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Professional Version

Prevention of Fatigue in Animals


Amelia S. Munsterman

, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVECC, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2019 | Modified Nov 2022

Physical training can be used to increase the time until and reduce the severity of muscular fatigue. A warm-up should be used, regardless of the sport, and the animal should have time to acclimate to the exertion expected, as well as the environment. Feeding regimens can be used to help maintain hydration during exertion, and a high-fat diet may help improve the metabolic and thermoregulatory response to exercise. Providing electrolyte solutions during and after an event may help maintain hydration and prevent fatigue and heat-related illnesses.

Physical Training to Prevent Fatigue in Animals

Physical training is the most effective way to reduce fatigue and increase capacity for exercise. Physiologic responses to training that contribute to increased exercise capacity include increases in:

  • maximal rate of oxygen transport

  • cardiac stroke volume

  • muscle capillary density

  • circulating blood volume

  • total hemoglobin content

Hypertrophy of muscle cells occurs, coupled with increases in concentrations of mitochondria, glycogen, and enzymes concerned with cellular energy production.

Sport-specific training can result in specific adaptions to the type of activity, although much of this research has been performed in racehorses. For example, sprint training can result in decreased proportions of slow-twitch muscle fibers, whereas endurance training can result in increased oxidative capacity of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Sprint training also modulates the electrolyte changes associated with intense exercise, including decreased potassium efflux from working muscles, resulting in a smaller increase in plasma potassium concentration and delayed onset of fatigue. Training also modulates the exercise-induced decline in both calcium reuptake by the sarcoplasmic reticulum and calcium-ATPase activity associated with fatigue.

Adaptations to training in skeletal muscle depend on the training intensity. Horses trained at intensities >80% of their maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) had an increase in their percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers and an 8% increase in the buffering capacity of exercised muscle. These responses did not occur in horses trained at 40% of VO2max.

Heart rate monitors can be used to guide the intensity of training to improve the adaptive response to training. Heart rates that result in 80% of VO2max are ~90% of maximal heart rate, which typically ranges from 210 to 240 bpm in horses. Heart rate monitors can also be used to measure an individual horse's heart rate during slow and fast exercise and to calculate the exercise velocities that result in heart rates of 90% of maximal heart rate. Blood lactate after exercise may be used to measure the appropriate training intensity. At an exercise intensity of 80% VO2max, plasma lactate concentration during treadmill exercise are in the range of 4–10 mmol/L.

Warm-up to Prevent Fatigue in Animals

Warm-up before exercise significantly increases the time to fatigue during intense exercise. Warm-up increases muscle temperature before exercise, increases the rate at which oxygen uptake increases, and reduces lactate accumulation by enhancing aerobic metabolism. The effect is similar whether the warm-up is low intensity (5–10 minutes at 50% VO2max), moderate intensity (1 minute at 70% VO2max), high intensity (1 minute at 115% VO2 max), or a combination of low- and high-intensity. The practical importance of this finding is that a warm-up before competition involving intense exercise is likely to increase the time to fatigue during Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, and Standardbred races.

Manipulation of Acid-Base Balance, Diet, and Hydration to Prevent Fatigue in Animals

Bicarbonate Solutions

Some feel that fatigue during intense exercise may be delayed by manipulation of acid-base status before exercise to increase the plasma-buffering capacity. Although some trainers have given sodium bicarbonate before races, this practice is now banned by many racing administrations. The treatment does alter blood pH and lactate concentration during exercise; however, the effect of alkalinizing solutions on equine performance is equivocal. Bicarbonate given at a dosage of 0.6 g/kg has not been shown to delay fatigue. Although a metabolic alkalosis could be induced, giving sodium bicarbonate before intense treadmill exercise did not effect the metabolic response to exercise. In Greyhounds, a dose of sodium bicarbonate at 0.4 g/kg did not have a significant effect on race time in races >400 m long. However, there may be an ergogenic effect when sodium bicarbonate is administered at high dosages. Sodium bicarbonate at a dosage rate of 1 g/kg (by nasogastric tube) increased the time to fatigue in horses running on a treadmill, suggesting that treatment at this dose would affect performance.

Hydration Status in Animals

Energy supply and hydration are frequently manipulated in human athletes to limit fatigue during endurance exercise. Dehydration before exercise results in higher core temperatures during exercise in horses. It would be inappropriate for an animal to begin an endurance exercise with suboptimal hydration. Horses are more susceptible to hyperthermia during prolonged exercise than people because of their high body mass to surface area ratio, which inhibits heat loss. Equine thermoregulation also results in extreme changes to total body fluid status, and there is increasing interest in ways to limit excessive responses to exercise by pre-exercise fluid administration.

Hyperhydration by administration of electrolytes or saline solutions orally before exercise results in expansion of blood volume during the event. Studies suggest that hyperhydration before prolonged exercise helps conserve plasma volume during exercise but does not lower body temperature or improve arterial hypoxemia. Maintenance of euhydration with water or a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution during exercise improves perfusion parameters and sweating rates and reduces heat storage. Horses should also be acclimated to hot environments before competition.

Nutritional Status and Supplements in Animals

Horses should not be given large meals (recommendations are equal to half the ration) 1–2 hours before intense exercise, because plasma volume is decreased for at least 1 hour after a large meal. Large meals may also shift fluid to the GI tract, reducing cardiovascular and thermoregulatory function during exercise. Feeding smaller rations every 4 hours does not result in changes in plasma volume. A short-term reduction in fiber intake before high-intensity racing (fed as ~1% of body wt in hay for 3 days before high-intensity exercise) is a strategy to reduce GI water volume and, hence, body weight. For endurance exercise, feeding before exercise, especially high-fiber feeds, is likely to be beneficial, because the increased water in the GI tract can be an important reservoir for water and electrolytes to replace sweat losses. Feeding high-fiber feeds also increases voluntary water intake and may have a positive effect on performance in both high-intensity exercise and endurance trials.

Glucose supplementation may help limit fatigue during endurance exercise in horses. Endurance time during treadmill running was prolonged by IV infusion of a glucose solution. Plasma glucose concentration was higher than in control subjects, and plasma lactate concentration and body temperature were lower at the point of fatigue. These results suggest that supplemental glucose during exercise may prolong performance time in horses by:

  • increasing glucose availability

  • reducing reliance on anaerobic energy production

  • lowering core temperature

  • better maintaining plasma volume

In endurance horses, hydrolyzable starches and sugars fed within 3 hours of a race may increase glucose utilization in the short term but inhibit lipid oxidation, which could be detrimental for energy production.

Glycogen concentration in skeletal muscle before performance is relevant to fatigue during both short-term/intense and prolonged endurance exercise. Depletion of muscle glycogen before exercise causes a decrease in anaerobic power generation and capacity for high-intensity work. Intense or prolonged exercise depletes the muscle glycogen stores, and it may take 48 hours for glycogen to be replenished in a horse. Although modest increases in glycogen stores may be obtained using high-starch diets in a horse, no benefit to performance has been shown. On the contrary, high-carbohydrate diets have increased heart rate and blood lactate concentration during intense exercise. Use of glucose or other carbohydrate solutions before racing to promote performance in Standardbred and Thoroughbred racehorses has no scientific basis.

Fat supplementation is now a widespread practice in diets for athletic horses and can improve performance during endurance exercise. Increased free fatty acid concentrations in the bloodstream before prolonged exercise result in an increased use of fat as an energy source and higher blood glucose and muscle glycogen concentrations during exercise. The increased use of fat as a fuel results in lower respiratory demands for exercise, because less carbon dioxide must be expired. Fat adaptation appears to facilitate the metabolic regulation of glycolysis by sparing glucose and glycogen at low-intensity work and by promoting glycolysis when power is needed for high-intensity exercise. Adding fat to the diet also affects the metabolic and thermoregulatory response to exercise. Feeding vegetable oil at a rate of 10%–12% of the total diet on a dry-matter basis has been suggested, but horses must be acclimated to high-fat diets. Otherwise, fat supplementation can slow the rate of muscle glycogen repletion.

Creatine has been used in horses as an ergogenic aid, but there is no evidence of its efficacy. Horses receiving 25 g of creatine monohydrate twice daily for 6.5 days did not have significantly different run times until fatigue on a treadmill than control horses. Supplementation with creatine also had no significant effect on muscle or blood creatine concentrations at rest or after exercise until fatigue. In horses used for barrel racing, creatine had no effect on time scores, heart rate, or plasma lactate concentration.

An association between plasma vitamin E concentration and performance has been described in sled dogs. Dogs with a higher prerace vitamin E concentration were more likely to finish the race and were less likely to be withdrawn during the race for poor health, fatigue, or other reasons. Vitamin E concentrations for the dog teams overall were not associated with speed during the race. However, in horses, high levels of vitamin E (10,000 IU/day) may be detrimental and have been associated with a reduction in beta-carotene levels. Additional studies are needed to investigate whether reduced signs of fatigue are directly linked to higher vitamin E concentration in the bloodstream or if they have a negative effect overall.

Recovery to Prevent Fatigue in Animals

Recovery of horses after endurance exercise is influenced by the rehydration strategy used. After prolonged treadmill exercise and furosemide-induced dehydration, horses offered a saline solution (0.9% NaCl) as the initial rehydration fluid maintained a plasma sodium concentration higher than that of control horses. The recovery of body weight was more rapid than in horses offered plain water. A similar study noted ambient temperature fluids were more palatable (20°C [68°F]) and increased voluntary intake. Water intake can also be increased by providing a saline solution (0.9% NaCl) both during and after endurance exercise. Sodium chloride solutions may increase plasma chloride and accentuate metabolic acidosis; as a result, isotonic polyionic electrolyte solutions formulated specifically for horses should be selected. When providing electrolyte solutions, horses may need to be trained to drink these fluids, and plain water should always be available. However, use of electrolyte solutions should be encouraged, especially in horses required to compete on consecutive days, such as in endurance rides and 3-day events.

Key Points

  • Regardless of the sport, animals must be trained to develop the fitness needed to complete the task at hand.

  • Both high-intensity and endurance sports benefit from an adequate warm-up before exertion to improve aerobic metabolism.

  • Animals should be well hydrated before an event and provided opportunities to rehydrate in endurance sports or during periods of rest between activities.

  • Ambient temperature fluids are more palatable to horses during and after exercise, and both electrolyte and plain fluids should be offered for rehydration.

For More Information

  • Fielding CL, Meier CA, Balch OK, Kass PH. Risk factors for the elimination of endurance horses from competition. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2011 Aug 15;239(4):493-8. doi: 10.2460/javma.239.4.493.

  • Munsters CC1, van Iwaarden A2, van Weeren R2, Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan MM2. Exercise testing in Warmblood sport horses under field conditions Vet J 2014 Oct;202(1):11-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.07.019. Epub 2014 Jul 31.

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