From the Wall Street Journal
As they age, many athletes put more effort into their workouts, but Mike Smith, a veteran jockey, did the opposite and scaled back.
“I used to do too much and it wasn’t always good for me,” he says. “If you train too hard all of the time your body starts to ache. I found I was getting hurt and always tired.”
Mr. Smith’s training outlook has helped him endure in a sport where the average retirement age for a jockey is between 40 and 45, according to the Jockeys’ Guild.
Mr. Smith, 49, will compete in 11 of the 13 races at the 2014 Breeders’ Cup in Santa Anita, Calif., on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, an event widely considered the world championship of horse racing. Mr. Smith, who has been racing since age 11, has won more Breeders’ Cup races—20 to date—than any other jockey. On Nov. 1, he will ride Shared Belief, a favorite to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Nine years ago, he hired trainer Tony Vong to help him work out smarter. Mr. Vong says Mr. Smith’s level of fitness has made him less susceptible to injuries. “He has very good balance on the horse and knows how hard to push himself and when,” Mr. Vong says.
Mr. Smith’s resilience was on display last month when his horse slipped and fell during the Rodeo Drive Stakes at Santa Anita Park, sending him flying. He was bruised and shaken but later that day rode Shared Belief to win the Awesome Again Stakes. The stronger your body, “the more likely you are to be able to walk away from a fall,” Mr. Smith says. “All of my workouts help with reaction time and balance and agility, and you need to react fast when you get thrown.”
His strategy is cardio in all forms—intervals, long runs, cardio machines. He runs or bikes from his home in Sierra Madre, Calif., to the gym and back as his warm-up and cool-down. “The route is downhill to get to the gym and uphill to get back home which is tough after a hard workout,” he says.
He rides almost daily. “It’s good cardio work for me and the horse and keeps my legs strong,” he says.
He might ride 600 different horses in the span of a year, he says, so he is always watching films of past races to better understand a horse. He has raced greats such as 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Zenyatta.
“I’m always studying,” he says. “It’s kind of like how football teams study a playbook and watch films,” he says. “You’ve got to keep your mind and body sharp in this sport.”
Mr. Smith’s most intense training periods come right before the Triple Crown season, which starts in May with the Kentucky Derby, and before the Breeders’ Cup in the fall.
He works with Mr. Vong at the gym for an hour six days a week, focusing on circuit-style strength training for his arms, back and core. Mr. Smith’s workouts focus intensely on just one or two muscle groups a day, such as back, biceps and shoulders one day, and legs the next.
That’s followed by intense cardio intervals on the treadmill or rowing machine, and then a repeat of the strength circuit. He says the sprint intervals mimic the intensity of a race, which usually lasts no more than two minutes. Workouts lighten up as the Breeders’ Cup approaches. The shorter sessions focus on three muscles groups and involve fewer reps of every exercise.
Core strength is a big focus of his workouts, and they often include ab exercises such as mountain climbers, where he starts out in a push-up position and then brings his right knee up to his right arm and back. He alternates legs as quickly as possible. “It puts you into a similar body position as you would have while riding a horse,” he says.
He’ll do weighted sit-ups and hanging leg raises. There are also resistance leg throws, where he lies on the floor with his legs at a 90-degree angle in the air and Mr. Vong tries to push them down while Mr. Smith tries to keep them up.
Mr. Smith keeps a mechanical horse called an Equicizer in his garage to help maintain his muscle memory during the rare times he can’t get to the stables. The machine simulates the way a horse moves. “If you can ride that for five minutes you’re extremely fit,” he says. “Staying in a squat position for that long is a whole body workout.”
Mr. Smith says he tries to keep his weight at around 115 pounds so that with boots, silks and saddle he is no more than 118 pounds. But he never lets himself feel deprived, he says. “I have taught myself to feel satisfied with just one bite of something.”
He has a cup of coffee for breakfast. On race day, he’ll only have whole wheat toast and a banana for lunch. Dinner is his major meal, which is often grilled or poached fish or occasionally his favorite, a small steak and potatoes. He drinks coconut water for hydration and to get potassium and electrolytes.
Mr. Smith runs in Asics sneakers. He rides with goggles, a helmet, a riding crop and a padded safety vest. He owns a Diamondback hybrid bike.
Mr. Smith says he listens to country 80% of the time, but sometimes his mood might crave music of a certain era and he finds himself working out to Michael Jackson.