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Feeding for Recovery

Tigger Montague

Daily training exerts stress on the body and increases cortisol, which breaks down muscle rather than building it up.  To understand why the best equine recovery foods work, it helps to know the four basic factors that can compromise the body’s ability to recover from daily training: sugar, salt, water, and rest.

The body uses sugar (glucose, fructose) as muscle glycogen, liver glycogen, and blood sugar.  During exercise the body uses muscle glycogen to fuel the muscles and very little blood sugar.   The longer the training session, the more muscle glycogen is depleted and the percentage of blood sugar use increases, and is also depleted.   Of the glucose that is initially stored as glycogen and then converted for use, 75% is directed to the brain and the functions of the related central nervous system.  The 25% remaining glycogen is used for red blood cell production, skeletal muscle, and heart muscle.

Elite human athletes looking for effective recovery foods now use specific fruits (bananas, dates, oranges) to replenish glycogen supplies after training.   Fruit carbohydrates also provide enzymes, some B vitamins, fiber, a little protein, and water.  The timing of eating fruit carbohydrates is critical: 30 minutes to 1 hour after cool down because these carbohydrates have been shown to speed recovery.  The 30 to 60 minutes time frame are the muscles’ peak period for glycogen reloading.

When fruit carbohydrates are combined with some protein, increased glycogen reloading occurs.   Based on studies published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the carb/ protein combination increased glycogen reloading by 38% over just carbohydrates.  However, too much protein can have the opposite effect.

For horses, the best place to start with recovery feeding is hay.  You don’t want to feed too high a protein content (like straight alfalfa hay) for recovery so a timothy or an orchard grass, or orchard or timothy mixed with alfalfa would be best.  For further hydration, soaked hay cubes are a good choice.  As long as the horse is not metabolic, you can add a banana, or a chopped orange or a kiwi since the sugar carbohydrate is often desirably low in these hays, adding a fruit carbohydrate will assist in the glycogen reloading — just like these recovery foods benefit human athletes.   It’s best not to feed concentrates, or grains, or processed feeds for at least one hour after the horse has been given it’s hay and fruit for recovery.

Salt plays a role in virtually every function of the cell and the homeostasis of mineral salts is essential; too much and we increase dehydration; too little and many body functions cease to work properly.   Sodium and potassium are two of the key minerals involved in electrolyte balance.  Sodium is the extracellular mineral, and potassium is the intracellular mineral.

To maintain the body’s acid/alkaline balance, alkaline minerals must neutralize the acidic byproducts of metabolism and physical activity.  Chlorine, sulfur, and phosphorus are the acidic minerals;  calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium are the alkaline minerals.    Note: table salt (sodium chloride) has been processed to remove the alkaline minerals; its pH is 7.0, which is neutral.

Celtic sea salt, Redmond salt and Himalayan salt provide the acidic minerals and the alkaline minerals for a total pH around 8.0 (alkaline).  Most equine electrolyte supplements use sodium chloride, not sea or mineral salts.

We all know how important hydration is;  feeding a wet feed can be very helpful in maintaining hydration along with water buckets.  Some Guinness stout beer at night can also help with appetite and hydration.

Rest includes sleep and absence of stress.   Refined foods, processed foods, and supplements from non- food sources can increase digestive stress, thus slowing the rate of recovery.   Quality forage, access to grazing, and whole food (and whole recovery food supplements) can encourage the most rapid recovery.

Show grounds can contribute to increased stress, so it’s important when you do night check to be as quiet and respectful to the horses as possible.

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