More Than Just Driving: The Physical Training Of Formula 1 Racers

Most professional sports are accessible to amateurs on some level, and this makes touchdown passes, slam dunks, and corner kicks all the more impressive. When you can relate to the challenges of a sport, the superhuman ability of top athletes is easy to recognize. If you’ve ever struggled through 200 meters in the pool, finishing the laps completely drained and barely breathing, then you probably feel exhausted just watching a pro like Phelps sprint from wall to wall. There are some sports, however, that put elite athletes through conditions that the vast majority of people will never even come close to experiencing.

When you drive through your neighborhood to the gym, it’s not too physically challenging. That trip might be a little more strenuous if you drove at 200 mph, with your body under 5 g’s of pressure in a 140 degree cockpit, your muscles straining to pilot one of the most advanced machines ever created, while maintaining intense focus on your limited field of vision, your life and others dependent on your ability to react to a complex situations within milliseconds. Very few people associate driving with athletic ability, so when they first think of race car drivers, they might think, “What’s the big deal? They’re just driving.”

Of course, hordes of Formula One fans need no convincing. Formula One is one of the most popular sports in the world, with billions spent each year to bring races to hundred of millions of fans on every continent. Formula One drivers are true elite athletes. To undergo conditions that human beings were simply never meant to encounter, Formula One drivers must develop incredible levels of strength, muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness. The average person is physically incapable of driving a Formula One car even a 1/4 mile in a straight line.

Core strength is the most crucial aspect of a Formula One driver’s physical fitness. F1 drivers work with top physical trainers to make sure that they can retain control of their body throughout a grueling two-hour race. In the days prior to each Grand Prix, the drivers spend hours on the track for practice and qualifying. By the time the race starts, their muscles have already undergone torture that would make most people happy to spend Sunday afternoon collapsed on the couch. Mercedes driver, Nico Rosberg, relies heavily on stability ball training to strengthen his core. To get a taste of the kind of skills that F1 athletes develop in the gym, spend 20 minutes on a stability ball, transitioning between lying rigid and flat on the ball to crouching on the ball on your fingertips and the balls of your feet. Switch between the two positions as quickly as possible, without touching the ground. Good luck!

Developing strong neck muscles goes hand in hand with core strength for Formula One drivers. In every turn, up to 4 or 5 g’s threaten to rip the driver’s heads off of their necks. Without intense training, the force created by the incredible machines they pilot would literally snap the drivers’ necks after a few laps. To build the muscular endurance that allows them to sustain such enormous pressure on their necks for two hours at a time, drivers employ a number of exercises. The most basic and one of the most useful exercises to build neck strength is bridging. If you have any memories of high school wrestling practice, then you know what a difficult exercise bridging is and how good it is for your body. Weighted exercises with machines can also be used to train neck muscles. Formula One drivers actually take normal weighted exercises to the next level by employing specially designed machines that mimic the movements and stress of driving a 900 horsepower race car.

The performance requirements of a multi-million dollar race car leave no room for power braking. F1 cars necessarily have braking capabilities far beyond normal road cars. At racing speeds, Formula One cars can reach a complete stop in just a few seconds and in a fraction of the distance of any typical vehicle. To induce this phenomenal braking, the brake pedals require up to 190 lbs of pressure. Drivers will be braking dozens of times in each lap of the race. Needless to say, Formula One drivers spend time getting under the barbell and doing squats.

During the off-season, many drivers compete in events such as triathlons and marathons. With salaries over 10 million dollars, it pays for Formula One athletes to stay in shape. Beyond the amazing physical feats required by elite racing competitions, race car drivers must also possess well-tuned reflexes, intelligence and memory. Any casual observer can tell that Formula One racing is one of the most advanced and complex sports in existence, and when you look a little closer you can see that the men behind the wheel are some of the most elite athletes in the world. No finishes an F1 race without years of intense physical training under their belt.