Jimmie Johnson is the most dominant NASCAR driver of the 21st century, and it’s not even close. Since 2006, Johnson has won six Sprint Cup Series championships, five Driver of the Year awards, and the 2009 AP Athlete of the Year award.
How has the 39-year-old Johnson managed to stay on top for so long? The answer has a lot to do with how he spends the hours when he’s not inside a car. Johnson’s training includes a triathlete-style regimen, focused on long-distance running, swimming and biking. He has found that this type of training confers tremendous benefits for both the mental and physical aspects of NASCAR racing.
But it wasn’t always this way. At the start of Johnson’s career, fitness was an afterthought. As a part of the Gatorade Beat the Heat program, STACK caught up with the NASCAR champ prior to a recent race to talk about his training and get a firsthand look at one of his unique rituals—the pre-race bike ride.
RELATED: Driver Christian Fittipaldi’s Competitive Cross Training
Catch Him if you Can
When I met Johnson on the Saturday evening prior to the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, he was preparing for a 60-mile bike ride on the hilly country roads surrounding the race track. A grueling bike ride the night before a race might sound crazy to some, but Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way—even though he also planned to compete in a triathlon the following Tuesday.
“I’ve worked my way up to these distances,” Johnson said. “I’ve built the volume so I know how I’ll feel for the race tomorrow. I feel good about it.” His pre-race bike rides—which have been part of his routine for the last couple years—are a far cry from how he used to spend Saturday nights. “Thirty-nine weeks a year I’m in a motorhome and on the road. Nine out of 10 drivers are going to be sitting on their couch, watching TV and digging through whatever’s in the fridge. I did that for years and I’m tired of it. It bores you to death,” Johnson said.
I tried to keep up with Johnson on the ride (he was joined by several members of his pit crew and a few other drivers). I fell short, but it was easy to see the allure of getting out of a cramped motorhome. Even when your legs are on fire from the endless hills, the scenery of upstate New York is too beautiful to ignore. “To be outside, to see the beautiful states that we race in—it makes me feel alive. It just feels great to be out there and doing something. It’s good for the head,” Johnson said.
Johnson expertly weaved through tricky terrain and crushed steep hill after steep hill, leading the pack for much of the ride. He’s fast in a car and fast on a bike. Johnson personally designs the routes for every ride. I challenge anyone who thinks NASCAR drivers aren’t athletes to try tagging along. When the 60-mile ride was finally over, nearly everyone was gassed—except Johnson, of course, who sported a huge smile. I guess he was right—he did know what he was doing. It might seem hard to imagine now, but Johnson wasn’t always in such elite physical condition. His current shape is the result of a long dedication to fitness.
RELATED: The Athleticism of a Race Car Driver: Team Mazda’s Tom Long
Training to Stay on Top
Johnson’s push into physical fitness didn’t begin until 2007. By that time, he had already established himself as one of NASCAR’s top drivers. But he wasn’t satisfied with just being a great driver. He wanted to max out his abilities to ensure that he would stay on top for as long as possible.
“It was something that weighed on the back of my mind,” Johnson said. “I was an established driver and had job security, and some free time opened up. With that, I knew that if I wanted to get to the next level, I should be focusing more on my fitness. It was just kind of something inside me that pushed me to do it.”
His more serious approach to fitness began when Johnson committing himself to consistent strength training. Teaming up with famed trainer John Sitaras, he got on a regular workout plan designed to help him lose body fat, increase muscle mass and become a better athlete. “I was on a big strength kick in 2007 and 2008 and was spending a lot of time in the weight room,” Johnson said. “My appearance changed dramatically and I felt better. I also learned about the mindsets of recovery and muscle-building.” His body fat percentage dropped significantly and his strength training regimen helped him stay on top of the leaderboards.
But after a couple of years, the weight room routine grew a bit stale. “I wanted to be outside more. I wanted to be back on a bike. I grew up racing dirt bikes and riding mountain bikes in California. So I started cycling and running more,” Johnson said. He loved it, and when the summer months rolled around, he begin thinking about hopping in the pool again—something he hadn’t done regularly since his high school swim team days.
“The summer got so hot I thought I needed to mix it up. And I swam back in high school. So I jumped in the pool and it felt great. And all these things sort of happened over a short period of time,” Johnson said. He had naturally gravitated to the three activities that make up a triathlon—running, cycling and swimming—but Johnson never considered formally participating in such events—that is, until some triathletes who trained at his pool begin asking him what race he was preparing for. He said, “I saw some guys in the pool frequently enough that they asked me what triathlon I was training for. I hadn’t even thought of doing any sort of race, but as soon as they mentioned that, it planted a seed in my mind. So I tried to find a sprint distance triathlon I could fit into my schedule.”
A “sprint distance” triathlon consists of a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run. In July 2012, Johnson completed his first sprint distance triathlon with a time of 1:11:57. “Once I did that first one, the competitor in me kicked in. I’ve been hooked ever since,” Johnson said. He completed in several Olympic-distance triathlons (1-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and 10K run), and even a Half Ironman triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run).
Johnson’s knowledge of nutrition plays an important role in his training. He uses Gatorade products to help him fuel up before, during and after his long-distance training sessions. Gatorade’s blend of fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes helps fight off dehydration and keeps his energy levels strong.
A Clear Mind in a Strong Body
Besides clearing his head, Johnson’s training offers other benefits that have helped him become a better driver. He used to feel constant tightness on one side of his body, the result of battling the G-forces involved when turning left at incredibly high speeds for hundreds of laps. But when he started spending more time in the pool, the tightness disappeared. “The thing that’s balanced me out the most is the swimming,” Johnson said. “Especially my lower back, my shoulders and my neck. Working on rotation in the water has been a really big help.”
The mental perseverance it takes to power through an endurance swim, run or bike ride is very similar to what you need during a long, hot race in the car. “You’re going to that place where you have to push yourself to failure day after day, and it’s a very similar mindset for in the car. I feel like I’m living in that place more often,” Johnson said.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Johnson’s training are felt the day after races. He said, “For years, Mondays were just spent lying on the couch and eating and trying to get fluids back in me. I could barely make it to the refrigerator. But now, Mondays are a 7-mile run and a 2,500-yard swim. It took me a while to get up to that volume, but that’s pretty much my standard Monday now.” The harder Johnson trains, the higher his standards become. His next fitness goal is to complete a full Ironman triathlon (2.5-mile swim, 125-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile [marathon] run). With his dedication, we’re betting he will check off that goal sooner rather than later.
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.