On a typical summer weekend, the temperature inside Steve Ferrario’s racecar will consistently top 120 degrees. But after putting his SpecE30 through the paces, Ferrario gets out of the car and looks like he could run a 10k.
That’s no accident. The 48-year-old Ferrario works out hard during the week so he can be at peak performance come race weekend. In any given week, he runs 20 to 40 miles, logs 50 to 250 miles on his bicycle and lifts weights twice.
“Better fitness will improve your driving by expending less energy on the physical demands of driving and have more in reserve for the mental aspect of driving,” said Ferrario of San Luis Obispo, Calif. “Potentially, you’ll make fewer mistakes in the later stages of a race.”
Ferrario may be on the extreme end of the fitness scale but he likes his results on track. We spoke with several personal trainers to gain insight on getting into race shape and staying that way. Before undertaking any exercise routine, it’s important to consult with your physician. After setting up that doctor’s appointment, keep on reading.
Making a plan
Setting goals is important to starting any exercise program and getting the desired results. You may be looking for better endurance on the track or just want to shed some of those winter pounds.
Personal trainers tell their clients to be realistic when setting goals. Scheduling a marathon at month’s end when you haven’t run since high school is not realistic and will lead to failure—or an injury. It’s better to set small achievable goals and pick the activities you like to do.
“There are so many exercises out there. Find something you like and you’ll stick to it,” said Stephanie Chang, a NASA racer and a certified group fitness instructor who owns a Baby Boot Camp in Parsippany, N.J. “Running is the most common. You can do the INSANITY workout, bike ride, swim or put any combination of exercises together to make it cardio. I like to do a combination of exercises to keep it interesting.”
Once you commit to exercising regularly, you should decide whether to join a gym or exercise at home, or maybe do boot camps. You might need that one-on-one attention only a personal trainer can offer. The decision likely will be based on the family budget.
“A lot of people make excuses for not working out,” said Melinda Ball, a certified personal trainer and a licensed physical therapist assistant with NASA Southeast. “You can get extra workouts in during the day. When you go grocery shopping, don’t park up front. Park way out and walk those extra steps. Walk the stairs instead of taking the elevator, and it makes a difference.”
An ideal workout for a weekend racer should involve a combination of cardio and weight training. The goal is to improve endurance and strength to give you an edge when fatigue catches up to the other drivers.
That balance can’t be accomplished simply by logging hours on the StairMaster or just lifting weights. A workout requires combining cardio and weights to get maximum results.
“There’s a misconception you have to work out longer periods of time,” said Jim Leo, owner of PitFit Training of Indianapolis, which works with professional racecar drivers. “You can get more from an intense 20-minute workout than a one-hour workout where you take it easy. You get out what you put in.”
Leo focuses on four main areas with his clients: cardio, strength, circuit and flexibility.
He’s a believer in stimulating the mind and body during a workout. For example, if a client is riding an exercise bicycle, Leo will have them throw a tennis ball from hand-to-hand during the exercise. On a treadmill, the driver may play Lumosity brain games on the iPad while jogging.
“You are trying to train the body and mind when it’s fatigued,” Leo said. “It’s the same conditions you’ll face in the car. They should be able to respond quickly even when they’re tired.”
When it comes to strength training, Leo recommends whole body movements such as squats, shoulder presses, bodyweight pushups and pull-ups. Take short breaks between sets (30 seconds or less) and pay close attention to form.
Leo encourages his clients to do a variety of cardio and at various intensity levels. His favorite machines include the rower, elliptical and the treadmill. But that cardio training comes with a twist. Use each cardio machine for 10 minutes and while changing machines do either 25 pushups, 25 bodyweight squats or 25 crunches. Leo, along with other personal trainers, encourages their clients to take Pilates or a yoga class because it helps with flexibility and focus.
To keep workouts interesting and unpredictable, Leo says to write several dozen exercises on pieces of paper and drop them in a bowl. When it comes time to work out, draw as many as 10 exercises, keeping a balance between an upper and lower body workout.
Trainers recommend exercising four or five days a week. If you work out additional days, make sure to include at least one day of rest.
“You can’t out-train a bad diet,” is a phrase often uttered by trainers. And they’re right. The body needs high-quality food, especially for what’s being demanded of it come race weekend. Chicken pot pie or French fries qualify as foods, but they aren’t going to deliver the high-quality energy you need.
“You don’t put low-grade race fuel in your car because it will have to work twice as hard,” Leo said. “Why is your body any different?”
Losing weight is a fairly simple formula—burn more calories than you take in. Reducing your calories by 500 a day will result in a pound of weight loss per week, said nutritionist Laura Barron of Chico, Calif. That may seem like a lot of missing calories but it can be easily accomplished through diet and exercise.
Barron suggests keeping a food journal for at least three or four days to get an assessment of what you are eating. She recommends using the online application Fitday.com to track foods and what might be lacking from your diet.
Barron isn’t a supporter of diets such as Atkins, South Beach or The Paleo Diet. “Any diet with a name, I call it a fad diet,” she said.
Rather than picking a diet that lets you eat unlimited protein or avoid bread and pasta, nutritionists generally avoid processed foods because they are high in salt and calories. Barron suggests a healthy diet that includes lots of lean proteins (chicken, fish), vegetables (red lettuce, broccoli) and fruits.
She promotes small, gradual changes to a diet rather than a single radical approach because it sets people up for failure. Pick a week to add more vegetables to your diet and the following week reduce carbohydrates — think pizza — and add antioxidants such as berries.
Leo advocates portion control, noting that most Americans are accustomed to eating large meals. Outside the United States, portions are smaller and generally healthier, he said. If you do eat fast food, Leo suggests ordering the child’s meal instead of the adult portion to keep calories in check.
Track Day Regimen
Just because it’s a race weekend, fitness and healthy eating don’t take a holiday. Between racing, meetings and wrenching on the car, fitness and good food often take a backseat.
For competitors such as Ferrario and Chang, they will get their exercise in during the weekend. Ferrario brings an exercise bike and will ride up to 45 minutes, using the time to focus and warm up his body. Chang says she’ll do a run or a fast-paced walk to prepare. Stretching prior to a race is equally important, Ball says. That could involve doing some jumping jacks, swinging the arms or taking a brisk walk to warm up the body.
Afterward, Ball recommends some simple stretches for your arms and upper back. For example, bring your arm across the chest with your palm up, then bring your other arm in like a bicep curl over the extended arm. For the upper back, bring both arms forward, clasp your hands together and arch your back backwards.
To stretch for your forearms, reach your arm out in front at shoulder level with your palm up, use your other hand to pull your fingers down. Hold each stretch for about 15 to 30 seconds each on each side. In fact, hold all stretches for at least 20 seconds.
Do calf raises to strengthen the calf muscle by coming up and down on your tippy toes using the car for support. Then stretch the calves after the race by doing a standing calf stretch by stepping back with your foot and pressing your heel to the ground using your arms for support on the car.
“These are stretches you can do at your day job,” Ball said. “Most of us sit in front of a computer. If you took five minutes out of every hour to move around, that helps you become more alert and oriented.”
Hydration also is a must at the track. On a hot summer day, drinking as much as 3 liters of water is not uncommon. Personal trainers are split on whether to include sports drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade in the hydration regime. The sports drinks can replenish lost salt and electrolytes on hot days but are loaded with sugar and calories. Trainers recommend low-calorie options such as Gatorade G2 or simply cutting a sports drink with water.
Healthy snacks also can help the body with hydration. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with water and provide much-needed energy. Homemade smoothies are a great source of nutrition and taste especially good on a hot day.
No matter your reason, whether it’s improving your time on the track or to live longer, fitness should be part your routine. If you love cycling, swimming or lifting weights, create some time in your schedule to do them. The next time you beat a personal best lap time on the track or look in a full length mirror, you’ll know the hard work in the gym is paying off.
A Winning Workout
When it comes to working out in the gym, Juli Lisheski is all business. Headphones in her ears, she accomplishes more in a 50-minute workout than most people do in a two-hour session. A certified personal trainer based in Ventura, Calif., Lisheski believes that maximum effort equals maximum results.
“I use a similar approach to train all of my clients,” Lisheski said. “The biggest difference between training a guy who is 20 and a guy who is 50 is the weight they are lifting and maybe the reps. There is an athlete inside each of them. Their age does not make much of a difference.”
We asked Lisheski to develop a basic workout for NASA members that focuses on strength and endurance. The workout can be done four or five days a week with a day of rest every couple of days. Divide the workouts on consecutive days to chest/back one day, legs/abs the next day and repeat with chest/back and legs/abs on single days. It’s important to give your body a chance to recover.
Start with a warmup on a treadmill using the 20/20/20 method. Walk for 20 seconds, followed by a run of 20 seconds and then a sprint for 20 seconds. Do this for five minutes and you’ll be ready to start lifting.
“Five minutes of that builds more stamina than an hour at a moderate pace,” Lisheski said.
She suggests three sets with an average of 10 reps for each exercise. Take a brief rest between sets—30 seconds or less to maximize cardio. A full workout shouldn’t take more than 45 to 50 minutes, and by then, the gym will be the last place you’ll want to be.
Bench press — Use enough weight to make it a challenge to finish the reps.
Knee pushups — With knees on the ground, do pushups until failure.
Jumping rope — One minute of jumping rope without pause.
Seated row — On a seated row machine with legs straight, pull heavy weight toward your belly. Finish by contracting the shoulder blades. You can do this with a rubber exercise band, too.
Renegade row — Using 5- or 10-pound dumbbells, assume the push-up position. With your hands resting on the dumbbells, bend one arm slightly and raise the other dumbbell until the elbow passes your waist. Do this 10 times per side.
Hand walks — Get down on your hands and feet, and keep your back level (pretend a family is having tea on your back). Walk forward, backwards and side to side. Try this for 30 seconds. Try hand-walking over benches and curbs and other objects to vary the intensity and keep your body guessing.
Hanging leg raises — Hanging from a pull-up bar, keep your legs together and raise them toward your chest.
Squats — Use either a barbell or dumbbells to complete this exercise. Pay close attention to form. Keep your back nice and straight. You should feel it in your quadriceps.
Deadlifts — With dumbbells or a barbell on the ground, stabilize your body, bend over picking up the weight and bringing it close to your body. Again, keep a straight back and your legs straight, but not locked. You should fell it in your glutes and hamstrings.
Split squat lunge — Elevate the back leg on a bench or against a wall to do a lunge. This forces the body to work harder to maintain balance.
Dumbbell jump squat — With a lightweight dumbbell in each hand, jump in the air and come down into a squat position. Repeat at least 10 times. Your quadriceps will be on fire and your heart will be pumping in no time.
Running dumbbell curls — This involves running with your arms (quick alternating bicep curls) and using lightweight dumbbells. Hands start at the side and while curling the arm, rotate your forearm so your palm faces your shoulder at the top of the move.
Dumbbell hammer curls — Similar to dumbbell curls, but your hands start at the side and while curling the arm, make sure the thumb faces the shoulder at the top of the move. Forearm does not rotate.
Bodyweight dips — Take two parallel bars shoulder width apart and with your legs off the ground, lower your body until the elbows are at 90 degrees. Push your body back up and repeat.
Seated overhead shoulder press — Sitting down, position dumbbells on each side of your shoulder. Press your arms upward until your arms are fully extended and then lower until the arm is level with the shoulder.
Steering wheel turns — Holding a barbell weight, say 15 pounds or so, out in front of you like you would grip a steering wheel. Rotate the “wheel” 10 times in each direction to strengthen the same deltoid muscles you use when steering through race traffic.
Whether you are a novice or an expert at weight training, it is worth the money to hire a personal trainer for at least a few sessions. They will teach you proper technique and good form, and customize a routine to your age and ability. The goal should be to maximize performance and results.
“Spend some time on a piece of cardio equipment overlooking the gym and observe,” Lisheski said. “See what trainers are connecting with their clients. See whose body is changing. When you find the right trainer, you’re getting what you paid for.”