Handling the G’s

F1 drivers need to undergo a period of conditioning to cope with the physical demands of the sport: no other race series requires the drivers to have so much in terms of stamina and muscle endurance.

For racing drivers: One of the basic fitness exercises, lateral plank on BOSU ball.   -  R. RAVINDRAN

Formula One drivers are very highly conditioned athletes in the world, with their bodies adapting specifically to the demanding requirements of the sport. They need to undergo a period of conditioning to cope with the physical demands of the sport: no other race series requires the drivers to have so much in terms of stamina and muscle endurance.

The vast loadings that F1 cars are capable of creating — anything up to a sustained 3.5 g of cornering force, for example — means the drivers have to be enormously strong to be able to last the full race. The extreme heat in the cockpit, especially in hotter circuits, also puts a heavy strain on the mind and body. The drivers can lose up to 3-4 kg of their body weight during the course of a race. In basic terms, the fitter the driver, the less susceptible he is to fatigue-induced lapses in concentration.

Most F1 drivers undergo an intensive period of aerobic fitness training ahead of the season, and then taper their exercise regime to maintain their fitness levels throughout the year. Popular training methods include running, hiking, skiing, biathlon, triathlon, swimming and cycling.

Variables in racing fitness

The training for a driver is like that of any top athlete: a periodised programme as per the season. The variables in racing fitness are many, like location, environment, travel time, track design etc.

Inside the cockpit of a car, a driver is subject to a combination of extreme mental, physical and violent conditions. To address this, he needs aerobic fitness, strength endurance, reaction time, peripheral awareness, decision-making, core and lower back strength and stability, neck strength and stability and flexibility. A finely-tuned fitness regime is required for optimal performance.

Nutrition is 50% of the secret for performance. Hydration and recovery protocols are well interwoven into the fitness regime to keep the drivers fresh throughout the season at different geographical locations.

Hydration starts well ahead of the race — in fact, a week before the race weekend, going by the specific gravity of the urine or just monitoring the urine colour throughout. Electrolyte imbalance can cause cramps, and blackout in rare cases, during the race and this can be potentially fatal.

The training regime and preparation for the race weekend also depends on when the event is scheduled, whether in summer or winter.

Maintaining heart rate

Endurance training is paramount since the heart rate and resting pulse are directly related to the fitness level of the driver. A human being has a resting heart rate of around 60 beats per minute, rising to around 150 during a run on the treadmill. For instance, in the case of David Coulthard, a former F1 driver, he had a resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute, rising to 198 beats per minute during a two-hour race. This is approximately the same as that of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. This initially stunned medical researchers.

One needs to train for a long duration in aerobic fitness to maintain a targeted heart rate throughout. Mental stress and adrenaline contribute to increased heart rate. To cope with this, a driver needs to do running, cycling and swimming for more than 2-3 hours.

Strength training, not for building muscles and looking like a weightlifter but to develop strength endurance, is necessary. Legs, lower back, arms, neck, hands and chest muscles are the heavily targeted areas. However, since the outside forces experienced while racing cannot easily be replicated by conventional gym equipment, many drivers use specially designed equipment to train the muscle groups to withstand the cornering forces. In fact, the G-force experienced while negotiating a bend can make the head and helmet weigh around four to five times the normal weight, so the neck must support both. Overuse injuries and decreasing muscular fatigue can be managed through specific strength training.

Although the racing cars have power-assisted steering, strong arm muscles and a strong core are required to control the car in longer races. To improve the hand-eye coordination, concentration and reaction time, drivers often incorporate other activities into their physical training regimes. A popular training aid is the Dynavision, or Fit-Lite, or BATAK reaction board, where the aim is to hit as many randomly-lit lights as possible on a specially designed board in 60 seconds, with multitasking ability.

The challenges of a race driver

Driving the fastest cars on earth puts a huge amount of strain on a driver’s body. During a race, a driver must remain calm, focussed and in constant communication with the technical team while perfectly manoeuvring a highly complex vehicle around an unfamiliar track, alongside competitors travelling at speeds of over 300 kmph. All this in an environment where one wrong move can cost lives. This calls for a sportsman at the very peak of physical and mental strength.

You need to be disciplined with your sleep, recovery, hydration and fuelling of your body. It’s more a pre-season boost. And when the calendar gets busy, you need to focus on staying fresh, mentally and physically.

There are immense forces running through the steering, braking and astonishing acceleration of a racing car that batter the driver’s body. Pre-season fitness tests are a must to gauge the fitness levels of a driver and design a programme accordingly. Specialised testing regimes specific to racers are used to measure the reaction time, peripheral awareness, aerobic fitness, strength, endurance, core strength and stability and flexibility. The most critical part is the off-season training to prepare for the season.

A clear evidence on ways to prevent soft-tissue injury is still lacking, but appropriate training loads and intensities seem to be sensible for controlling the risk of injury and overuse symptoms.

* Race drivers require multi-dimensional physical and cognitive ability.

* Cardiovascular response can reach up to 85% of maximum during driving.

* Very little is known about stability, cognitive and specific muscle fatigue area during racing.

* Increasing strength and stability not only guarantees quick recovery during competition (prolonged competition) but also throughout the training process (from one training session to another).

* Aerobic fitness is a key factor in sustaining increasing training loads to guarantee recovery and withstand physical stress while driving.

* Attention should be directed towards the relation between cognitive factors, strength performance capacity, sensorimotor capacity and aerobic fitness to develop testing and training regimes that balance all factors for the multi-dimensional physical and mental demands.

Some of the basic fitness regimes are given below:

* One-leg squats

* Modified lateral plank on BOSU ball

* Swiss ball barbell plate hold

* Isometric one-leg squat hold

* Neck strength

* D. B. Cuban press