How F1 drivers train physically and mentally to go from ‘gym fit’ to ‘race fit’

How F1 drivers train physically and mentally to go from ‘gym fit’ to ‘race fit’

Between the Racing Lines 🏁| Formula One is complicated, confusing and constantly evolving. This story is part of our guide to help any fan — regardless of how long they’ve watched the sport or how they discovered it — navigate the pinnacle of motorsports.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Formula One is that getting a car around a track is a matter of hopping in and driving. The physical and mental demands are far greater than that.

“The forces that we go through are a bit underestimated,” Williams’ Logan Sargeant said. “You can feel your body compressing against the side of the seat, and just the sheer force going through your neck is just quite bizarre.”

It’s part of being at the pinnacle of motorsport. To have a chance at the title, a driver needs not just a top-caliber car but to extract the maximum performance from it — and themselves. That requires top physical fitness. Muscle strength in their legs, cores, and necks is needed, but how drivers approach their workout regimen and achieve peak performance varies.

This is where performance coaches enter the picture. “It’s a huge sacrifice to become a professional sportsman,” said Ben Jacobs, Sargeant’s former performance coach, who worked with the American through his rookie year. “Especially an F1 driver that travels a lot, and it’s not just training in the sense of training in the gym or training in the diet.”

In a grueling sport like F1, performance and training focus as much on the physical as the mental.

Neck strength, HIIT sessions and …. pilates?

F1 drivers need more than the regular gym regimen. They need the strength to handle the intense gravitational forces (G-force) they face and the endurance to last a nearly two-hour race in various climates. And, with few exceptions, they only get to drive the actual car during the season.

It’s one thing to be gym fit but another to be race fit.

“We’re in the best shape we would be in terms of from a gym point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily completely translate to how we’ll feel in the car,” Sargeant said about preseason training. “So we try to still target the things we need in a car. But at the end of the day, as we go through the season, we just get more and more race fit and less and less gym fit.”

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In-season, when traveling from race to race, Sargeant typically does one workout a day unless there’s a break in the schedule. His off-season schedule often features two-a-day workout sessions. “It’s much more mobility, just trying to maintain a bit of strength (and) keeping the body loose. It’s definitely nowhere near (as) intense, at least from my side,” he said.

During the off-season, the drivers try to keep their necks strong. It’s a key muscle area these athletes need to focus on because of the G-forces and vision. They must keep their heads up to see where they’re going as they drive around the circuits and quickly change directions as they whip through corners. Too much head movement can make it challenging to nail the turns and hit the apexes, which can be costly in more ways than one.

Cardio is another critical part of drivers’ fitness regimen, given how long the races last. “I’m not very good at going and doing one thing for a long period of time,” Sargeant said. “I prefer to do more short, sharp. So do multiple exercises through a high-intensity interval training session (HIIT).” If he had to do cardio for an extended period and stick to one exercise, it would be running outside. “The treadmill drives me crazy, so I don’t do that.”

Most of the Williams driver’s HIIT sessions involve hopping from cardio machine to cardio machine — including the treadmill at times — and bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, burpees and core work. “Just anything to keep the body moving, keep the heart rate up,” Sargeant said. The high-intensity exercises are his least favorite, but “we’ve had to do a lot more of that in the past year for that exact reason.”

What drivers have to do, like anyone else, is have a mindset shift.

“I think a lot of it is when you get into a cycle of doing something, and you get into a routine, your body starts to adapt to it, it starts to get better at it, and then you don’t start to hate it as much because you start to get better at something and then you enjoy improving,” Sargeant said. “So I do think it’s important to stick with it while you hate it.”

Core, mobility and flexibility are other key training considerations. Mobility is more about the joints, while flexibility is the soft tissue, and pilates is an exercise option to address all three. It’s a mind-body exercise that essentially is strength training, even if it doesn’t appear so. 

“Most drivers are quite tight just from the way we sit in the car, and everything just seizes up a bit,” Sargeant said. “It’s about keeping it loose, keeping everything open. It’s great for core strength and even just basic glutes, hamstrings, stuff like that. We use it a little bit but probably should use it more.”

Tackling F1 requires more than physical fitness

Sargeant faced a steep learning curve when joining the F1 grid in 2023.

He went from F3 to F2 to F1 in just two years and had little testing mileage. With jumping to the top of the ‘pyramid,’ Sargeant feels the training is reasonably similar “from a whole body point of view.” However, he added that cardio and neck training are amplified and more strenuous. The forces are more potent, and the car is faster. But there is a circus that comes with F1.

Jacobs’s philosophy started with a broad goal, narrowing to weekly and daily goals. From a physical standpoint, he said, “It’s a gradual change. It’s a gradual adapting to everything and learning on what you need to do and what you don’t need to do. What we’re working towards is being as fit as we can be but definitely trying to, then, get a grip of the mental side of things.”

The mental side is where Jacobs saw the most growth in Sargeant over his rookie season. The American driver said, “It’s pretty standard protocol” nowadays to work with sports psychologists. “Just to have someone to talk to, whether you need it or not, just to sort of unload the useless and irrelevant information, noise, thoughts. It’s always good just to get it out.”

Mental energy decreases as the season wears on, and drivers can become “very deflated.”

“When you’re low on mental energy, you never feel very good. So it’s about also finding ways, your triggers, that help sort of get some of that energy back. For everyone, it’ll be different.”

For Sargeant, refreshing is a case-by-case situation, but he typically prefers stepping away and disconnecting. He flew home to Florida from Austin after scoring his first F1 point in the U.S. Grand Prix despite the race in Mexico just being a few days away. It was the sport’s final tripleheader of the season and part of a grueling stretch of races. He said, “Going home helps, no matter what. Just (to) get away from it, it’s very essential. You’re much better off looking after yourself, not even thinking about racing, than overthinking it, and you’ll just send yourself down a rabbit hole.”

It’s a matter of knowing the right time to take a step back.

“Honestly, the mind is an endless whirlwind of many, many things to try and keep improving on,” Sargeant said. “It’s just as big, if not bigger than the physical side.”

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This is a republished version of a story that originally ran in December 2023.

(Lead image of Logan Sargeant: Kym Illman/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton/The Athletic)

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