The fitness formula: how drivers stay in race-shape

 thehindu.com  09/13/2019 17:51:24 

The physical demands of driving a Formula One car arent always visible, and so its often easy to forget that drivers are athletes. To get an insight into how they train and stay race-fit, The Hindu caught up with Kimi Raikkonens personal trainer, Mark Arnall, in Monza. Arnall previously worked with another Finnish world champion, Mika Hakkinen, and has spent more than two decades in the sport. Excerpts

What goes into making an F1 driver fit?

It has changed. In the refuelling era, every lap was a lot quicker, it was like a qualifying lap every lap of the race. The cars are 5-6 seconds slower at the start now, on full tanks. So Kimis description is that he is just driving around.

It is not that demanding physically. Because of the weight limits, weight management has become a bigger part of training, which for me is boring and frustrating. I prefer to put more muscles on drivers.

In terms of stuff we do, there is the cardio side, [training for] how long they will be driving. We focus on a lot of functional work, trying to include the whole body, as opposed to isolating one muscle.

We work a lot on the opposing side of the body. While driving, everything is an internal rotation of arms, which are quite specific movements. So if you then go and train those same muscles in the gym, you overload one side and create an imbalance, which leads to injury. We train to compensate and bring the balance back. Thats where functional work comes in.

The core work is super important in that it merges with the functional work. The g-forces are not just on the head but the whole body, the internal organs as well. So we do a lot of stability work around the hip and spine. The biggest thing we do is keep the driver in one piece from the beginning of the season to the end.

Are F1 drivers some of the fittest athletes in world sport?

I wouldnt say F1 athletes are the fittest. Every sport is different. One hundred per cent of the drivers have to be fit to be able to do what they want to do. They are up there with the top athletes. But the demands are different for each sport. It is different from a sprinter to a tri-athlete. So, it is difficult to compare like-for-like across sports unless you try to see on pure VO2 max levels [the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during intense exercise].

Do new drivers struggle when they enter F1?

It depends on where they come from and the training they have had. In the refuelling era, say they come from feeder series like F2 or F3, their experience will be harder. Talking to some of the F2 drivers here, they find it easier to control the car. Maybe the neck struggles a bit more, but yeah, I think the body adapts as they come up through different series. [Then] you go through the normal training to become an F1 driver and when you start driving the F1 car, the body will adapt.

How do you structure the training?

The first three months [January-March] are the most intensive. The bulk of the training is done there, as the aim is specific  whether to get the weight to where the engineers prefer the weight to be, to strengthen the neck up, to make some gains cardio-wise or strength-wise. This is the time when we can train enough to make a gain. As soon as the season starts, the idea is to maintain the training until the end of the season. As the season goes on, its recovery we focus more on. Because of the travel and training, if we do too much, the driver gets sick.

So, what do you do between races?

Depends. If it is back-to-back, we dont do much, just recovery. Otherwise, easy stuff. Functional and cardio work, but it is based on recovery.

How has Kimis training evolved? He is the oldest on the grid and will turn 40 next month.

Kimi has not changed much. I was reading about Roger Federer and his training method, and how he focused on the technical part because he couldnt compete with the younger guys physically and on the power side. It is something similar, trying to keep the driver in one piece. It has helped that it is less physical than before. So, there is just more emphasis on functional training.

If I look at Kimis weight beforehand, when we could put muscle on, there was just more muscle holding things together. When you strip those muscles to reduce weight, there is just less stuff holding all the joints together and then it creates instability in between the joints. So you have to work hard to stabilise that.

How does fitness affect performance?

There are lots of elements. On a pure fitness level, if they are not fit enough to drive the car, they are not going to perform well. Hydration and nutrition play a role in that. I dont think there is any issue from start to finish, according to Kimi, because you start with a full tank of fuel. I have not heard any trainer say their drivers struggle to finish a race. So, the nature of F1 being what it is, and the way drivers train, I would be surprised if they struggle. Maybe 20 years ago, it might have been the case when cars were difficult to drive with gear shifts and power steering not being great.

You have trained Kimi since 2002. What has it been like to have such a long working relationship?

It is easy, thats why we are still together. He works exceptionally hard. He knows what he needs from his life. I know what I need from my life. So, we have a good balance. I know his body inside out. So, it is easy to work with someone you know for a long time. I cant ever remember having an argument with him. He is always honest. With him you know where you stand. If he is not happy, he is going to tell you. What you see is what you get with him. I prefer to work with someone like that.

(The writer was in Monza recently at the invitation of PETRONAS)

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