Fitness off the track gives drivers the edge on it
Over the years, the way that NASCAR drivers prepare for races increasingly has begun to resemble that of athletes in all professional sports.
Drivers have added exercise equipment to their homes and many now work with trainers as they prepare for one of the longest seasons in all of professional sports. In recent years, working out has become not only an integral part of a driver's regimen but also a key component in surviving the grind that the NASCAR season can become.
It wasn't that long ago that a large number of NASCAR drivers seemed to take only a mild interest in a daily workout regimen and some were even known to have smoked in the car. Times were different then and the physical fitness concept had not taken hold in many areas. But once a few drivers began working out regularly — like Mark Martin, who became a living example of the impact a fitness program could have — others followed suit.
Now, most drivers have trainers and workout programs. Many find interesting ways to add to their regimen: Bobby Labonte is an avid cyclist, Denny Hamlin plays basketball, Kyle Busch is a fan of racquetball. All find the benefits of a program, from the physical and mental rewards it offers on race day to the overall ability to make it through the 38-race season without feeling as exhausted by year's end. Trainers help by teaching about hydration, studying heart rates, developing overall programs and offering insight and input into staying fit over the course of the season.
The messages have clearly been heard.
From four-time champion Jimmie Johnson to debut Cup driver Kevin Conway, drivers are showing just how crucial working out on weekdays can be when it comes to those 300- to 500-mile races on Sunday.
"If you have really long and really hard weeks, if you're in better shape you probably feel better in the long run," says Joe Gibbs Racing athletic director Mike Lepp, who has a background in pro cycling. "There's no doubt in this sport that fitter, healthier people survive this long season better. A lot of driving is mental and mental has a lot to do with the physical supporting it. There's no doubt and it's not just a three-hour or four-hour race. It's Valentine's Day to Thanksgiving. It's both. And the playoffs start in the last 10 races."
Lepp works with JGR's drivers. He and others say that teams are still learning about fitness and the best program to match the demands of the sport.
While Martin, who even published a book on working out on the road, and Carl Edwards, who has appeared on the cover of various fitness and health magazines, are widely noted for their programs, others are pushing themselves in daily programs. Chief among those is Johnson, who labels his workout program as "a big part of what we do."
Johnson continues to point out ways in which he is a student of the sport — something that also applies to his fitness program.
"I'd say that the last 18 months I've understood more about hydration and about diet and how that fits into the whole program and it's been very, very helpful," Johnson said. "My fitness level is higher than it's ever been, definitely have spent more time with that. I think pretty much every driver is on some type of routine. It's an area where I feel like I need to be accountable for and make sure that I'm as strong as I can be in the car for each given race and then over the course of 38 races it's real easy to get wore down and if you're not on top of things with your diet, your sleep, physical fitness, it can start a bad cycle of things. It can also lead to insecurities in decisions you make mentally. If you're not sharp and on top of it, you can get behind in a lot of areas."
Johnson, like anyone, admits there can be a downside to working out from being sore to the difficulty that can be associated with pushing oneself day to day.
But as he prepared for the 2010 season, one in which he has won three of the opening five races, he also saw the upside to the program.
"The thing that inspires me the most about the fitness, the program I was on all last year, I would rest and the first day of my work week would be on Sunday at the race track, and the way I feel on race-day morning going to that race car, the energy that I have and how refreshed I am and strong at that point, that feeling is amazing," Johnson says.
"That's the feeling I'm looking for and will keep this whole process going throughout the year."
Trainers see that in their athletes. Mark Morrison, who previously worked with drivers at Hendrick Motorsports but now focuses on pit-crew members, has seen a shift in about the last five years. He says that there were always drivers who worked out and were in shape, but that ethic has sharpened among competitors.
"I really think that drivers may have worked out here and there, but I mean now, they're working out at the track even if it's just doing some light running or some manual resistance or some body-weight training," he says. "They may not have the weight room, but you can still get a workout just doing body weight type of exercise. Some of them utilize bands and you can get a full body workout utilizing bands as well."
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon agrees and has said that he's altered his workout program in recent years, stepping up the pace. He's not alone in that either.
The programs don't just impact the drivers at the top but also those just trying to break into the sport. Kevin Conway works out with a former NFL trainer and jokes that he is driven to the edge on an almost daily basis, but he sees the need for the program.
After all, once a handful of drivers became fully committed to working out all of the time, then everyone needed to embark on some sort of program.
"I would say for the first 10 years of my career I could count on both hands how many times I went into a gym," Gordon says. "I was an active person. I liked sports, but I just didn't go to a gym, didn't feel like I had to. But things have gotten more competitive and the intensity level has raised that level of fitness that you really need to get not only through the races but to be really strong at the end of the season.
"It's something I'm very focused on."