New Treadmill Study from Japan with Ample Data
Top trainer Mike de Kock: “When your horse may not have the bloodlines or ability of their opponent, fitness is the one area where you can beat them. Treadmills allow you to get that extra fitness and “the edge”. That is how important they are.”
Treadmill advantages: no rider error, no bad steps/consistent surface, can train during bad weather, less concussion on oft injured horses, vet/groom stand nearby, can scope at racing speeds, can prescribe and follow precise program of speeds/inclines/duration.
Young Thoroughbred horses can increase aerobic capacity and running performance more than by strictly using track training under saddle with the addition of intermittent high-intensity treadmill exercise, and they can do so without experiencing lameness. This finding suggests that young racehorses might be able to achieve higher aerobic fitness during training without subjecting their musculoskeletal systems to increased loading and risk of developing lameness.
The findings of this preliminary study do not indicate a specific protocol to best achieve this goal.
16 pages in length; can be a boring read for those not terribly interested in the science, so I will do my best to summarize:
Study takes place in Japan, where apparently the common ‘wisdom’ is that high speeds in young horses leads to lameness – therefore no speeds higher than a typical gallop are normally introduced into March of the 2yo year. Trotting and slow cantering are the only exercise stimulus applied after the breaking process. It is the belief that anything faster in a young horse will cause injury. The American term for this can be thought of as ‘legging up’ – and was found years ago to be a major cause of shin soreness in the groundbreaking Maryland Shin Study:
Here in America many devotees of the Study begin introducing speed as early as December. Details on that protocol here:
(Off topic: A good European trainer friend of mine believes while the above regimen may indeed strengthen bones and provide ideal development of early speed; it may also (by necessity) ignore cardiovascular development due to shortened gallops. Therefore, since his style of turf racing over longer distances demands superior aerobic fitness, he has made some changes and found great success.)
As in the US; high-speed treadmills in Japan are primarily used for veterinary purposes and/or clinical research. However, many trainers around the world utilize the treadmill as a tool to stimulate aerobic/anaerobic capacities without putting the skeletal system under an increased risk of injury. This study aims to quantify if the addition of a treadmill to typical early conditioning practices can improve measures of athletic performance without causing undue lameness.
Just 12 Japanese juveniles took part in the study and were divided up into 3 groups, all of which undertook identical trackwork sessions under saddle for 8 months.
*Group C left it at this; no treadmill sessions whatsoever – think Conventional
*Group S added weekly treadmill sessions at higher speeds for the final 2 months – think Short
*Group L supplemented trackwork with the treadmill once weekly for the entire 8 months – Long
Treadmill training for Groups S and L involved a single bout of high speed training once weekly. Therefore, Group S was only on the machine 8 times at speed while Group L had 32 treadmill sessions over an 8 month period. Again, this was in addition to trackwork sessions.
Open bars indicated distance walked; striped bars indicate trot distance; solid bars represent canter distances. Grey bars indicate distance variations based on individual speeds. Cantering was under 10 m/s (22mph, or 20sec/f, or 3:00 min/mile) during Nov and Dec, and gradually increased up to 13.5m/s in April for distances up to 1000m. (30mph, or 15sec/f, or 2:00 min/mile).
For groups S and L, there was no trackwork on treadmill exercise days. Instead treadmill sessions were up a 6% incline and speeds were set to elicit exhaustion by 3min time. When a horse lasted the entire 3min comfortably – the next session was at 0.5m/s faster.
Afterwards the 12 subjects were subjected to lameness evaluations, measures of aerobic capacity, VO2max, and running efficiency – through a battery of tests, with the results summarized here:
*None of the 12 horses experienced any lameness throughout the study period.
*Although body weight measurements did not differ significantly overall between the 3 groups; the C group lost a statistically significant amount of weight the final 6 months of the study, while the S and L groups did not. (I believe this was due to the fact that the S and L groups gained muscle from the extra high intensity treadmill workouts.) From June through October of the yearling year everyone gained weight as expected – and through the next testing period (April of 2yo season) everyone lost weight, but the C group lost more.
*As expected, all 3 groups improved their maximum running speeds; yet in the final test both treadmill trained groups (S and L) improved moreso than the C group. VO2max improved across the board but the difference was statistically significant ONLY for the L group vs the C group, and even verged on being statistically greater compared to S. S and C did not differ significantly on this measure.
*Maximum HR decreased for all by an average of 11bpm. (Many exercise physiology texts have previously claimed this not to be the case.) Cardiac output did not differ between groups.
*Both hemoglobin and hematocrit improved dramatically for the L group, reaching a level of statistical significance over groups C and S.
*End of run lactate concentrations did not differ between the groups, neither did V200 – velocity at a HR of 200bpm.
(See study link for all raw data.)
Aerobic metabolism generates the majority of energy during thoroughbred flat races. Therefore, it’s vital to develop these systems, but always taking care not to overload the skeletal structures of the lower leg. The sample size of this study was quite small, 12, therefore the fact that many results between different groups did not approach statistical significance shouldn’t be taken to mean that those differences don’t exist – and would very well be borne out with a larger sample size.
Although no lameness was observed in this small group of 12, the Japanese industry typically sees very low levels of lameness anyway, less than 5%, which is no surprise given the very conservative early conditioning regimens. However, it’s of note that Groups S and L spent much time at higher speeds and still presented as healthy of limb as the control group.
I need more time to read and digest. Let’s try something different and see if readers can fill up the comment section below with opinions. I know there are at least a half dozen guys (and girls) much smarter at this stuff than am I. I think it’s clear that more time on the treadmill produced better results with no increased risk of injury.
But once weekly sessions? Would you go more often?
And each session constituting of running until exhaustion for 3 minutes? Would you cut back on that?
That seems like a low frequency and high duration of exercise to me. Of course, the treadmill incline must be accounted for – which is where my experience lacks. 6% sounds pretty steep, and I see no speeds in here above 13.5 m/s or 15sec/furlong – while our US youngsters following the Maryland Shin Study will hit speeds of 16m/s, 13sec/furlong for example. But that is on the flat, dirt tracks so common in our industry.
Now that the treadmill gives you precise control over speed and incline, would you train your sprinters differently than your routers? How about 2yo vs 5yo? Turf, dirt, synthetic – does that change your conditioning plan?