Why Team McLaren’s Personal Trainer Says Lifting Heavy Will Boost Endurance

RISING is behind the scenes at the HQs of McLaren’s F1 operation and Technogym UK, to find out how F1 rising star Stoffel Vandoorne is conditioned to compete in the world’s fastest race. Simon Reynolds is McLaren Applied Technologies’ Driver Performance Manager, in charge of assessing and training drivers to ensure their biomechanics match up with the machines they wrestle around the world’s fastest race tracks….

RISING We hear that the F1 rule changes to the design of the 2017 cars have made the driving much more physical?

SIMON REYNOLDS ‘Yes. Lateral g-force is up to 5gs, whereas average for the last few years has been like 3.8gs – it’s a vast jump. From a cognitive perspective where they’re having to think more about managing the car; plus it’s more physical, the drain on the nervous system is much more, so neurologically it’s much more taxing than it was.’

‘G-force affects the lower lungs and brain, pulling blood away from your brain’

RISING McLaren have developed a special F1 neck-strengthening machine with Technogym in the past, so has g-force always been an issue?

SR ’In the higher echelons of motor racing you’re able to go through a high speed corner faster, so you have a higher g-force. If you’re coming from a fast speed to braking then you'll get more of that horizontal g-force along with braking. The drivers are strapped heavily into the cars – if they weren’t they would be launched forward into the distance. When they brake their whole body, organs, everything is being moved forward; they're having to brace their bodies.

‘And g-force affects the way the lower lungs are breathing; it also affects your brain, pulling blood away from your brain. If you watched Lewis this year in the race where he pushed from the back to the front, he was out of breath on the radios; that was more unusual in the past, but because it’s a lot more physical now they're having to think and concentrate – when you concentrate on something you can hold your breath.’

RISING So did you have to make Stoffel Vandoorne stronger to face that challenge?

SR ‘Some drivers, especially this year with increase in g-force; they need to enhance their strength, or their maximal strength. With somebody like Stoffel, and Nyck [de Vries] in Formula Two, I took them through some heavy strength training to start to build on their robustness of their body, so they became more athletic.’

RISING That’s interesting because I thought with the length of races, it would be mostly endurance training?

SR ‘There's a lot of journals and papers out there, looking into the benefits of doing heavy strength training and its benefits in improving your endurance capacity. Whereas in the past it was very much like if you do a lot of higher volume training, repetition work and things like that, that’s all you need to do to improve endurance; now it’s, that is still the case but obviously also looking at strength conditioning and looking at heavier strength training.’

‘Your endurance threshold levels are buffered by being stronger’

RISING Is that because being stronger can raise your endurance threshold?

SR ‘Exactly, yes. If you've got a higher strength and robustness you have more capacity when you run out of endurance. Your threshold levels are buffered by being stronger. As a really basic example, if your one rep maximum is this and you improve your one rep maximum, that gives you more capacity to do higher load for more reps.’

RISING Is it a bit like the whole High Intensity Interval Training craze being good for endurance?

SR ‘Yes – HIIT is interval training, effectively. If you go out for a 10K run, for example, and you stay at the steady state, then it’s going to take you longer to progress that. Whereas if you include intervals say halfway through that session, as an example, that can then buffer your ability to push and improve your times.’

RISING What balance of physical condition do drivers need to achieve?

SR ‘The drivers need to have a balance of all systems, but mainly focused on endurance because it’s an endurance sport. They have to perform high repetitions of steering and braking manoeuvres. They’re loaded in an isometric position, so whereas a footballer would be running around everywhere and very dynamic, the drivers are very static and they are in what I call the Pink Panther position – it’s dysfunctional in a way that's not conducive for good posture and movement.’

RISING Is that due to the modern design of the cars?

SR ‘Yes, the position of the cars got lower through aerodynamics. They've got vibration, they've got vertical, horizontal and lateral g-force to put up with. I always describe it: imagine lying in a bath with your feet on the taps. The room temperature is 40ºC or 50ºC and the walls of the bath are closing in on you, and you've got to stop yourself from being squeezed – you’ve got to repel that. It's a hostile environment for them. To offset the problems that could occur in being in that position for a long period of time and performing high repetition in that time, you have to look after their biomechanics and their athleticism to offset any injury or problems. Lower back injury is more common in drivers than any other type of issue.’

RISING Does that issue transfer to the rest of us, driving our cars for hours on end?

SR ‘Yes, if you’re sitting down your glutes switch off, they're not active. You're in a very flexed position at the hips, so you get quite tight through the hip flexors, which have the same sort of attachments into your lumbar spine. For most people, sat in this slouched position, is coupled with losing mobility through your thoracic spine and your upper spine. You end up when you stand, moving in a less mobile and functional movement pattern. Be aware of the fact that if we're more sedentary, we're switching off muscles which need to be functioning well when we’re moving.’

‘Braking force is huge – you’re talking over 100kg on a single leg repeatedly’

RISING Is braking in a 200mph car hard work on your leg?

SR ‘Yes, braking on that single limb is huge. You're talking over 100kg on a single leg repeatedly – huge amounts of force in a very short range of motion – kind of similar to in a car, except in a car you'd be more flexed at the knee. Obviously then that's on one leg, so you have to think about the balance between both.’

RISING Does that mean you do lots of single leg, single arm moves as well?

SR ‘Yes, a lot of unilateral work. In isolation we've used the leg press. Then you would do your more functional type movements, basic single-leg movements, pistol squats or Romanian deadlift, arabesque type movements on one leg.’

RISING How do you stay on top of the drivers’ conditioning – do you test them?

SR ‘They have their assessments three to four times a year. Things like a VO2 assessment, testing their endurance capacities and blood lactate. Then they have strength tests, maximal and endurance-based tests. They may have neuromuscular type tests and then cognitive testing, biomechanical assessments. Then they'll have anthropometry, looking at their body composition because they've very lean – they have to be lean to thermoregulate properly.’

RISING How lean are we talking?

SR ‘It depends what you're measuring, intramuscular fats may take that up to a slightly higher level. You may be talking 10-12% when you look at that. But if you go on a Tanita or something like that and your body fat’s 5%: that kind of level.’

RISING Ouch, that’s ‘no beer’ low! The drivers must have to fight to achieve that?

SR ‘You've got to have the strength to be able to drive the car, so you need the muscle, but you've got to be as lean as possible as well; as light as possible. The heavier you are the slower the car goes, so you've got to find that perfect balance. There's pressure on the drivers to be as light as possible.’

WHAT NEXT? Monitoring the fitness of McLaren’s drivers relies on the kind of big picture data that you can build up yourself just by using your smartphone – try out Technogym’s free app to log your workouts and more, and even sync with their machines in your gym.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.