Training in the 20th & 21st century

By Willie Carson OBE Champion Jockey in 1972, 1973, 1978, 1980 & 1983

the training – it’s all changed in my lifetime. Nowadays you’ve got gyms, they’ve got these equicisers. We had a bail of straw! I wasn’t naturally fit. I did 6 stone 5 in 1959 at Aintree, and that wasn’t a natural weight for me – I was on oranges for a week.

I’d imagine cyclists are the fittest sportsmen of all, but the best way to get fit for race-riding was to race-ride. It’s very difficult to get race-riding fit because of the muscles you don’t use unless you’re riding – your legs, basically, the quads. They actually take a lot of strain – standing up on the irons and pushing the horse is basically like doing a rowing machine. When you’re not riding every day, you’d have to keep running and cycling – put on as many clothes as you could and go running. There were no gyms, especially where I was up in Middleham, miles from nowhere.

Of course, in my day we had four months off, and then it was always a battle at the beginning of the season to get fit again. The last 10 years of riding I would go to my local place down here (near Cirencester) and I always had a private trainer to push me. As you get older in years you have to be pushed. He timed me at things and he’d try to make me go quicker every day. I’d cycle for 15 minutes just to warm up, stretches, rowing machine, weights – I did everything.

It was a gruelling hour. I felt great; I felt much stronger and the wind was a lot better. One year – it was the first time I’d used a private trainer – I started 3-4 weeks before racing started and I ended up going to the races 8 stone 2. Very fit – but very muscly. The muscle I’d built up at the top of my legs put weight on me and I couldn’t do my weight, so there was a bit of panic. But I stopped doing the gym and, by riding every day, gradually those muscles went.

The race meeting (to mark the start of the season) always in your mind was Doncaster. You jumped off the first horse and your knees gave way, oh dear! Then there was a race over two miles. I always dreaded getting a ride in that – there were a lot of tired jockeys in that race. If you got involved in the finish and overdid it – I remember one year I just lay down in the weighing room. It’s like breathing in fire, every breath felt like fire in your chest.

That was before the days of the gyms. That was riding and not being 100 per cent fit. But after a week of riding every day you get into the rhythm. I always had a hot bath before I went to the races – luckily I had an aeroplane, so I’d be in a hot bath two hours before I rode to loosen up all the muscles. I’ve had 36 broken bones that I know about.

I didn’t box, but I did meet Muhammad Ali; that was ’69. I was in Miami for the winter, riding, learning the trade as it were. He was in Miami Beach, at Angelo Dundee’s gym. I was chatting to Angelo, and Ali was a few yards away being interviewed for TV. And then all of a sudden Angelo got hold of me and threw me up against Ali. He was a giant of a man, don’t forget, and I’m a little shrimp. And of course your man, quick as a flash, turned around and looked at me, looking down with those great big eyes, and said: “Don’t hit me, don’t hit me.” My head went up to his waist, I think.


Jim Crowley Champion Jockey 2016

I remember a few years back Kieren Fallon said to me: “Being a champion jockey is all in the mind.” I remember thinking this was absolute nonsense, but he was right! 

Since becoming champion jockey you really do realise how much of a mental test it is. If I’m riding out in the mornings I’ll be up at 5:30am and my last ride could be at 9pm, so I won’t get home until midnight – and this monotonous cycle will continue, so family time is really precious. I realised in order to counter this I had to get myself a driver who would take me to the different racecourses I was riding at. It’s the best thing I ever did, as it meant in those down moments I could chat to my wife and kids and take my mind off things. My family have always been so supportive. 

No day is exactly the same and my routine is constantly evolving. During the first half of the year I would be riding out twice a week and keeping fit in the gym (I have a gym at home, which helps). I do a lot of interval training – sprinting for 20/30 seconds and then resting for 40 seconds – and I’ll try and do this for 30 minutes. It’s a real killer. It’s all about doing those hard yards early so you can sustain the physical pressures throughout the long season. One of the main reasons I won the Jockeys Championship this year was down to my fitness – I genuinely never felt tired,­ even when I was going from Haydock to Chelmsford in a day.

A few of us jockeys went up to see Dr George Wilson at Liverpool John Moores University a couple of years back – he has revolutionised how jockeys train and live their lives.

Now I know that after exercise I have a 30-minute window to refuel my body properly. It’s so scientific now it’s scary. I’ll have a protein shake straight after I work out, and then I’ll have ham and eggs as a meal to keep protein intake up. When I’m riding through the day I rely on fruit and nuts to snack on, as I can’t really eat anything too large or heavy. 

At the end of a long day’s racing all I want to do is get home and spend quality time with ­my family. We only have one month now in the off-season, so it’s important to unwind and relax. This goes for food as well – I literally eat anything and everything. I think it’s important to enjoy yourself; it keeps you sane.  

My natural weight is 9 stone 5, but I need to be at 8 stone 9 to ride. Before my new diet I really used to struggle making the weight; I was constantly in the sauna sweating everything out – it was pretty horrible and it wasn’t sustainable. I know for a fact that if I were doing it this way I would never have become champion jockey. 

Since seeing Dr Wilson I don’t struggle at all any more, and at 38 I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Mentally I feel stronger because I have so much confidence in my routine and what I’m eating, so if you can look after yourself in that way other things tend to fall into place.

With regards to becoming champion, I never really set out to become champion jockey. It sounds strange, but because the season is so long you just can’t sustain it. Basically if you have a chance two months out from the end then you go for it; it’s actually a plan that you really only make halfway through the season. 

For example, when I rode 46 winners in September – which is unheard of – you honestly couldn’t go at that rate through the whole year. You do, however, start to become very ruthless the closer you get to the prize.

I remember taking a bit of stick for not riding up at Doncaster at the Leger meeting – but as my horse was a non-runner it meant that I was able to ride a four-timer at Lingfield that very same day. 

I loved my battles with Silvestre de Sousa. It’s weird, though, because in the last month of riding it was like I was riding with a sixth sense. I genuinely thought I was invincible – the closest jockeys come to being in the zone, I guess. Every time I sat on a horse I knew I would win.

Fitzdares has made a donation to the Freddy Tylicki fund on behalf of both jockeys.