The requirement to produce near constant power during racing has elevated fitness and output to unheard of levels in the America's Cup teams. Helen Fretter reports
The shape of the six men competing on each challenger has changed – literally.
Two factors have altered the make-up of America’s Cup teams beyond all recognition: the move to foiling multihulls, and the total crew weight limit of 525kg for six men. Sailors in the 35th America’s Cup now have to produce near constant power rather than short bursts of intense grinding to trim or hoist a sail, and they have to do it with fewer, smaller crew.
Land Rover BAR sailor David ‘Freddie’ Carr epitomises how the role of the America’s Cup sailor has physically shifted. Carr began his America’s Cup career in 2003 with GBR Challenge and recalls the grinding crew on the old IACC yachts: “They were huge, powerful machines, big prop-forward looking men who could bench press 200kg. And their explosive power was absolutely phenomenal, something that us current crop of America’s Cup grinders could get nowhere near.
“We’ve changed from these power sprint athletes into endurance athletes that are required to hold a constant wattage for 20-25 minutes on these America’s Cup boats.”
Land Rover BAR team’s head of strength and conditioning, Ben Williams (an ex-Royal Marine), comments: “I broke down the old America’s Cups and the work-to-rest ratio was 1:6. In the last Cup in San Francisco it was 6:1.” So how do the current Cup sailors produce all this power?
The BAR squad train for around 14 hours a week before they even step onto the water. Technogym Arm Grinder simulators, aero bikes, rowing machines and an awful lot of repetitive weight training dominate their routines.
Artemis Racing’s Chris Brittle can reportedly bench press 160kg. Louis Sinclair, Oracle Team USA’s bowman, dead-lifts 180kg. Boxing and SUPing let some crews blow off steam, but are another opportunity for working on the all-critical power.
Aerobic capacity is also pushed to the max. Carr explains: “On the AC50s, you’re constantly north of 85 per cent of max heart rate.” Free-diving training is both a safety technique and a way of maximising lung capacity.
The combination of repetitive movement and huge loads put the sailors at big risk of injury. Carr explains that what the team dub ‘pre-habilitation’ is a big part of their fitness training.
“Because the loads going through the shoulders and bouncing around the trampoline are huge, there could potentially be a lot of shoulder niggles, impact injuries and lower limb injuries. We do a shoulder conditioning circuit every morning, which will completely open up your shoulder. We’re doing upwards of 7,000 revolutions on the handles every day, so you’re really asking a lot of that joint.”
“The other thing we do is yoga. At the high speeds on these boats, when you’re up around 40-50 knots, it’s very easy to become very tense and to bring that off the water with you.
“You find your body over the course of a sailing week basically just tightening up. It resets your muscles, and – for all that you’re standing stretching with a group of big burly sailors – it does reset the mind as well.”
Almost every AC team has seen a man overboard or a near-miss. The Land Rover BAR squad incorporates agility training to keep the team foot-sure.
“We try to replicate it. We do a lot of hopping courses and a lot of changing direction courses,” says Carr.
“It’s akin to what you’d see NFL players or football players doing; [they] have to have great acceleration and deceleration.
“When we’re crossing the boat we have to be very agile on our feet. That’s hard enough when you’re doing it across a gym, hopping over hurdles and jumping onto boxes, but doing it in the middle of a foiling gybe at 40 knots two metres above the water with the pitch of the boat changing, adds another dynamic altogether.
“Without doubt the best training for crossing these boats is actually doing it, but we try and get as close as we can in the gym, so our limbs have a bit of muscle memory stepping around the boat in those high pressure manoeuvres.”
AC crew have to be able to make split second decisions even when pushed to the limit aerobically. Oracle Team USA trained with US Navy Seals to test themselves mentally while physically exhausted. They were put through an ‘ice-bucket memory game’, where sailors sitting in ice baths could only get out once one of their highly fatigued team mates correctly solved a puzzle.
Land Rover BAR has taken a different approach. “We try and leave our out-and-out heart and lung training in the gym,” explains Carr. “Then when we step onto the water we work 10-15 per cent less than that and are able to cognitively think the boat around the racecourse.
“That’s where the real skill of the sailor comes in, where you are operating at 80-90 per cent max heart rate, so you’re breathing pretty hard, but you’re also very aware of how the boat is set up; not only what move is coming next but what is likely to come at the bottom mark and how that might change if one boat gybes early and gets a split at the bottom gate.
“That’s where the skill comes: being physically stressed and fatigued but being mentally able to cope and plan ahead.”
With a total weight limit of 525kg, many teams have been slimming down their helmsmen to shift the weight allowance onto the power-driving grinders. Even so, there is no weight spare.
Carr radically changed his diet to the ‘Sirtfood’ plan, which saw his body fat drop to just seven per cent.
Working with nutritionist Aiden Goggins, the team have been having quarterly blood tests to personalise their diet, explains Carr.
“And without a doubt the most interesting two of those was the first blood draw he did and the one he did three months later after we implemented his plans. Fundamentally I had been brought up in the RYA youth system where carbohydrates were king and slow burning energy was the thing.”
Goggins advised that Carr’s body struggled to convert carbohydrates to energy.
“We made some very drastic tweaks to my diet. I didn’t change the volume of my food intake, if anything I probably increased it a little bit, and within that first three months I lost 7.5kg and a load of stuff that was potentially in the red within my cell health became one of my strong points.
“Everyone in the team had their own stories like that, with dietary tweaks that not only helped them lose
or gain weight but actually helped them find 5-10 per cent in performance.”