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Racing on 04.12.2022
Racing on 05.12.2022
A "mental ordeal" - jockeys and their struggle for weight

Their job is tough, because the constant battle for weight takes its toll. And nutrition plays an enormously important role for a jockey. The Racing Post has just taken an in-depth look at this topic. From heavyweight boxers to lightweight jockeys, top athletes come in all shapes and sizes.

Boxers and jockeys may be far apart physically in many cases, but they have one rare thing in common - they have to make weight before they go on stage. Yet there is a crucial difference.

While a boxer may have to make a certain weight four times a year, for jockeys the battle against the scales takes place every day. It is often pointed out that racing is the only sport where athletes are accompanied by an ambulance, and similarly, racing is unique in that its participants are known to perform hungry and dehydrated.

Food and water are the fuel for the body. For many years, however, these essentials were considered enemy number one for jockeys who are under pressure to meet weight requirements that contradict physiology.

This has led to a jockey`s life consisting of a diet of fresh air and not much else, with plenty of sweating to boot.

In 2010, legendary steeplechase rider Tony McCoy revealed his strict diet, even saying that eating 12 grapes "felt like an act of rebellion".

McCoy often contented himself with a sugary tea for breakfast and two jelly babies for lunch before eating fish and steamed vegetables with a blob of mayonnaise in the evening, his secret favourite. Three nights a week he went to bed hungry.

Jockeys have been known to try to lose weight quickly by vomiting on themselves, known in the industry as "flipping", and taking diuretics, also called water pills. These methods sound extreme, but unfortunately are much more common than you might think, especially in America.

Racing has been slow to advance the science of nutrition and exercise to enhance performance, but more recently the Professional Jockeys Association, in collaboration with the British Horseracing Authority, has forged close links with the Research Institute of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University, led by Dr George Wilson.

The team`s work at John Moores University aims to help jockeys lose weight safely.

"The general consensus was that you had to sweat and starve yourself to gain weight and I wanted to change that because as an amateur/professional rider I was doing these stupid things like losing 7lbs in a short space of time and it was horrendous," said Dr Wilson.

"We give jockeys the knowledge that if they exercise at the same time, they can eat the right food several times a day. The math is very simple: if energy expenditure is greater than energy intake, you should control and maintain your weight. Dehydration and rapid weight loss affect strength and reaction time - and these are the two things you must have to be a top jockey. In the past, many jockeys would have one big meal in the evening, often consisting of high-energy foods like burgers and fries - and a couple of cans of lager - because it`s convenient because they`re on the road a lot. We say you can break those calories down into small meals that provide better nutrition throughout the day: Breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack and a meal in the evening."

Officially, a guideline of 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day is given, which is far below the -average [2,500 per day for men and 2,000 per day for women], but is considered sufficient for healthy weight maintenance.

"We measured the energy expenditure of jockeys and found that flat jockeys consume an average of 2,500 calories per day, even with six rides per day," Dr Wilson said.

"We had to dispel the myth that jockeys expend a lot of energy because they finish races exhausted. The energy expenditure is only about 60 calories per ride. They don`t play football for 90 minutes or run a marathon. So if they eat 1,800 calories a day, they have a 700 calorie deficit.

The saunas at the racetracks that were closed because of Corona remained permanently closed, and in the spring of 2022 the minimum weight for riders was raised.

This still corresponds to the average weight of a 14- to 15-year-old boy. Recent research has shown that the average flat jockey weighs 56 kg and a steeplechase jockey 65 kg. At 1.70m, Adam Kirby is one of the tallest jockeys in both sports and rides on the track at a minimum weight of 1.90m. The 33-year-old Derby winner has long struggled with the scales and admits it takes its toll.

"It`s a mental ordeal," he said. "Hours and hours of work every day and no one seems to realise that. We`re left to deal with it, and that`s what we have to deal with."

A similar struggle drove showjumper Ryan Mania to ruin when he retired shortly after winning the 2013 Grand National because he kept having weight problems.

"The worst part of my diet was breakfast, which was Red Bull and chocolate - that was a very bad start to the day," Mania said. "Then in the evening I would have some kind of meal, but it was never very nutritious."

After a five-year break, Mania returned to the saddle and, with the help of a sports dietician, changed his diet and fitness regime, which helped him make a successful comeback.

He says: "Now I eat three 500-calorie meals and a 200-calorie snack every day. For breakfast I eat a bowl of Weetabix or porridge, for lunch a jacket potato with tuna or a chicken wrap and for dinner chilli con carne or chicken breast with vegetables. For snacks, I eat a protein bar and drink at least a litre of water as well as tea and coffee. The food is prepared very healthily and it`s all about keeping the calories to a minimum and combining it all with a good amount of exercise without killing myself. I`m not a robot, though, and I allow myself a `cheat night` with a glass of wine and chocolate every fortnight, because you need that downtime."

Mania has found that the change in diet has given him more energy to cope with the demands placed on all aspects of a jockey`s life.

"I used to be a lanky jockey, now I`m a professional athlete," he says. "It`s nice to take it seriously and fuel your body for what it does. You feel healthier and stronger and you can think much faster and better. You`re less grumpy and tired.

"If we want to do our best and cope with the daily struggle, it`s very important that we do the right fitness and eat the right things."

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