SSA Blog: Is being a Jockey the toughest job in sport?

It's estimated that globally, 600 million people tune in to watch the Grand National. Last year, Channel 4 reported viewing figures of 10 million, 3 million more than the BBC reported for the FA Cup Final. With the glamour and interest the surrounds national fixtures such as The Grand National, The Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot, to the casual observer, the sport of kings looks like a fantastic place to ply your trade.

Recently, sport science has focused lots of attention on weight making sports, particularly combat sports. However, for professional jockey’s the need to maintain a low body mass throughout the season creates a challenge unlike any other in sport.

While professional boxers ‘weigh in’ the day before a fight, Jockeys are required to jump on the scales before every race. This puts huge, consistent pressure on riders, consequently many resort to terrible tactics including dehydration, appetite-suppressants, vomiting, laxatives and a chronic low calorie diet that can have health threatening consequences.    

Minimum riding weights in the UK are traditionally low, encouraging Jockeys to push for greater losses in the belief that owners favour lighter riders. The ability to consistently make weight is certainly seen as a sign of professionalism within the industry. But this has led to Jockeys using rapid weight loss techniques. In a study published in 2012, George Wilson and his team showed that Jockeys might lose as much as 4.5kg (around 6.7% of body mass) in under 24 hours in order to secure a ride.

This sort of rapid weight loss can cause a number of issues, from headaches and nausea right through to reported deaths (Centres for Disease Control and Pretension, 1997). Rapid weight loss isn’t the only problem. The transient nature of horse racing and nomadic existence of jockeys means support structures and routines that help other athletes prepare for elite performance are often lacking. It isn’t surprising then that numerous studies report a constant poor quality, low energy diet.

In a follow up study, Wilson et al (2013) investigated a number of biomarkers in professional Jockeys with the belief that their health was at risk because of the lifestyle associated with weight making. Worryingly, their findings supported the hypothesis. A number of riders displayed issues ranging from chronic dehydration, which was described as “not only detrimental to athletics performance but also potentially dangerous to health”, through to vitamin D deficiencies with the potential for “reduced neuromuscular performance”. Perhaps the most sticking finding was reduced bone mass and Calcium levels, well below those recommended for daily health, let alone athletic populations. Osteomalacia was seen in a number of participants which not only increases the risk of fractures but will also inhibit the healing process. Not a great prospect for a professional already at high risk of broken bones due to falls.

Recently it’s been suggested that energy restriction and dehydration can have mental as well as physical consequences. Martin Eubank, part of Wilson et al’s (2013) study, observed higher than average anger, depression and fatigue as well as lower than average levels of vigour. The team have suggested that these negative mood states can be corrected via “dietary intervention” but when weight making is effectively your living, it is a hard balance to find.

Earlier this year John O’Reilly and a team of researchers published ‘in race’ data that found Jockeys were operating at 90% Heart Rate max during races. This demonstrates Jockeys are performing at a level of physicality concurrent with other elite athletes. The team also echoed the results from previous studies regarding reduced bone health, dehydration issues and chronic lack of macronutrients.

O’Reilly‘s research illustrates the incredible challenge that professional jockeys face. They are expected to compete at a physically elite level, often throughout a full day, while enduring sub-optimal nutritional, physiological and psychological states which undoubtedly impact on performance and increase the risk of injury in the short and illness in the long term.

British Horse Racing is taking these finding very seriously and has put together a programme to help educate and support Jockeys in relation to nutrition, training and recovery. They have also raised minimum weights in response to some of the research quoted above. But with constant weight making still at the heart of the profession, the extremes Jockeys are willing to put themselves through, the risks they are willing to accept and the physicality associated with piloting a half ton animal so we can have a flutter surely makes being a Jockey the toughest job in sport.