Fitness and motorsport is a fairly underestimated, misunderstood and generally ignored subject. People even in my family often ask me, “Why on earth do you train for so long? You’re just sitting in a car driving round and round!” That statement, while being vaguely true, doesn’t even begin to describe the amount of effort it takes to drive a serious racing car.
The fitness required is quite comprehensive in that you need strong cardio-vascular endurance combined with strength particularly in the upper body and, most importantly, you need strong neck muscles. I was never an athletic kid. In fact, when I was 16, I peaked at 96kgs, so I was very much the fatso in class!
I soon realised that racing needed a huge commitment from the driver to perform at the highest level and I have slogged for the last few years to achieve that. A driver’s weekly schedule is primarily made up of cardio sessions — either running, cycling, swimming or a combination of them all with some cross training.
Cycling seems to be the most popular one today as it is a low-impact, low-injury form of training. A lot more drivers are now carrying their bikes with them to races, as well as it’s a good way to do some laps of the circuit before the practice sessions begin.
CV fitness is very important — a driver’s heart rate is generally averaging around 167-172 beats per minute for the entire duration of the race. It’s very important to have a good baseline built up in the winter training and ensure the lactic acid doesn’t build up and cause cramps during the race.
During the off-season, the weight training gets a bit more intense, but once we get to the end of February, it’s more circuit and resistance training for the rest of the season. The circuit training is really intense with a variety of about 20 different weight-training exercises with lower weights and more repetitions to build muscle endurance. Core and back strengthening exercises are very important as well as they are key to having stability in the car while going through corners at over 250 kmh.
People often underestimate the importance of core training for any sport, but it is amazing how strong core and back muscles can make a difference.
The neck muscles are the ones that are very specialised for motor racing. There is no other sport in the world where your neck muscles are subjected to such high loads for such a long period of time.
To be honest, I’ve seen pretty much every type of exercise to build up neck muscles, but there is nothing in the world that compares with driving the car. It’s amazing how much stronger my neck gets during the season and also how quickly it weakens off during the winter despite all the training in the gym.
The reason for this is the G-forces you experience in the car. When braking or cornering at 5G, your head suddenly weighs 22kg and that is a huge mass for your neck to support. To give you an idea, just try lying on your back, supported up to your shoulders with your neck and head hanging off the end of your bed.Now, try lifting your head up and down slowly 30 times, then look left and right 30 times and then hold it flat for 60 seconds — that will give you an idea of what just a few laps in a car feels like for your neck!
Food and hydration are also really important on a race weekend. While the rest of the time it’s mainly a protein-based diet, during a race weekend, you need the carbohydrates to keep you going. It’s amazing how much nervous energy gets burnt off when you’re at a race weekend --- on race day, I eat breakfast at about 8 and an early lunch at 11:30, but already by 1:30 before the start, I’m absolutely starving! My physio always used to carry some energy bars to the grid for me to snack on just before the start.
Fluid intake is very important, especially in the hotter races like Malaysia and Budapest. At these places, 5-6 litres of water combined with isotonic drinks high in mineral salts, potassium and magnesium are a must. Even during the race, the drivers carry about half a litre of fluid in the car to drink.
Karting is actually a great way to stay fit and I know guys like Fernando and Schumacher are also big karters in between the races. I bought myself a kart last year and have been out once or twice a week, which is a really hard workout on its own. It is also a great way to keep the reflexes and race craft sharp.