Racehorses: Make Lactic Acid Your Friend, not Foe
You want to get inside your horse’s mind and understand how he feels during a race as lactic acid builds up? Simply go to your local high school track and attempt to run one lap, 400m, at your fastest possible pace, as this is akin to a 6F effort for any thoroughbred. Should take anywhere from 80-120 seconds depending on your fitness level and age. Oh yeah, you are only allowed a walk/jog warmup for a few minutes beforehand, just like your horse. And when you finish, make sure to walk/jog back to the car (stall) for the drive home – no cool down running or stretching allowed, just as your horse experiences in a typical morning at the training track.*
You will feel pretty good the first 80m, or approximately 12-18 seconds, as you burn through the ATP energy sources already present in your body. You can even hold your breath if you wish (but I do not recommend), as no oxygen is involved in this process and no lactic acid is formed. Soon, however, the ATP from this system is gone and you must convert stored glycogen into glucose from which you can create additional ATP for energy. But this comes at a cost, as lactic acid is formed and your blood becomes more acidic with the buildup of hydrogen ions. Aerobic (with oxygen), metabolism is present also, but since this post is about lactic acid we will leave that discussion for another day.
So, now we are roughly 100m, or 25% into the workout, and lactic acid is rapidly on the rise. It takes a while to buildup to bothersome levels (over 10 mmol/liter), perhaps you can cover another 50m or so before things start to feel funny, and not a good ‘funny’. Let’s be very generous and assume you get to the 200m mark before you start to feel the burn in your muscles at a concerning level. How do you react? Well, for one your stride length decreases as you tighten up. You start to use your arms and upper body more vigorously to counteract the heaviness in your legs (a horse will use his neck). Heading towards 300m things start to fall apart more rapidly. Your brain is now becoming involved, begging you to quit. You will even start to feel a bit disoriented, which is not desirable as you attempt to maintain coordination and avoid the dreaded ‘bad step’.
You start to have an intense burning sensation throughout your body, including your chest, and each step feels more awkward than the last. While your first 50m may have been covered in 7sec, 50m now takes 8+sec and feels horrible. Good thing no one is on your back cracking the whip, eh? The last 50m is quite miserable, frankly, and you are relieved to be done. While you went out in 15sec for the first 100m, you came home in 18sec for the last 100m. Just like a racehorse not named Zenyatta or Secretariat.
Lactic Acid/Bathtub Analogy
Picture each muscle containing thousands of claw foot bathtubs, each with an open drain in the bottom. As you turn on the faucet during intense exercise, lactic acid starts to fill up the tub. When the tub is full, lactic acid spills onto the floor of the bathroom, soaking your muscle cells in acidic hydrogen ions. Fatigue is imminent. However, you do have an open drain in the bottom – which allows your body to take lactic acid out of the tub and use it for energy via mitochondria present in your muscle cells. The larger the drain or the larger the tub, the longer you can exercise without lactic acid flushing your muscles. All lactic acid is not bad you see, some can be used to fuel movement. It is the waste product of hydrogen ions that is the culprit in muscle acidity, not lactic acid itself.
Enter The Milkshake
If acidic blood essentially defines fatigue, so how can we intervene? – by counteracting that acidity with an alkalizing agent such as sodium bicarbonate introduced into the bloodstream. The base of the bicarbonate buffers the acid of the hydrogen ions, drawing acidity out of the muscles into the blood and neutralizing it, thereby delaying the onset of fatigue. The milkshake works, or did work, and therefore has been declared illegal. So we are left with finding currently legal methods to address the need for improved lactic acid buffering. Here are 2 such interventions:
The Low-Cost Easy Way: Supplement the feed with patented beta-alanine:
I have written at length about this substance, here is the info if you wish to read it – https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/storm/
The Free, but Difficult Way: Change your conditioning practices:
Again, I have detailed this previously as well –
Interval training is just one possibility as it can DOUBLE the amount of mitochondria within the muscle cells, giving the horse additional powerhouses with which to create energy from lactic acid. Interval training is actually MORE suitable for horses than humans, as if done correctly, it can lessen the time spent exercising while fatigued – and every horseman knows the vast majority of injuries occur when a horse is tired. They quite often negotiate bad steps just fine in the first quarter of a race, but a bad step in the last quarter is often disastrous, unless your name is Afleet Alex and you have been (sort of) interval trained by Tim Ritchey:
Years earlier Alysheba had a similar incident with Bet Twice in winning the Kentucky Derby, do you think Alysheba was prepped with 4F breezes every 7 days? No, he was not.
Interval training scare the hell out of you? I understand, as most in the past experimented with these methods incorrectly and on poor horses, giving up when IT did not immediately transform a claimer into a world-beater. No need to get too radical, read the link above for some less threatening changes to your current conditioning protocols. Or, simply add some slow jog/trot miles past the 2 mile barrier early in your horse’s race preparation in an effort to improve the aerobic portion of the equation. This concept will be further detailed in a future post.
*Here is where I must attach my disclaimer: Thoroedge is not responsible for any injury or illness as a result of this exercise. Each individual is responsible for contacting their physician prior to undertaking any fitness program. You’ve been warned.