Jack Wilson is a Sport and Exercise Scientist at the Porsche Human Performance Centre at Silverstone and he's provided an insight into the huge amount of training hours that elite-level racing drivers put in, even during the off season...
As an outsider looking in, you might wonder why a racing driver would need to be fit to excel in their sport. After all, they just sit down and drive a car right? Not exactly.
Elite-level motorsport puts incredible demands on its competitors. The performance capabilities of modern-day race cars are such that drivers are put through more physical and mental stress now than ever before.
As with the cars, a lot of attention gets given to optimising the weight of an elite racing driver. This is especially true for single-seater racing categories like Formula 1 where every gram is scrutinised.
Race teams will calculate the ideal weight of their driver to maximise the car’s performance, which the driver must meticulously maintain for the duration of the season.
As well as being light, being lean is advantageous as lower body fat percentages help drivers cope with heat stress. It also allows them to possess greater levels of muscle mass without exceeding their weight limit. This is essential to help them manage the strength demands of the sport.
Depending on the height of the driver, body fat percentages of elite single-seater drivers can often be between 8-12%, with taller drivers typically needing lower body fat levels to offset their naturally heavier body weights.
Despite being sat down and not moving a great deal, it’s not uncommon for drivers' heart rates to reach 200bpm during a race. Physical exertion, hormonal responses and heat stress all likely play a role here.
Drivers' heart rates typically show a negative correlation with lap times (i.e. the faster the car is going, the higher the driver’s heart rate) and often positively correlate with session importance; increasing from practice to qualifying, and then to the race itself as the stakes get higher and higher.
As we’ll cover shortly, a driver’s endurance capacity is not only important to help them handle the cardiovascular burden of racing. It is another aspect that helps them cope with heat stress and it's also crucial to maximising their all-important mental capacity during a race.
Strength (and strength endurance)
Even if you’re not a massive motorsport fan, you'll probably have heard about the G-forces that elite drivers are exposed to. Again, Formula 1 provides a good example of this, as shown in this video of Lewis Hamilton completing a single lap of the Albert Park F1 circuit in Australia:
Source: Formula 1 YouTube channel
To put those numbers into perspective, (assuming the G-force metre is accurate) the 6.5 G registered in Turn 11 means Lewis’s head (plus helmet) effectively weighs over 40 kg through that corner!
Most of us would lack the strength to withstand this once or twice - Lewis would have experienced that 285 times during the 57-lap Grand Prix plus hundreds of other >5 G exposures.
Maximal strength and strength endurance therefore both play a key role in maximising a driver’s performance.
Aside from neck and core strength needed to manage G-forces, drivers also need leg strength to apply large and controlled break forces (>80 kg force through the single braking leg in some cars), again, hundreds of times per race.
Drivers racing in cars without the aid of power steering also need high levels of upper body and grip strength to maintain optimal control of their steering inputs.
Furthermore, at Porsche, we emphasise to our drivers that it’s not just about being fit to race, but also being fit to crash.
This is our way of stressing to them that the fitter and stronger they are, the more robust their body is likely to be in a crash; the less they might suffer during the incident, and the quicker they’re likely to recover.
Cognitive and psychomotor abilities
One of the main reasons drivers aim to maximise their physical fitness is actually to maximise their mental capacity during a race. When a driver starts to tire physically in the car, mental performance begins to suffer.
Elite motorsport requires intense concentration, astute vision, split-second reactions and precise hand-eye coordination. It’s perhaps a cliché that in elite sport fine margins can be the difference between success and failure, but in motorsport this couldn’t be truer. Thousandths of a second can be critical.
Consequently, even the slightest deterioration in one of these attributes could cost a driver valuable time, allow a rival to overtake or perhaps cause a race-ruining/potentially life-threatening crash.
They must be 'on point', physically and mentally, for every second of every race.
Source: Porsche Human Performance Centre, Silverstone ©
Drivers will occasionally race at moderate altitudes but the big environmental factor is heat. In hotter climates, cockpit temperatures in open cockpit cars (e.g. Formula 1) can reach 50°C and they can get even hotter in closed cockpit cars (e.g. sports car and rally racing).
Remember, in these extreme temperatures drivers aren’t exactly in their shorts and t-shirts either. They will be wearing several layers of thick, fireproof overalls, a helmet, and often restricted on how much fluid they can take into the car to drink because it simply weighs too much.
Formula 1 drivers, for example, might be allowed a maximum of 800ml drinking fluid into the car, though some can lose over 3 litres of sweat during hotter races.
To protect against the detrimental effects of heat and dehydration on both physical and mental performance, drivers will visit our heat chamber in the weeks prior to race day to acclimate to the expected conditions (usually 5-10 x 1 h sessions, running/cycling at ~40°C).
This is an excellent way to get the body adapted to the extreme heat and maximise performance capacity come race day.
PH’s Advanced Sweat Test provides another critical part of our drivers’ preparations for hot races.
Preloading and rehydrating with PH 1500 low-calorie tablets/all-natural drink mixes, and individualising the electrolyte composition of the drink they take into a car are essential to optimising performance in challenging circumstances.
Source: McLaren YouTube
Postural integrity and movement capacity
A final and too-often-overlooked part of a driver’s physical requirement and training routine surrounds maximising postural integrity.
Elite racing drivers spend a significant amount of time in a seated and forward-flexed (i.e. hunched forward) position for prolonged periods and from very early ages. The consequences of this, which we regularly see at Porsche, are postural issues and movement deficiencies that can be quite startling.
Hip, spine and shoulder pathologies are among the most common issues. These can possibly predispose drivers to injury and discomfort during competition, compromise their ability to train by making certain exercises unsuitable and affect their quality of life. After all, postural health is important to our well-being, not just our athletic performance.
Accordingly, drivers must spend a lot of time working on their postural integrity and movement quality to combat these potentially deleterious effects of their sport.
What’s more, the stresses drivers experience in their cars are only part of the challenge.
The 2020 Formula 1 season will feature a record 22 races over 37 weeks, each in a different country. The sheer amount of travel associated with this packed schedule (over 100,000 air miles) is enough to induce a significant amount of fatigue in itself.
That’s without mentioning the continual desynchronization of a driver’s body clock that accompanies such frequent changes in time zone.
Add to that the relentless media and sponsor commitments that drivers are obliged to fulfil, and you begin to appreciate that being fit to compete in elite motorsport is more than just being able to reach the chequered flag.
Training for elite-level motorsport
Programming an elite driver’s training requires careful planning and consideration for various stressors they are exposed to, both in and out of the car. Most drivers are in their off/pre-season period from December-March.
Like with other sports, the lack of travel, competition and media commitments mean the coming months provide a crucial period over which to maximise their physical and mental conditioning ahead of the new season.
Drivers will visit our Human Performance Lab for testing at the start of pre-season to establish new baselines and collect data to inform the training ahead. After that, the hard work commences.
Similar to those of many endurance athletes, our programmes tend to follow the structure of several ‘build’ weeks where training volume and intensity gradually ramp up, followed by a de-load week before the next training cycle.
Below is an example of a build week from a single-seater driver’s pre-season training programme:
Source: Jack Wilson, Porsche Human Performance Centre ©
N.B. Zones referred to in endurance sessions relate to those calculated from our lab-based endurance tests: Zones 2-3 are predominantly aerobic whereas Zones 4-7 are more anaerobic. Abbreviations (G1-G4, A1-A2 etc.) refer to specific exercises in the driver's plan.
That’s circa 20 hours of training, 15 of those are hard with two triple training days - I dare say a bit more training than you thought a racing driver might be doing before you read this blog!
Over the week there is a strong emphasis on endurance training to help build their cardiovascular fitness and aid their body composition development (i.e. keep them lean).
As we touched on before, this endurance work will also aid their cognitive ability once they get back in the car. Racket sports (e.g. squash/badminton) are included as a conditioning tool which is also great for developing hand-eye coordination and reaction times.
There’s also a big emphasis on strength. This will focus on whole-body strength and power development targeting the upper and lower body, anterior and posterior chain (especially the latter to combat the forward-flexed bias of their sport), core strength and stability (anterior, posterior and lateral core musculature) as well as other driving specific elements (e.g. neck and grip).
The corrective exercises under the ‘pre-hab’ banner and the flexibility/mobility work are included to optimise the driver’s postural integrity and movement quality in relation to the issues discussed earlier. They tend to be less strenuous sessions which provide balance to the programme alongside the harder sessions.
As drivers near the start of the new season, in-car testing becomes a key part of their programme. This involves clocking up hundreds of laps for the main purpose of gathering valuable data for their engineers on a whole host of aspects relating to the car’s performance. This time in the car is the best training any driver can do. It adds a crucial element of specificity to their training and gets them fully prepared for the opening race.
Once the drivers are in season, their training volume is cut significantly to accommodate the logistical burdens of their competition schedules. The emphasis of their training programme shifts from improving their conditioning to maintaining it as best they can, maximising recovery and fatigue management, and completing any specific acclimation work before hot or high-altitude races.
The below weekly training schedule gives an example of how this in-season training might look:
Source: Jack Wilson, Porsche Human Performance Centre ©
That’s closer to 5 hours of training with a big emphasis on recovery from the last outing (plus accompanying travel) and maximising readiness for the race ahead.
Pre-hab work will focus on a combination of similar activities to pre-season plus management of any issues that arise mid-season.
Remember, amongst all of this is an array of media commitments, team meetings and travel which must all be factored in.
How the Porsche Human Performance Centre could help you
Hopefully this blog has provided an interesting eye-opener to the often overlooked work that 'engineers' the driver to essentially be as finely-tuned as the cars they drive.
Besides motorsport athletes, our Human Performance Centre at Silverstone specialises in testing and training all forms of endurance athletes plus those from other sports, at all levels.
For more information on the services our lab offers, including our endurance sport packages, posture and movement screens, strength and conditioning programmes, heat acclimation and, of course, PH sweat testing, visit this link or contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org / 01327955074.