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Race Driver Fitness Training (With Workout Exercise Plans)

Car racing of any kind requires physical fitness alongside mental fitness. While many shrug off sports like F1 and GT racing as not requiring fitness of any kind, questioning whether or not the drivers are athletes, it is clear that they do need to be very fit in order to perform at a high level.

There are many different aspects to driver fitness training programs, from pure strength training to heat acclimatization, to flexibility training as well. Plenty of different exercises can be put together into a periodized training program to help train the drivers to perform at their best.

Below we will explain the need for fitness training for racing drivers and go through the different types of exercises that can be used. Then, we will give a few example workouts too, to give you an idea of what is expected of some of the world’s top racing drivers in terms of fitness training.

The Specifics Fitness Requirements For Motorsport

There has been consistent discussion about whether racing drivers are considered athletes, however a wealth of evidence exists that point to this being true. This includes the vast array of physical and mental skills required including balance, coordination, cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, mental training strategies, strength, and flexibility.

Composure & Concentration

Drivers must be able to adapt to intense racing conditions, with mental strength being vital to maintain composure and concentration. In terms of physical strength, being able to maintain a strong neck under the immense g-forces felt in corners makes this just one of many areas of the body that drivers must rigorously train.

Along with sports car drivers having to manage a wide range of equipment, from GT (Grand Touring) cars to LMP (Le Mans Prototype) cars, the physicality to successfully drive these cars to win races like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans is incredibly complex.

There is a need to consider each driver as an individual, paying special attention to not only their conditioning needs generally but what is the training required for the specific equipment they will need to operate. Let’s consider for a moment the difference between an open wheel IndyCar driver and the requirements of a GT race car driver.

IndyCar Racing

Both are operating highly technical and physically demanding equipment. The IndyCar driver needs to deal with high downforce and g-loading on the body and head and neck especially. They can find themselves feeling the force of up to 4G! This means they feel 4 times the weight of their body, and 200 laps with 4 corners means this happens 800 times during a race!

GT Racing

Conversely, when you drive a GT Porsche your heart rate is around 150-170 bpm depending on your mental capacity to resist stress and your individual conditioning. It can get a lot higher than that, but this is about the average.

The temperature within the cockpit is incredible, with most drivers reporting cockpit temperatures of around 30-40 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. Including the 4 layers of fireproof clothing, it can get up to 140 degrees inside the cockpit, meaning you can lose up to 7 pounds in three or so hours just by sweating.

Finally, there are the actual G-forces which are both compelling and extreme. The highest speed corner with the highest lateral load at Le Mans is the Porsche Curves. Each driver is averaging 140 miles an hour, so you’ll feel 3G for four seconds. So how does the training for each sport compare?

Shifter Karting

Shifter karting is the best way to train the driver’s neck while also working other areas of the body and their mental strength too. It provides enough of a force to make them work against, improving their neck strength in a similar environment to the one in which they will find themselves racing.

Utilizing head and neck devices attached with strength bands to simulate the force of loading on the head and neck specifically, this can be carried out at the end of a driver’s circuit workout to really improve their neck strength. Whilst the Iron Neck is a popular device to use for this, more cost-effective ways of performing these exercises involve using a resistance band wrapped around a towel.

By placing tension on the head and neck laterally over 4-5 seconds with a strength resistance band, the driver becomes accustomed to what they will face in the car. Neck strength training is obviously best carried out with actual time spent in the car, but external neck training is a great way to simulate this when driving is not possible or too costly.

Rally Drivers

There are unique requirements for sports car drivers that differ for rally and motorcycle athletes. For rally drivers, concentration is an important factor that requires conditioning, so using drills to train this is key. This can involve using the boxing speedbag with various drills with a mental training element included for the driver.

Motorcycle Racing

Motorcycle racing on the other hand requires balance, coordination, and stabilization of the core muscle groups. Some of the exercises mentioned below would serve motorcycle riders well, such as adaptive planks. Motocross riders would also benefit from a large focus on core work, cardio, and reactive ability.

We will explore within this article what those dynamics are along with how the training programs for car racing differ from training for other forms of motorsports.

How Do Race Car Drivers Train For Fitness?

Evaluation Of The Individual

The considerations that need to be made with respect to what training activities fit which drivers include a detailed analysis of what each individual’s goals and aspirations are. This will include the driver’s injury history and physiological assessment, which includes strength assessment. A range of tests can be put together to evaluate the driver.

From here, a program of exercises is put together in a periodized training format (structured breakdown of training into manageable elements, each with a specific focus), with review at monthly intervals bearing in mind the event commitments of the athlete.

Training For Heat Acclimation

Training for heat acclimation can involve a wide range of exercises including cycling and running in environments similar to those in which the driver will find him or herself racing. The training intensities can be set at or just above the intensity which the driver will operate in.

The training disciplines can also involve high intensity ‘hiking’ involving a combination of running and lower intensity uphill climbing. This allows the driver’s heart rate to be maintained at or around a race-specific level, also including elements where the heart rate is pushed higher to condition the cardiovascular system to adapt to this higher stress.

Using Simulators

Also utilized can be racing simulators. This allows the driver to fully immerse themselves in the racing environment, with their helmet and race suit, if done in an environment-controlled facility that allows for heat stress to become an element. The simulator can also become part of a workout and included in a driver’s strength and conditioning circuit.

This can add a concentration element to training which is very specific, along with concentration drills involving tennis balls, reactive movement, and medicine ball exercises/drills.

Cross-Country Skiing

Other disciplines of conditioning that simulate the muscle involvement of motor racing include cross country skiing with ‘load carry’ as an additional strength and endurance intensity element. Cross country skiing works so many of the areas important to a race driver including their core, chest, back, shoulders, legs, lower back, and overall endurance.

11 Circuit Training Exercises For Race Car Drivers

A periodized training program can be set up, implementing various exercises to work all areas of the driver’s body and fitness over a structured time period. Reviewing their progress at monthly intervals is key, bearing in mind the event commitments of the athlete.

Below you will see the exercise program which formed part of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s training before he raced in and won the Indy 500 in 2014:

[Repeat the below circuit 4-5 times]

1. Flat to Incline Dumbbell Chest Press

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Hold one arm/dumbbell up as you work the other side of chest and shoulders. Work arms alternately.

Explanation: Set up a flat bench and position yourself face up with back down on the bench. Dumbbells should be held at a 90-degree angle of flexion at elbow from the shoulders. Press dumbbells up fully extending the arms and return to the start position where arms are held at 90 degrees. Each circuit, increase the bench to a steeper incline i.e., perform 1 set flat, 1 set 45 degrees, 2 sets high incline, 1 set full shoulder press (bench at almost 90 degrees). Shown is Bamboo Strength Barbell, regular Barbell can also be used

2. Kettlebell Stabilization Rows

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Kettlebell

Explanation: Perform this exercise from a bridged position whilst stabilizing the non-target side of the body, this will engage each side of the body with different muscle activation and roles. Alternate each side of the body for the required number of reps.

3. Side-to-Side Medicine Ball Rotations

[Above, former IndyCar Driver and client Roger Yasukawa demonstrates what we consider to be development of strength, flexibility, and coordination in this one exercise. This is the type of exercise that would be of key benefit to Motocross athletes as well]

Reps: 20-40

Resistance: Holding a dumbbell at the ends and rotating it (turning hands as in steering) forces the shoulders and arms to work. Alternate the medicine ball with the dumbbell in workouts.

Explanation: Sit up with torso leaned slightly back as in the video (seat position in IndyCar). Keeping hips forwards, rotate from one side to the next for required reps. Turn hands over to simulate steering wheel activity of forearm muscles. Raise legs to bring in lower abs.

4. Leg and Ankle Stability and Driving Drills

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-40

Resistance: 10 lb med ball with or without handles.

Explanation: Perform standing on an upside down Bosu or using the Terracore turned upside down. Activate the legs and ankles to maintain the position whilst performing 1-2 minutes of image drills of driving a lap under loading.

5. Straight TRX Crunch

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Set up with feet in TRX straps

Explanation: Using the abs pull feet into chest, whilst the upper torso is involved in stabilizing the upper body.

6. Side TRX Crunch with Shoulder Stability throughout

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Set up in a side bridge position with feet in TRX stirrups.

Explanation: Pull feet into the chest to activate abdominals, particularly side abs included in this. By stabilizing the upper torso, you work shoulders and back statically for endurance. This is a great exercise for open-wheel drivers.

7. Side-to-Side Medicine Ball Rotations and Straight Crunch

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-40

Resistance: Holding a dumbbell at the ends and rotating it (turning hands as in steering) forces the shoulders and arms to work. Alternate the medicine ball with the dumbbell in workouts.

Explanation: Sit up with torso leaned slightly back as in image (seat position in IndyCar). Keeping hips forwards, rotate from one side to the next for required reps. Turn hands over to simulate steering wheel activity of forearm muscles. Raise legs to bring in lower abs. Add a straight crunch at the end of each rep to engage the abs.

8. Reverse Barbell Curl

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Barbell (bamboo barbell shown).

Explanation: Set up by holding a barbell with an overhand grip, shoulder width apart. Using the biceps and forearm flexor muscles curl barbell to top of the shoulders. Lower back to start under control.

9. Side-to-Side Medicine Ball Rotations and Straight Crunch (repeat)

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-40

Resistance: Holding a dumbbell at the ends and rotating it (turning hands as in steering) forces the shoulders and arms to work. Alternate the medicine ball with the dumbbell in workouts.

Explanation: Sit up with torso leaned slightly back as in image (seat position in IndyCar). Keeping hips forwards, rotate from one side to the next for required reps. Turn hands over to simulate steering wheel activity of forearm muscles. Raise legs to bring in lower abs. Add a straight crunch at the end of each rep to engage the abs.

10. Lying Triceps Extension with TRX

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Set up on the TRX as in the image, angling the body in such a way as to permit appropriate resistance on triceps.

Explanation: Extend the elbows as in image to perform triceps extension under control.

11. Rear Delt Flye with TRX

© Performance Physixx

Reps: 20-25

Resistance: Set up facing the TRX handles with body angled to permit appropriate loading.

Explanation: With straight arms pull the handles apart, pausing at completion of movement as shown in image. Move back to start under control.

TRX Machine

The TRX provides a great deal of instability when performing exercises such as straight and side crunches where the upper body is required to be stabilized during the movement. Utilizing medicine ball steering drills, whereby the driver is forced to work the lower body to recruit the muscles in the upper and lower legs to stabilize the hips, is a great way to simulate racing conditions.

This is the area of the body that drivers are required to work more specifically when piloting race cars. The exercises are performed in such a way to recruit or involve multiple areas of the body whilst focusing on specific muscle groups which relate to driving. 

Different Muscle Groups

Where the target is to activate specific muscles while the opposing muscles are resting, we call these two ‘agonist versus antagonist’ muscle groups. When the agonist muscles are used, their antagonists are resting. In motorsports, the body is predominantly used in such a way that groups of muscles perform a task in a race car rather than single joint execution as found in a sport like bodybuilding.

While some single joint exercises can be of use to race drivers as ‘assistant’ exercises to condition for example weak muscle groups, they are not specific to the task of driving a race car. The exercises are also put together in such a way to allow for alternation of each side of the body. One side of the body is engaged in pulling muscles while the other side stabilizes the shoulders, chest, and the core.

Why Is Flexibility An Important Factor?

Flexibility is important for drivers to keep the body and muscles supple, flexible, resistant to injury, and better able to deal with impacts. Also, the fact that race drivers are in enclosed positions for extended periods illustrates the need to perform specialist flexibility movements, yoga, and massages to assist with the ability of muscle groups to maintain their function within the body.

The tight space drivers in which drivers are seated doesn’t lend itself to maintaining mobility and flexibility. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a more advanced form of flexibility training, which involves both the stretching and contracting of the muscle group being targeted.

Stretches For Race Drivers

It is also excellent for targeting specific muscle groups, and as well as increasing flexibility, it also improves muscular strength. A good exercise for a driver is stretching the hamstrings and glutes with partner assistance. This would be achieved using the following procedure:

AIS Hamstring Stretch

  1. Lie on your back with a towel or resistance band wrapped around the instep of the foot.
  2. Lift the target leg so that it is pointing straight up in the air, then pull the leg towards the chest.
  3. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds, before coming out of the stretch and then going back in.
  4. Repeat 2-3 times for each side of the body.

This stretch permits the hamstrings and hip flexors to increase flexibility around that joint complex, which leads to greater ability to use and fire those muscles in the car.

The Scorpion Stretch

The ‘Scorpion’ is a great stretch for the glutes as well as the upper body. This involves lying face down with the arms fully spread out to side in a straight line from the shoulder. Keeping the non-target leg planted to ground, you then bend the target leg to meet the hand of the opposing side of body.

5 Exercises For Race Driver Fitness

1. Single Arm Kettlebell Row

© Performance Physixx

This is key for sports car drivers as it conditions the entire body, core, lower back, legs and glutes. Maintaining posture during the entire movement will enable the coordination element of the upper body to be the focus here. The movement element within this exercise along with activating control and alternation of each side of the body are crucial to motorsports.

2. Physioball Workout

© Performance Physixx

This movement allows the driver to work their core, glutes, and lower back in the rotation to the side, while the arms and wrists perform holding resistance. This is a great exercise for an open wheel driver to perform. If you don’t have Indian clubs, dumbbells or a medicine ball can work as well, although the benefit of using clubs is the wrist strengthening element.

3. Indian Club Rotations

© Performance Physixx

Indian club rotations with 3-5lb Indian clubs promote mobility for the open wheel IndyCar driver both as part of a training routine and as the warmup before getting into the car pre-race.

4. Adaptive Plank

© Performance Physixx

This is a good exercise for the core, and for stabilizing the upper body. This movement can be increased by putting in hip flexion driving the knees into the chest to actively work the abs. This is a great exercise for both IndyCar and Sports Car drivers.

5. Terra-Core Squat

[Derek DeBoer, race car driver and star of Fastlife TV has been one of our first clients to utilize this key equipment.]

This exercise utilizes the static kettlebell squat. Mobilizing the legs, feet and ankles to train stability and to train the pedal muscles using this movement and equipment makes it a good all-round exercise.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, there are lots of training exercises that can be used to help race car drivers maintain their maximum levels of performance. These exercises can differ to the ones used in other sports and the focus is on the core, as well as simulating the forces and conditions felt in the race car itself.