Written by Verizon IndyCar Driver Pippa Mann
Training to stay in shape for racing requires much more time and effort than I think anyone in the normal population realizes. The running joke about race car drivers of course is that we’re just sitting down, and how hard can it be?
The first thing to understand is that you have a continuously elevated heart rate throughout the entire race. Think of the heart rate of someone running or cycling a two to three hour race and how fit his or her cardiovascular system needs to be to cope with that continued exertion.
Then you have to add in high heart rate spikes to the equation. In racing these are usually caused by stress factors such as the car sliding and you just barely catching it, racing in close quarters with another car, entering a pit lane, getting to your pit stop, exiting a pit lane on cold tires and of course the starts and restarts of the race.
Under these trying conditions it is vital that you are able to cope, react and make good decisions in fractions of a second to try and give yourself a good outcome. We do a lot of endurance style cardio training and sprint interval cardio training. Adding in reaction or balance work right after these big sprint cardio intervals is one of the ways we help teach our brains and bodies to react while our heart rates are spiking.
Additionally, racing cars are actually quite heavy to drive in terms of steering weight. An Indy-Car does not have any type of power steering. This means that when the car is under pressure from all of the force pushing it down on the high-speed corners, it makes the steering wheel heavy to turn.
So to cope with these forces you have to have a strong stable core, strong arms, a strong chest, a strong back and strong shoulders. At the same time, while you have to build this level of strength, you also have to be able to do these movements repeatedly for that two to three hour period that most races fall into. This means you’re not just strength training, you also need to build endurance into your muscles as well.
I train at PitFit Training Indianapolis where we have weighted steering wheels, cross core trainers, a surge 360 machine, tractor tires and battle ropes to pound up and down until our shoulders feel like they are going to explode and our arms feel like they are going to fall off. We also work on grip strength and neck strength fairly regularly as these are both very important muscle groups for drivers.
Finally, the last big thing to remember is that instead of wearing thin sweat-wicking fabrics, or light weight breathable running shoes, we are wearing layers upon layers of fireproof fabric literally from head to toe, plus wearing a full face, enclosed crash helmet on our heads.
You’re asking your body to be able to cope with a lot, and if you’re not properly prepared, your performance will suffer on race day.
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