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We go behind the scenes of an F1 driver work-out

Published: 26 February 2010

In the March 2010 issue of CAR Magazine you might have read about yours truly flailing around helplessly in the Williams F1 gym. My pain and suffering was all down to Nick Harris, F1 exercise physiologist and Human Performance Engineering founder.
Harris is 36, graduated from Cardiff university with a degree in sports science, and started his career at Jackie Stewart Racing in 1999. These days he doesn’t just train Williams drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Rubens Barrichello – after he destroyed me he caught a plane to Australia to coach AC/DC ahead of the band’s world tour, and he also works with golfers and has recently released his own range of sports clothing –trick T-shirts that are treated with silver to kill live bacteria; compression tops that help muscle recovery post-workout.

Here are a few of his insights into the world of F1 fitness…

• ‘Compared with the last ten years, 2010 we’ll see the greatest emphasis on the driver. There used to be launch control, traction control and more testing, and all that has been phased out. This year they’ll start with heavy fuel, which means drivers will be subjected to lower g due to the higher weight and lower speeds, but it’s mentally more of a challenge because they’ll need to manage the brakes, tyres and fuel.’

• ‘You need to be a Jack of all trades in F1 – swimming, rowing, biking, running, hiking; you need to be flexible and mobile. When a driver gets into a car he never knows what stresses will be placed on his body.’

• ‘The brain is more important in F1 than the heart and lungs. We work on stabilising the spine, so that the messages from the peripheral nerves can move easily up the spine and into the brain. We also focus on core stability, getting the muscles working synergetically’

• ‘We work a lot on the cerebellum – the hard drive of the brain. A simple test of its effectiveness is to stand on one leg with your eyes closed. Most people can’t do that, but an F1 driver should be able to do it for minutes. Using your eyes just to balance isn’t the best use of their functionality; we need that to be automatic, so that the eyes can take in the information that is important to a race. It’s like taking the brain from 1meg to 10meg broadband. We do all kind of protocols to work on the cerebellum, but standing on one leg with your eyes closed is both a good test of its effectiveness and a way of training it.’

• ‘We focus on developing both mental and physical capacity. Training above 90% is uncomfortable, but, chemically speaking, amazing things happen in the brain and there’s a high-level of adaptation – the body responds and develops very quickly.  A 30-minute high-intensity workout can be better than a five-hour workout at a lower pace.’

• ‘The brain uses 75% of blood glucose, so you need to keep blood-sugar stable and condition the muscles so they don’t try to get more of it. If the blood rushes to other muscles you can get hypoglycemia and the brain deteriorates – not great when you need to make pressured decisions at 200mph.’

• ‘There are a lot more races in very hot climates these days. Combine that with race overalls and the heat of the car and it becomes like an oven. Heat is a big limiting factor for drivers; that’s why we’re just back from Malaysia doing protocols outdoors in race overalls in 40 deg C heat.’

• ‘In the early part of race-week we focus on the key elements of that race – perhaps it’s an anti-clockwise track so there’ll be more stresses on the neck; perhaps it’s going to be very hot. Then it’s a couple of days of recovery. Drivers need to eat plenty of minerals – race circuits are not healthy places – and complex vitamins including fruit and veg; they need high energy, slowing releasing carbs like potatoes and rice; and they need proteins, especially plenty of Omega 3 which reduces inflammation and is good for concentration. We also try to keep fat levels to a minimum, but I don’t ban anything – that just creates craving.’

>> To see Ben Barry put through the Williams F1 fitness routine, see the March 2010 issue of CAR Magazine

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator