BECOME AFINELY TUNED MACHINE
With new rules making formula one cars faster and heavier, teams have been upgrading their most crucial components: the drivers. At McLaren’s HQ, these changes are inspiring training innovations that promise to fast-track strength and endurance gains for
The glass and steel buildings, futuristic laboratories and high-tech workshops of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey, home of the McLaren-Honda formula one racing team, evoke the exciting allure of technical innovation. But some of the most cutting-edge developments are taking place not in the cars but in McLaren’s state-of-the-art fitness centre. A major shake-up of formula one regulations this season has put the focus back on the strength, endurance and agility of the drivers. With new regulations meaning that bodywork and tyres are now wider and heavier (to boost the cars’ downforce and grip on the track), F1 cars are three to five seconds faster per lap and around 20kg heavier than last season, meaning drivers have to be stronger and sharper than ever.
“F1 drivers have to be highly conditioned to tolerate the rigours of racing at speeds of over 300km/h,” explains Simon Reynolds, driver performance manager at McLaren Applied Technologies, who oversees the physical training of Spain’s former double world champion Fernando Alonso, exciting Belgian star Stoffel Vandoorne and, in his new advisory role at McLaren this season, Britain’s 2009 world champion Jenson Button. “The faster and heavier the machine, the more stress and load the driver will experience.”
Although the McLaren team has had a slow start to the 2017 season, there’s no doubt its drivers are some of the fittest on the circuit. Steering a 722kg car at speeds of over 300km/h is hard
work: during races drivers burn 1,400 calories, lose up to 3kg of their bodyweight and work at 80% of their maximum heart rate for two hours. On corners they endure forces of 5G – the equivalent of having 40kg of weight tearing at their neck and shoulders – and every braking manoeuvre feels like executing a heavy gym lift. “Imagine doing leg presses with 100kg on one leg – that would give you some idea of what drivers have to do every time they brake,” says Reynolds.
To prepare the drivers, McLaren has developed new physical training regimes which mirror the forensic detail and precision of its aerodynamic research and car telemetry systems. Every detail of training is carefully planned – from the order, timing and phasing of gym workouts to the importance of psychological recovery and the neuromuscular benefits of reaction-training drills. The same attention is seen in the drivers’ diets, from the bloodflow-boosting polyphenols in their morning blueberries to the antiinflammatory properties of the garlic in their post-workout stir-fries.
“It’s in the last 15-20 laps of a race when the fit guys get the advantage,” says Alonso, who as part of a pre-season programme once completed 936km of cycling, 91km of running, eight hours of swimming and seven hours of gym work in one threeweek training block. “That’s why, for me, training is the base. Everything else that makes you successful is built on top.”
Here Reynolds explains what the rest of us can learn from formula one’s new fitness arms race.
What kind of unique physical challenges do formula one drivers face?
The drivers have to endure stress on the head, neck and shoulders, but it’s the shoulders that really provide the platform of support. I classify F1 as a strength endurance sport because the drivers have to tolerate moderate loads for many repetitions over a race. When drivers are racing there are a lot of elements they can’t predict so they have to hone their reactions too – and the temperature in the cockpit can exceed 40°C.
How do you structure drivers’ gym workouts for optimal results?
Squats, deadlifts, rows and bench presses are the core foundational exercises which help to build the robustness of the athlete. But the trick is to work on a very
scientific approach, using periodisation models to plan their training. First we lay a foundation of endurance and good biomechanics, then we do a small phase of hypertrophy – trying not to gain too much muscle mass, because we want the drivers to be lean and light – and then we will move on to a pure strength phase.
How do you work on improving their agility and reaction speeds?
We use plyometric, agility and speed exercises to help improve their neuromuscular capabilities so they respond better during a race. The exercises aren’t specific to F1 – they just train the neuromuscular system to become faster and more reactive. We get the drivers to do cone sprint drills to work on their reactions but we also challenge them mentally by using different-coloured cones or different audio cues, with instructions to run to certain cones. It helps them to work their body and mind at speed.
Why is it so important to work mind and body at the same time?
It helps drivers to respond quickly when they hear cues from engineers or when they have to react to stimulus on the track. They also do ladder sprint drills – not just for speed but for challenging their mind so they have to think about foot placements while running quickly. With young drivers we do drills like learning to juggle and throwing balls against walls and catching them to improve hand/eye co-ordination.
How individually tailored is each driver’s workout?
If you look at human biomechanics, the drivers are not in the most favourable position – they are almost lying down or reclining in the car – so we have to correct any imbalances. We try to ensure drivers don’t get overstrengthened in the front of the body so they remain balanced, otherwise postural issues may arise. That means each individual athlete has to work closely with a physio on the mechanics of their body and do lots of exercises that help ensure a balanced body.
How do you get the best results from core training drills?
Because drivers are in an isometric or static position in the car, they have to prepare by performing postural stability and core stability
exercises which challenge the body in an isometric position. One of the most basic exercises would be holding a plank position but transferring it onto a gym ball or medicine ball. The drivers are able to do pretty incredible things with gymnastic movements and stability exercises because they have worked on them for so long. They also use a cable machine and free weights to do exercises that mimic the driving position.
What would a typical training day look like?
It might start with a morning bike ride, which gives a full cross-training effect. A bike ride might involve two hours at different heart rates
or some interval training which simulates the high heart rate drivers experience in racing. In a race they can hit 80% of their maximum heart rate for up to two hours. Then around 4-5pm, they do strength exercises – we separate cardio and strength training because they don’t go well together in the same session and it’s harder to get the maximum benefits. This could be a strength endurance session, which would involve high-repetition exercises with bodyweight drills, free weights or cable machines; or it could be a higher-load pure strength session, with low reps.
How have McLaren’s gym training sessions changed recently?
Lots of new research shows strength training has a significant effect on improving endurance characteristics as well. Strength training with heavier loads can benefit endurance athletes by improving strength, power and neuromuscular capability. A lot of coaches didn’t do that in the past but now we know it helps to build robustness to help athletes tolerate the stress of training.
How important is the psychology of training?
It is very important that drivers get outside. Outdoors is my favourite gym and it’s incredibly good for the drivers’ mental recovery. Even when you’re pushing hard, it provides a mental recovery. F1 is a tough sport with a lot of travelling and marketing and media work, so it’s crucial for mental relaxation.
Where do you look for new ideas?
I view myself as a filter for the best information from places like Oxford University Medical School and Imperial College London, along with chief medical officer Adam Hill and head of human performance Michael Collier, who’s worked with Jenson Button for almost a decade – but I don’t consider myself an expert in all areas and we need support. McLaren Applied Technologies works with different specialists, working on how to monitor imbalances or use simulations, monitoring systems and bio-telemetry devices. Clayton Green, our human performance manager, and David Harvey, an accredited scientist, provide fitness testing on drivers throughout the season. It’s a collaborative team.
Which workouts do the drivers hate the most?
The drivers don’t really enjoy interval sessions when they’re pushing hard, and the postural and core stability sessions can be pretty challenging too. They do seem to enjoy strength training and running outside. The drivers need time off, so we have breaks within the periodisation models with opportunities for them to choose what they want to do… but it’s not for very long!
Technogym is the official fitness equipment supplier to McLaren. For more information on how champions train with Technogym visit technogym.com
Vandoorne and the other drives do cardio sessions in the mornings, keeping them separate from strength training for the best results
“Strength training with heavier loads can benefit endurance athletes by improving strength, power and neuromuscular capability,” says coach Reynolds