbohydrates are also the energy source for our muscles. If we don’t eat carbohydrates our body will use what stored carbohydrates it has (in the form of glycogen) or turn another macronutrient into energy such as proteins or lipids. This process creates an environment for injury risk because the process is not efficient.
We spilt carbohydrates into two groups, simple and complex, both help the body with energy. Prior to performance, our body needs simple carbohydrates. Simple is the same as adding kindling to a camp fire, with a short powerful spark. Complex carbohydrates, are denser, have more fiber and keep us full as the day goes on.
Examples of simple carbohydrates that are good to have before a performance include items such as pretzels, granola bars or a banana. Complex carbohydrates include brown rice, multigrain cereal, or sweet potatoes. Try to shoot for a little over half of your diet to be carbohydrates to improve energy levels.
Foods that fuel the brain
Carbohydrates are the ONLY source of fuel our brain can use as energy. Adding simple and complex carbohydrates can help the brain with reaction time. But improving hydration status can lessen fatigue and increase brain firing.
There are two parts of hydration we need to consider while traveling and performing, water and electrolytes. Our body is made of > ¾ water, the more muscle we have, the more water is needed in our body. Water helps carry nutrients throughout our body, keep our brain functioning and help muscles contract. The next part is electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus. These electrolytes help absorb water into the cells of our brain and muscles.
While water recommendations are typically ‘8 cups a day’, we can’t use that as a baseline. Water needs change every single day, especially when we are traveling to different environments. If you are in the hot, humid environment of Louisiana and then travel to the west, Texas desert in the same day you will sweat different amounts and loose water at different rates. The best way to know if you are hydrated is through your pee color. You want your pee to be a lemonade color, you don’t dark yellow (dehydrated) or clear (over hydrated).
There are electrolytes in the foods we eat, but during times of high performance we may need an electrolyte supplement to drink with water. Typically, you want to have about 20 ounces of water and then 20 ounces with an electrolyte supplement when you are performing and sweating. There are a lot of electrolyte supplements out there to choose from. If you don’t have time to eat, an electrolyte supplement with carbohydrates (sugar) may be needed. Try to get an electrolyte supplement with more than just sodium, as our bodies loose more than just sodium in sweat.
Foods that decrease injury risk
Any injury, large or small, can affect performance and longevity during the rodeo and show season. There are two types of injuries we need to be concerned with, acute and chronic. Acute injuries can happen during a performance but affect being able to continue down the road. Acute injuries are sharp and painful, can include soft injury tears, bone breaks or concussions. Chronic injuries are typically from overuse of one body part and can be dull, soreness but cause issues in the long run if not address.
Hydration, discussed above can help reduce injury risk. However, making sure you are getting enough protein and quality sleep are extremely important when trying to reduce acute and chronic injuries. Protein from food sources are the best for our body, easiest to breakdown and use as building blocks for muscle, joint and brain cells. Lean protein, low-fat dairy, chicken, turkey, eggs, lean beef and bright colored fish are great choices. Aim for close to 1/4 of your diet to come from protein or about your body weight divided by 2 in grams (example, 200 pounds, 100 grams in protein).
Getting quality sleep on the road may be the hardest part about hauling. Even catching naps overnight can be difficult, especially when stress, soreness and homesickness are involved. Having foods that help with sleeping or a melatonin supplement may be needed. When on the road, quality sleep can help with muscles, brain, and bones to recover for the next performance. Foods that help with sleeping are cherries, low-fat milk or dairy, almonds and turkey. Try turning off your phone and making the trailer really dark, this will help your body get into rem sleep (the part of the sleep cycle that helps with recovery). If you feel like you are not getting enough sleep, start with a low dose of melatonin, such as 3 – 5 mg and make sure you have around 4 – 6 hours that you can rest for melatonin to work and you won’t wake up feeling drowsy.
Foods that decrease recovery time
While we always try to avoid injuries, it typically is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next injury starts. However, nutrition is important to decrease the recovery time or at least ward off how bad the injury is affecting performance. Both protein and sleep can help with recovery time and benefit our bodies. But there are three other nutrients to consider when reducing the recovery time for an injury.
Fish oil helps with joint movement, brain function (especially after concussions) and decrease inflammation. Fish oil can be found in bright colored fish and oral supplements. Finding safe fish to eat on the road may be difficult, so a supplement may be the easiest way to get daily fish oil. Aim for about 300 mg of fish oil (omega-3) a day to improve recovery time.
Lastly, vitamin C is known to help during times of sickness but it can help our bodies with injury recovery as well. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that aids in immune function and cell reproduction during recovery. People always think of oranges when asked about vitamin C but any bright yellow, orange and red fruit or vegetable have lots of vitamin C. Try to eat about 3 servings (1/2 cup) of vitamin C foods a day or 100 mg twice a day if you are having to get vitamin C through a supplement form.
Nutrition can make a difference in finishing off the road season strong and may change reaction time. Energy for reaction time can alter brain, muscle and joint function. The road may feel long with lots of unknowns but nutrition and diet are one way to control performance.
If you are a rodeo athlete who is worried about their athletic performance, I will teach you how to improve your performance and reduce injury risk during a 1:1 session. You can book your 1:1 session here.