Like any kid, growing up I always wanted to be a professional athlete. With my 30th birthday in my rearview mirror, it’s probably time to give up on that pipe dream. But just because a World Drivers’ Championship is severely out of reach doesn't mean I have to relegate myself to a life of inactivity and self-loathing. So I pushed the idea of becoming the next Sebastian Vettel aside and figured I’d go for the next best thing: Lewis Hamilton-style eight-pack abs.
Full of hubris and naivety, I reached out to professional strength and conditioning coach Alex Stott, who, in addition to consulting for McLaren and Porsche, has worked with Formula One and IndyCar drivers including Alex Rossi, Max Chilton and Daniil Kvyat. Surprisingly he agreed to coach me, as well as sit down and answer a few questions about why professional drivers have to be in peak physical shape, and how much a race can take its toll.
“It is easy to see why the misconception is there though when for anyone watching you can’t see what the driver is doing or a lot of the physical demands that they have to cope with, and certainly can’t replicate them in a road car,” explained Stott. “Aside from all else, the drivers are subjected to high heat, humidity, vibrations, carbon monoxide and g-force for anywhere up to two hours.”
“Heart rate in a race will average between 140-170 [beats per minute] (similar to going for a light jog for up to 2 hours) and has been shown to peak between 190-205 [beats per minute] before the race start and at key points in the race. Drivers can lose anywhere from 4-11 pounds of fluid over the course of a two hour race, depending on the environmental conditions.”
Stott adds that, in addition to the physiological demands, the sheer forces each driver is subjected to during a race can be mind-boggling. “Head and helmet combined weigh roughly 14 pounds, under loads of 5-6 G that means that during each braking event or corner the neck muscles are having to resist 66-79 pounds. Huge forces [are] required to press the brake pedal. This can be up to 220 pounds of force each time.”
What does all this mean? Stott tells me that, “In braking and cornering drivers experience vertical, horizontal and lateral G-forces greater than those of NASA astronauts at take off.”
Finally, F1 teams spend millions on getting their cars as fast and light as possible. Because of that “drivers will always aim to be as light as possible,” says Stott. “Therefore on average you will usually find the body fat percentage of Formula 1 drivers to be between 4-10%.”
4-10% body fat. Before starting, I’m sitting somewhere between 18-22% Looks like I have quite a month ahead of me.
Two weeks before my first day of exercise, Coach Stott reached out via the training app TrueCoach with some baseline exercises to gauge my current fitness level. This initial test included a three-rep max of barbell bench press, back squat, weighted pull ups, as well as inverted row, forearm plank and deadhang until failure. Some of these exercises I was familiar with but hadn’t done in a while, like the bench press or squat, while others, like weighted pull ups, I had never attempted. Surprisingly I was able to get three pullups with a 40-pound plate hanging from my waist. Perhaps less surprising, my squat numbers were embarrassingly low.
Speaking of embarrassingly low, one thing that was not low was my mile time. Growing up in Southeast Michigan, my running times have always hovered in the 7-8 minute range, but now that I live up in the mountains, hills and elevation have slowed me down Thankfully I can do a few of my cardio workouts on the rowing machine, my favorite machine at the gym. I won’t be able to escape running altogether though, as my long run days will have to be completed on foot. My new cardio goal: just finish the damn workouts.
And then there’s the diet. First let’s start off with my macros. For those who aren’t nutritionists, macronutrients (or macros for short) are the nutrients you need a lot of in your diet, specifically protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Other nutrients that you need less of (sodium, potassium, etc.) are called micronutrients. For this diet I will be eating 135 grams of protein, 65 grams of fat and a whopping 268 grams of complex carbohydrates every day. I will avoid sugar as much as possible and eat smaller meals throughout the day instead of skipping breakfast like I normally do.
After a frustrating first day at the grocery store and in the kitchen at home, I decided to enlist technology to help me along this journey. I’ve used Lose It on and off for years in order to track my caloric intake with some success. In order to track macros like this you need the premium membership, which saves quite a few headaches. I also bought a kitchen scale so I could measure down to the gram how much food I was eating.
With the tracking app sorted, it’s time to look at the exercise regimen that Stott has laid out for the next few weeks. It’ll consist of three days of cardio, two days of strength training and one day of stretching and flexibility work a week, with one day of rest. You can check out the specific workouts in the tables below.
Day 1: 60 minutes of cardio on an assault bike and my first day of counting my macros. This day seems easy enough, easing me into what some might consider a nightmare, though I wish the seat on the bike was more comfortable. Keeping up with the diet might be a bit harder than I thought. Meal prepping is going to be a must.
Day 2: The weightlifting circuits (back to back workouts without rest) are tough. Really tough. But deadlifting, something I haven’t tried until now, is surprisingly fun and I feel fantastic. Now that I’ve implemented my meal prepping plan, hitting those macros is much easier, though I’m still surprised how much I have to eat, especially in terms of carbohydrates, and I wonder if I’ll be able to lose weight. I’m definitely going to be sore tomorrow.
Day 3: I feel like an 80-year-old man this morning. My glutes have never been this sore. There was no way I was going to be able to run intervals today. Luckily, I can do them on a rowing machine instead. The rowing machine has always been my favorite in terms of cardio, and I felt really good after that session. My sleep has gotten noticeably better. I’m tired around 8:30-9pm every day and fall asleep as soon as I laid down.
Day 4: My glutes are still super sore, and I’m really getting sick of eating brown rice, chicken, and broccoli. I need to learn how to cook. The workout I thought would be the easiest, the shoulder rotation with 5-pound plates (5 pounds, psssh) turned out to be the exercise from hell. I’m tired, sore, and just want to go to bed.
Day 6: Yesterday was a Mobility and Recovery day and after stretching and going to a restorative yoga class at my gym I feel much better today. Which is good because I have to run for 90 minutes. I’m not sure if I’ve ever run that long consistently in my life. Even the triathlons I’ve done when I was in much, much better shape didn’t take that long.
My run was gentle, with a heart rate averaging around 120 beats per minute. Around 75 minutes I hit a wall when I turned around and started running uphill back to my apartment, but after a few minutes of walking I was able to step it up to a light jog until the end. I have no idea how far I ran and I’d like to keep it that way so I don’t compare my time to my former, in-shape self. Tomorrow’s rest day was well earned. Week one in the books.
Day 9: The first week’s results are in, and I’ve lost 5 pounds! I weighed myself at the same time on both Mondays, before breakfast to limit any variation. It is incredible to me that I can be eating as much as I am and still be losing that kind of weight, all while gaining strength. That said, I’m also exercising more than usual, roughly two hours a day, so it makes sense.
While two hours a day is a substantial increase for me, for an F1 driver, it’s nothing at all. When in a preseason training camp, it is routine for a driver to train upwards of three times a day, with a typical day including strength training in the morning, recovery, mobility and a massage at mid day, cardio every afternoon, and another massage and recovery session in the evening.
“As well as the workout” says Stott, “there is a lot of recovery work, massage work, ice baths, etc, to reduce soreness.”
Day 13: Today’s gentle run was for an incredible 120 minutes. In the rain/sleet. And yet, I found it easier than the 90-minute run last week. That being said, 120 minutes is a long time, and I felt every minute of it. By the time I got home I was HUNGRY, which is good because I still had 1900 calories to go for the day.
Day 15: I’m down another 2.5 pounds for a total of 7.5 pounds lost so far after two weeks of training, but the biggest improvement I’ve felt is in my recovery from the workouts and how I’ve felt while I was doing each of them. The first week I was almost constantly sore, this week I have a little soreness the day after but it subsides rather quickly.
Day 17: Over halfway through this process, and while I feel a lot better, I’m still struggling to eat all of the calories I need to. There have been nights where I stay up late (late for me is 8:30/9pm these days) eating carbs (rough, I know) to get my macros in.
Day 21: I’m only down a pound this week, bringing the grand total to 8.5, but my strength is up. My embarrassing squat numbers have jumped, which I am very glad to see, and I have so much energy! Another surprising side effect is the impact this diet has had on my stomach. I’ve always had stomach issues, but by eating consistently and cutting out alcohol and processed food, it seems like they’ve nearly gone away. I’ve never slept better.
Day 24: In high school I was a 200-yard freestyle swimmer. The third 50 yards of that race was always my slowest. That’s how I feel this week. I went out strong in the first week, tried to keep that momentum the second, but this past week was hardest. I felt tired most of the time and had to force myself to go to the gym and do my rowing intervals. Gotta step it up for this last week.
Day 30: My final day. It’s bittersweet. I’ve really surprised myself in my consistency and while there were definitely times when I wanted to do anything other than go to the gym, once I got there and started working out, I felt much better.
In total I lost 10 pounds over the 30 days, which I was happy with, but I am more excited about losing weight while gaining as much strength as I did. I lost 1.5-2 inches off my waist (I had to buy new pants!) and my shoulders have definitely grown, thanks to those hellacious shoulder exercises.
Before these 30 days, most of my workouts consisted of hours spent at the climbing gym. I have found that my strength increase since then has been very apparent. I have been able to climb much harder and longer than I have in the past, increasing my bouldering and rock-climbing difficulty by one and two levels respectively.
Another apparent gain was in my endurance. When I started the program only 4 weeks ago, running 60 minutes, let alone 120, was arduous. Now I look forward to my 2-hour long runs, and feel energized and clear-headed throughout, something that is definitely necessary if you’re going to be racing for a few hours every week. It’s no surprise to me that many F1 drivers cycle as part of their training and some also compete in marathons.
I also have found that the diet has become my normal now. I didn’t have any alcohol during the 30 days, and I felt so good that I am going to continue that. My sleep has been much more restful, and I awake in the morning feeling refreshed.
Did I get Lewis Hamilton abs in 30 days? Of course not. It takes more than one month of eating right and exercising to do that, if you’re starting off in the same place that I did. It has been a little over a month since my F1 training ended, and since then I’ve been able to continue my weight loss and strength gain by tracking my calories and macros.
As far as my thoughts on F1 drivers? Respect. These 30 days weren’t easy, and I didn’t have any races in which I had to compete.
This article is intended for informational purposes only. You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.