FeatureJockey fitness challenge

We got a Racing Post writer to join aspiring young jockeys in a key fitness class - it didn't go well

Jonathan Harding is put through his paces by the British Racing School

The weighted sled: the first of several painful stages in the jockeys' circuit class
The weighted sled: the first of several painful stages in the circuit classCredit: Dan Abraham

The sweat is pouring down my face. My chest is pounding and my legs feel like lead. I thought they were only joking when they told me I might need a bucket. I should not have signed that waiver. There are no breaks. This is so much harder than I thought.

Just try to survive a few more minutes. A couple more sit-ups and squats, and you will be back in the car pretending this never happened. The end is nearly in sight. Or is it? Oh God. There are still two laps to go. Why on earth am I putting myself through this?

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That is not a question any of those joining me for this Race Ready circuits class need to ask themselves. For me, this is supposedly (or so my editor promised) a bit of fun, a chance to highlight the gulf in fitness between jockeys and a mostly sedentary writer.

Yet for this group of seven aspiring apprentices and conditionals, it is another step on their path to becoming professional jockeys. It might be stating the obvious but being fit by any normal standard is not enough. A specific and elite level of fitness is as integral to pursuing a successful career in the saddle as the ability to ride horses.

This circuits class is part of an intense two-week licensing course at the British Racing School (BRS) in Newmarket, which has been carefully designed to not only determine whether aspiring riders have what it takes physically but to give them a blueprint for a long, healthy career.

During the two weeks, their riding skills are unsurprisingly put to the test, but a more holistic approach has also been adopted in recent years. They will have lessons on myriad subjects, including how to manage their finances and deal with the media. The aim is to create well-rounded athletes, not just throw people in at the deep end.

That said, ensuring licensees are capable of meeting the unique fitness demands of riding in six or seven races every day remains a key part of the course. All seven members of this intake passed fitness and riding tests just to earn their spot and have experience working in yards, while some of them have already ridden competitively.

"It's a specific type of fitness," says Richard Perham, head of coaching at the BRS, shortly after hopping off an exercise bike. "It's cardiovascular. Muscle strength comes through time riding horses but riding out isn't enough to make you perform really well – racing makes the body work much harder."

We have always known jockeys are physically fit but great strides have been made in understanding the type of fitness required. Unlike running over a long distance, riding in races is an anaerobic exercise, meaning the body does not use oxygen. Jockeys hold a static position before producing an intense, sharp burst of energy when riding a finish.

"Over the years we've done lots of different studies to try to understand how jockeys' bodies perform in a race situation," says Perham. "We once mimicked three races with ten different jockeys at the BRS and found their bodies were anaerobic for the entire time and that their muscle fatigue was similar to that of a 400-metre Olympic athlete."

Richard Perham shows me my chances of surviving the circuits class after finishing his own workout
Richard Perham shows me my chances of surviving the circuits class after finishing his own workoutCredit: Dan Abraham

The circuits class takes place in the state-of-the-art gym at Peter O'Sullevan House, run by the Injured Jockeys Fund. The gym is almost always populated by jockeys weight training, stretching or seeking fitness advice. They often do this on an empty stomach after riding work in the morning, or sometimes on the way home from the racecourse.

That would almost certainly have not been the case when Perham was riding. After 16 seasons as a successful Flat jockey, he called time in 2001. During his career, people took their fitness seriously but they did not have the same tools at their disposal. The data and advice available to jockeys is now comparable to that which is given to Premier League footballers.

For the latest generation, riders are encouraged to take an enormous interest in their fitness and nutrition. The stereotypical image of small people starving themselves to make weight will hopefully soon belong in the past, with jockeys quite rightly viewed in the same way as other elite athletes.

"I'm embarrassed about how unfit I was when I was a professional," says Perham. "If you asked all of the jockeys of my era, most would say it's a different story now. The latest wave of riders are fitter, healthier and better prepared. We didn't have access to what they have now. I've learned a lot since becoming a coach. I probably had quite a closed mindset when I was a jockey – I couldn't really see the wood for the trees.

"I'm still competitive. I now look at myself in the mirror and think 'if only'. I don't think jockeys are better than they were in the 80s and 90s but they're fitter and those who look after themselves will have longer careers. What we're doing for young riders is giving them a better start and the opportunity for a healthier existence in racing."

In addition to circuit training sessions, the licensing course culminates in a fitness test, which simulates some of the demands of race riding. It tests cardiovascular fitness alongside a jockey's ability to perform various static holds, such as holding a plank for up to four minutes, using the same core muscles as riding racehorses.

Tom Marquand, who seems to cycle hundreds of miles every day alongside his day job, is among an elite group to pass the assessment with full marks. Those who do not pass have the option to retake the test, while professionals are  asked to take it again only when returning from injury or if they have not held a licence for a number of years.

'The rest of the group shout encouragement while I prioritise not blacking out'

Having heard all that, I was still not quite prepared for what was in store when it was time to begin the circuits class, which I foolishly imagined would be easier than the fitness test. I still knew it was going to be difficult; I had not realised just how difficult.

The first warning sign is being asked to sign a waiver. The circuit class consists of a series of short bursts of power designed to get the heart racing and simulate the huge demands of riding a finish. Throwing me into this kind of exercise, with a background in football and running, is much like a staying chaser lining up over five furlongs.

Before we begin, Glen Reed, one of the strength and conditioning coaches, sets out the rules of engagement. He lists all of the exercises we will be undertaking in 30-second intervals, each more taxing than the last. As a team we are set the target of completing either three circuits or, for the nightmare to end earlier, completing 7,500 metres on a SkiErg machine, a bizarre piece of kit originally designed as a training tool for cross-country skiers.

The box jump: higher than ideal and difficult to look elegant
The box jump: higher than ideal and difficult to look elegantCredit: Dan Abraham

I start with one of the easier and less complicated exercises, pushing a weighted sled. Good decision. Being the diligent person I am and to impress photographer Dan Abraham, I even break into a little jog while doing this. Bad decision. This will definitely come back to haunt me.

But for now, so far, so good. The next stop on the sweaty merry-go-round involves squatting with a 15-kilogram medicine ball before lobbing it as high as possible. My main concern is remembering to move out of the way when it falls back down again. This is followed by a box jump, which is fairly self-explanatory and murder on the legs.

You are no doubt wondering when it all starts to go south. After overdoing it slightly on the first three exercises, I had an idea I was in for a long evening during my first visit to the SkiErg. Find the right rhythm and this machine offers a full-body workout. Find the wrong one and not only do you look like an idiot but it really hurts your back.

The next few exercises are a bit of a blur and at this point there is some shortness of breath. Squatting and thrusting two kettle bells upwards seems a little unfair straight after the joys of the SkiErg, even when followed by the seemingly simple task of hopping back and forth over a bench. It is impossible to look in any way dignified doing this.

Next up, weighted sit-ups. The blood is really pumping at this point. It is not so much that the exercises are difficult, more that there is no respite between them. At this point, the other members of the group are shouting words of encouragement while I prioritise not blacking out.

Mercifully, I manage to get my breath back a little on the exercise bike and combat bike stations that follow. The latter requires you to push with your arms while pedalling. Somebody clearly looked at an exercise bike and decided it was not nearly challenging enough.

The SkiErg: perhaps the most deeply unpleasant of all the exercises
The SkiErg: perhaps the most deeply unpleasant of all the exercisesCredit: Dan Abraham

Glen keeps telling us to conserve our energy on some of the stations but the horse may have bolted on that one. It is a lovely idea in principle but, in practice, even just going through the motions is pretty taxing. The heart rate of a jockey can go above 190 beats per minute when riding a finish. I really hate to think what mine is now.

The penultimate exercise is the heavy battle ropes. You might have seen adverts for the gym on TV with unrealistically sculpted people nonchalantly flicking them up and down with a smile. The reality is that a great deal more grimacing is required to keep the momentum going. This was the moment I started to really struggle. When is our water break?

Believe it or not, there is still one more exercise to go before we embark on another circuit, the second of three. It involves slamming a medicine ball on the floor as hard as you possibly can. It is a form of therapy, ultimately, and turns out to be an effective way of letting out some frustration at having been placed in this uncompromising position.

Just about resisting the urge to be sick, I continue on the second circuit. Had I been a racehorse I probably would have been pulled up a long time ago. I decide to take a few liberties on some of the exercises, completely resting rather than just getting my breath back while my contemporaries somehow continue with a frightening urgency.

After some truly heroic efforts on the SkiErg (not from me, I hasten to add), the whistle is blown before the end of the third circuit. A few members of our group are laughing and joking. They look like they could do another few rounds. For me, the main focus is picking up whatever is left of my dignity and wobbling to the car without falling over.

To complete my authentic experience, I decide to punish myself further and weigh myself before leaving. One member of the group delicately informs me that I am probably a little too heavy to ride on the Flat but that I could pick up the odd ride over jumps if I manage to shift about two stone.

It is a lovely idea but there is no shame in admitting I do not have what it takes to be a professional jockey. I was sent here to find out just how fit you have to be to succeed in the saddle and, following a gruelling fitness session that pushed me right to the edge, I can tell you jockeys are even fitter than anyone could surely have imagined.

This feature was originally available exclusively for Members' Club subscribers. Members can read more great content including:

'I put all my eggs in one basket and I had no-one when I left - I was just riding everywhere and anywhere' 

'It was the best race I ever rode and I was very proud of it - but Sheikh Hamdan thought it was terrible!' 

Aidan O'Brien: 'The weirdest, strangest, most impossible things can happen in racing and in life' 

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