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.

Good News:

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.

Bad News:

The findings of this preliminary study do not indicate a specific protocol to best achieve this goal.!po=3.12500

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?


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on November 11, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Bill, I would be very interested to find out if this style of slow introduction to speed training reduces the incidence of shins? We know that they have all this info available in Japan, just a matter of accessing it. I’ll ask the researcher on this particular paper if he has that info.

    • Me too. I would think the sudden onset of speed to the C group would give one the prototypical sore shins. For groups S and L that would be mitigated somewhat on account of the treadmill work. Although I bet you don’t get much dense ‘racing’ bone development on an inclined bouncy treadmill…

  2. Hi Bill
    6% slope is 3.4 degrees of angle which is not too severe given that 2 degrees incline on the treadmill will generally result in equal HRs to work under saddle.
    5 degree incline in a 20 month old TB will see 200bpm after a mile at 24sec furlongs.
    However even 3.4 degrees will take a significant load off the horses fore at speed.
    This point may be significant when evaluating the risk of injury at speed.
    The reverse effect applies to the hind end of the horse on an incline so I’ve always seen the inclined treadmill as the safe route of getting work to the heart for a low cost to the fore legs.
    Personally I’m very cautious about speed work on the treadmill for the rim shod horse.
    Eventually the horse will need to gallop fast on the mill at 2 degrees incline and its my opinion that to do this in rim shoes is a mistake.
    Bare foot, boots or special bar shoes are the way to go. Ill include a link to a good Utube video that sums it up well. There are a couple of vids in the series and they are excellent.

    Warning the video uses a cadaver hoof demonstration.

  3. Wrong vid but is part to the same series

  4. why not do your regular galloping on the track and apply the speed work from the ideal 2 year old training program that you posted awhile back with the incline to take the pressure off the front and apply the muscle building to the rear?
    1F 15 sec/furlong :15 2x/week 2 weeks
    2F 15 sec/furlong :30 2x/week 2 weeks
    3F 15 sec/furlong :45 2x/week 2 weeks
    4F 15 sec/furlong :60 2x/week 2 weeks
    2F 13 sec/furlong :26 2x/week 3 weeks
    3F 13 sec/furlong :39 2x/week 3 weeks
    4F 13 sec/furlong :52 Every 5 days 2 weeks

  5. One of the brilliant aspects of treadmill use is the option to build your own workouts based on your own ideas and its all done without the weight of the rider up.
    This fact alone buys some grace with regard to potential fatigue injuries.
    Another bonus of treadmill use is that the trainer gets to stand right beside the horse in work, watching, listening and even filming to the working horse.
    Is the horses working heel- toe or toe heel.
    Is the horse stepping short?
    What is its action really doing.
    Is there the slightest head bob
    Is it tracking straight
    Treadmills tend to stretch the stride
    The horse can start walking and trotting work at an early age
    Treadmills are very safe.

    • Thanks Phillip – I think the best practice is to have your farrier right there after he does his work. Shoe, observe action at decent pace from mere feet away, adjust if necessary, repeat. Somewhere online there is a video of a blacksmith doing just that. Here in the US we hear a ton of scoping going on at race pace, but very little about making shoe adjustments.

  6. Good Article Bill, Here’s my take on a few points made.First of all the slow progression to reduce shins is mostly true, although we’ve learned that horses do need speed work to build the right kind of bone density. When avoiding shins its not about what you do, but how you do it. The training method should look more like an exponential graph through the winter building slowly towards your Spring speed training. Going up and down hills helps a ton. Downhill puts increased pressure on the front end while uphill focuses on the hind. You must avoid turning the training regimen into a stair step where the horses body cannot adjust and recover (thus bucking shins). You also must build the proper base into the horse meaning jogging and lots of it.
    The next comment I have relates to treadmill training and soundness. Most machines have been shown to give you the proper amount of concussion to build bone density, but the issue is how you integrate the treadmill into your training. The treadmill can be about as good as it can bad. Focus all your efforts on treadmill training, and you will get horses injured when they hit the turns in the race. You have to balance track work with treadmill work in order to insure they can negotiate the turns trouble free.
    Also, as much as there is to be said for training on a consistent surface, there is more to be said about younger horses training on an inconsistent surface. Imagine spending your whole life running around in a well manicured lawn and then one day you go to your friends house and you all go running off through the field. First hole you hit, you’re done. Its good to get a bit of unevenness into these horses as the move towards the track. Whether its running in a field, galloping in a field, or galloping on a natural turf course that has some swales and hills and divots. Makes for a much sturdier horse when they take that bad step at the track.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Josh. I always think about the uphill part, but forget when you are at the farm there is a downhill component for each uphill one. I have seen a few treadmills that will decline a bit, but not many and not too steep, obviously.

      Do you feel the ‘3min to exhaustion’ on the machine quoted here in the study is excessive, or just about right?

      • Maybe in its wording alone… Doing anything with a horse ‘to exhaustion’ is detrimental. I see what they are saying though, and it may be extreme when looking at it compared to the US training style. I actually kind of like the idea of galloping to the point of tiring in a 3 minute span, but does this take the place of a traditional ‘speed work’??

  7. I would term it ‘threshold’ work instead – if the duration is 2-3min, the pace by definition will be sub-maximal. In a youngster this is probably akin to our 2min lick – a workout I love, but should be scaled up/down based on the athletic ability of the horse. A graded stakes winner going 8F in 2:00 is highly aerobic, while a claimer doing the same is mostly anaerobic, for instance. I would rather see 8-12F at 85% of max HR, or a blood lactate level of 4 mmol, workouts you can more easily perform on a treadmill, as a matter of fact.

  8. And yes, ‘to exhaustion’ for them may simply mean the first sign of a shortened stride, rather than falling off the machine…

  9. Exhaustion may be seen as a sudden CV drift at a steady state workload.
    Or visually the horse simply loses ground from the breast rope, this being rather extreme though.
    In my view the real issue regarding treadmill use is whether it is a horse “building” device or a horse “training” device, and if its both, what proportions apply.
    I tend to be of the opinion that they are a tool for “building” stayers. Beginning at 18 months and pretraining into the 3rd or 4th yr. racing at 5YO at 1.5 – 2 miles. or beyond.
    Once built and working under saddle, do they really need to go back to the mill? I don’t believe so.

    • Good point Phillip. I have another trainer who thinks that way, but then he also puts his chronically lame/sore horses on the treadmill for ‘life’ if they cannot remain sound on any other surface. He’s had some BIG winners who never see the track (other than for a jog), only the machine. Of course these may very well be few and far between, and he feels he must hide this from the media to avoid cries of protest.

      For Sprinters, I know a fellow who performs ‘leg speed’ workouts on his older horses; after a thorough warm up he’ll crank the machine to 40+ mph for 10-12 seconds. This guy here does the same, but on the track:

      If our 2yo go through the breeze up sales ring they will see these speeds once in their training lifetime. If not, they will never be exposed to this type of conditioning – but you can damn well be sure they’ll be asked for that kind of pace out of the gate for 90% of their lifetime races.

  10. 40mph for 10-12 seconds is not outrageous or severe.
    A fit bare foot horse can go at race speeds for race distances on a good mill.
    I’ve done it plenty of times, 1,2 and 4 miles
    Its all about legging up, monitoring HRs and looking after the horses feet along the way.
    If the media have a problem with it they need to get educated on the matter.
    One of the main problems facing treadmills (in my view) is that the sort of person who is naturally good with horses is of a totally different type to a person who understands and embraces machinery.
    I know hundreds of mechanical people and 99% of them say the same thing, “If it doesn’t run on gas, it doesn’t run”.
    The vast majority of horse people feel the same way about treadmills.
    They tend to say ” why not just ride your horse”? What if the horse falls over?
    The good horse person who can embrace the treadmill is a hybrid type.
    I think Asia is adapting quickly to this technology..
    I’m of the opinion that conventional shoeing and fast speed work at low Treadmill inclines do not mix safely.
    Hence only 12 seconds at 40mph shod.
    Its entirely probable that the super stars of the future will be treadmill trained horses that start young and work hard for a couple of years on a treadmill, broken in late, then worked hard and fast under saddle for a year of interval training, bare foot, and raced as mature horses, shod.
    This of course is the expensive route but would you rather wear a Rolex, or a Micky Mouse watch.

    Something else.
    A pre-trainer I know attached a digital audio recorder to a horses head collar nose band and galloped her fast over 2 miles under saddle and left it recording throughout the recovery.
    The recording of the breathing is fascinating.
    Obviously this gives you the stride rate as well.

    • All good points-

      The training/racing game is full of contradictions. Trainers will obsess over stopwatch times to ‘see’ if their horses are doing well and Beyer/Ragozin/Thorograph figures in order to place them in a competitive slot. But when it comes to actual training, they eschew any numbers that may help – now it’s all on feel.

      There’s an old saying: ‘what you can measure, you can improve.’ A treadmill simply makes it easier to measure, and therefore improve, fitness. But trainers think that a use of any machine is an affront to horsemanship.

      We will never see another Secretariat with the current threadbare conditioning regimens. He breezed miles in the same manner as you or I walk to the mailbox. Now, is it the chicken or the egg? Did he breeze long and far because he was supernatural – or did working so hard bring it out of him? Of course I lean to the latter. We’ll get supernaturally talented horses, but they’ll get hurt on their path to legendary status due to racing miles off of mere 4-5F workouts. Some G1 wins in times reminiscent of the 1950s then off to the breeding shed.

      Genetics applies to the conditioning response, but no one wants to acknowledge this. Currently a book called ‘The Sports Gene’ spends a few hundred pages proving as much. Today, right now, somewhere in the US is a horse that would EXPLODE if conditioning aggressively, but he/she will never be exposed to that stimulus, and therefore never reach full potential.

      1.5 mile gallops and weekly half mile works on the track may be the best ‘one size fits all’ program out there, but that program will fail to maximize racing talent in 99.9% of horses.

  11. Possible one of the most under-rated pieces of advice from Preston M Burch “Training Thoroughbred Horses” page 41-42, with regard to shoeing Yearlings. It likely that this knowledge was a cornerstone of his success.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: