All in a day’s work: meet the top riders’ nutrition consultant *H&H Plus*

  • Dr Dan Martin on how he came to switch from the rugby world to horses – and one jockey’s disgusting Christmas dinner

    I rather fell into the equestrian world. When I met my wife, who has showjumped since a young age, in 2012, I had never had anything to do with horses. I was working in rugby as a performance nutritionist.

    In 2013, a nutritionist’s role came up with the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA); I applied because it was an appropriate job at an appropriate time, and got it. So within 18 months I had gone from having no interaction with the horse world, to having my personal and professional life taken over by it.

    Through the PJA I work with jockeys right through their career. I work with them at the start of their careers, delivering the nutrition module on the licensing courses at the National Horseracing College, and I see them while supporting the 60 UK racecourses to ensure their food provision for jockeys is suitable.

    I work with injured jockeys on the road to recovery as part of the Injured Jockeys Fund’s multi disciplinary team, and many jockeys come and see me at the university for lab-based testing.

    Historically, food at racecourses wasn’t great – there was a lot of energy-dense, low-nutrient foods being consumed. Fried food is unbelievably high in salt and fat, and jockeys would see their weight shooting up by five or 6lb in a matter of hours – and then have to lose that amount to be able to ride the next day.

    I’ll never forget that, one Christmas, a jockey was concerned with gaining weight by eating Christmas lunch. So he put it all in the blender and drank it as a smoothie. It must have tasted disgusting – and I had to tell him the unfortunate news it will have had the same amount of calories as if he had eaten it on the plate.

    At the end of 2018, I was asked to work with the Podium and Podium Potential squads for all four Olympic disciplines within the British Equestrian Federation. I offer both generic nutritional advice for the squads and provide individual interventions.

    Each sport is different. It can be challenging to get face-to-face time with showjumpers, as they have such an international calendar. They, like jockeys, have traditionally led a cigarettes-and-champagne approach to losing weight, but that is changing. Eventers are often a little more professional in terms of using diet and exercise to make weight. A big barrier in all equestrian sport is a perceived lack of time to get the best nutrition; the lifestyle is very busy.

    A rider’s weight can make a significant difference to performance. A general rule of thumb in racing is that 1lb of weight more than ideal equals, over a mile, to one horse’s length. If you consider a five-star cross country course over more than four miles, a rider who is 10lb heavier than what is optimal has the potential to be 40 lengths down, and that equates to plenty of time-faults.

    What someone eats for breakfast on a competition morning is very individual to them, but it is important to get energy from somewhere. I’m less picky about what the food is on a competition day, so long as you’re getting the required energy from it and you actually eat.

    So, like one rider I know, if that means a plate of cold pasta at 8.30am because you know it works and is safe in your stomach, then go for it – it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but if it works, it works.

    We have to keep much of our preparations for the Tokyo Olympics under wraps, as the UK is at the forefront of sport science globally and we don’t want to lose our edge. But something that will help us is knowing each athlete’s individual sweat profile – how much they sweat and specifically the composition of that sweat – so we know exactly what needs to be put back in the body, given they will sweat a lot in the Tokyo climate.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020