On the race track, Jimmie Johnson is in big trouble if his No. 48 car runs out of fuel. The same goes for the driver himself. Just like his ride, Johnson can’t perform his best unless he’s got gas in his tank. For the 6-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, that means loading up on carbs, protein and plant-based foods. Since he’s also a triathlete, Johnson’s intense training regimen consists mostly of endurance swims, runs and bikes. It’s a type of training where nutrition is especially important to success. As a part of Gatorade’s Beat the Heat program, STACK got the chance to catch up with Johnson and learn the important role that proper nutrition and hydration plays in his success.
Eat like a Champion
If you think Johnson has been able to stay at the pinnacle of his sport for nearly a decade without paying attention to what he puts in his body, you’re sorely mistaken. When he was a younger driver, Johnson often ate whatever was most convenient. He says, “I was a single guy traveling on the road and eating whatever was in front of me. I maybe thought about carbs a little bit the night before a race, but I really just ate whatever.”
Things started to change for Johnson nutritionally when he got more serious about fitness. In 2007, he began working out with famed trainer John Sitaras and learned how nutrition, training and performance tie together.
“The knowledge that came with nutrition was massive and a huge change for me,” Johnson says. “Not just for how you look, but how you feel and how you recover.”
When his training centered around the weight room, Johnson focused on a high-protein, low-carb diet to help him alter his body composition and build muscle. It worked, and Johnson went from 20 percent body fat all the way down to 8 percent and greatly increased his strength.
But when he began to get more into endurance training, Johnson quickly found that the high-protein, low-carb approach wasn’t appropriate.
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“[That diet] actually hurt me when I started doing endurance training,” he says. “I just didn’t have enough energy. By 2 or 3 p.m. each day, I would just die.”
Johnson went to a nutritionist to find a new approach, one that would sync better with his training and his lifestyle. She analyzed a week’s worth of his meals and found him woefully lacking in carbs. “She said, ‘you’re missing big time on carbs. You just don’t have enough in the tank,’” Johnson says.
The experience was an eye-opener, and it served as a catalyst for him to further his nutrition knowledge. He says, “I began learning more about good carbs and bad carbs, and when and why you should eat certain things. I need fuel for whatever I’m doing.”
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In addition to plenty of carbs, Johnson eats as many plant-based foods as possible—something he picked up from his wife Chandra. He even went vegan for a recent three-month span, an experience that led him to develop a greater love for fruits and vegetables. “It was really tough on the road. But I just wanted to see if I could do it,” he says.
The Fight for Fluids
Whether he’s training or driving, hydration is also a huge emphasis for Johnson.
“Years ago, I went to the Gatorade Science Institute and learned that I was a salty sweater. So fluids and salt and electrolytes are huge for me,” Johnson says. Handling the heat inside the race car is one of NASCAR’s biggest challenges. Inside the cockpit, temperatures can soar upwards of 120 degrees. In addition to a head sock and helmet, drivers are required to wear multiple layers of fireproof clothing.
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Add the pressure and focus inherent in NASCAR racing, and heavy sweating is unavoidable. Johnson begins hydrating for a race several days in advance, and inside his car he has the G.I.D.S.—the Gatorade In-Car Drinking System—which delivers cold Gatorade to Johnson via a tube inserted in his helmet. Gatorade’s blend of carbs and electrolytes helps him fight off dehydration and stay sharp during crunch time.
Jimmie Johnson’s Pre-Race Meal
The key to a pre-race meal is that it must be light enough so you don’t feel weighed down but contain enough carbs so you stay energized through the late laps. For Johnson, a meal of chicken breast, brown rice and fruit does the trick. He also drinks plenty of water and Gatorade in the time leading up to the green flag. “Race day is more carb-focused. Right before the race, I’ll eat chicken, brown rice and some fruit. It seems to be a good ratio for me,” Johnson says.
In its 11th year, the Gatorade Beat the Heat program is an educational program that teaches youth athletes the importance of heat safety and staying hydrated during the hot summer months. Aside from the outside temperatures the heat suits worn by drivers and crew members can result in them losing up to six pounds from sweat in a day. In order to maximize race-day performance, hydration is a key factor in the sport of NASCAR.