Fitness has become one of the pillars of the modern America’s Cup.
No longer is it enough to be one of the world’s best sailors – crews must be among the fittest athletes in the world.
Racing a foiling, wingsail catamaran that can reach speeds of more than 40 mph demands supreme conditioning in a way not seen before in sailing. Gone are the days of short, intense periods of exertion followed by lengthy spells sitting on the rails.
Land Rover BAR’s sailors must be able to perform almost continuously during a super-charged 20-minute race, often for three races a day.
“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. In that respect it is a completely different sport,” says Land Rover BAR’s strength and conditioning coach Ben Williams.
“It’s no longer about big 110 kg grinders spinning big winches. With these new boats we’re not really about moving rope, we’re about moving hydraulic fluid.
"Because that’s more of a constant output the guys need more of an endurance base.”
With that in mind, Ben’s programme combines strength and power work with cardio-vascular training, alongside pre-habilitation, injury prevention and nutrition (alongside Aidan Goggins) - tailored to each athlete.
“We’re now a weight-restricted sport, but that weight restriction is quite low – it’s only 87.5kgs per man average,” says Ben. “We have decided to reduce the weight of our afterguard – the helmsman and wing trimmer – and that allows us to give those precious kilos to the grinders.
"The bigger and more powerful they can be, the more power they can give to the boat.”
That power is crucial, because with no stored power allowed on the boat, the grunt for pushing the hydraulic fluid around to lift the daggerboards and move the wing comes from the sailors.
"We're trying to acheive stable flight, so from a fitness point of view we're putting our energy into making sure we can trim the wing so we've got enough power through the manouevre, and making sure we're keeping the boat foiling high," says sailing team manager Jon Macbeth.
The more power the sailors can produce, the more the designers can do with it.
Andy Claughton, Land Rover BAR's technical director, says: "Working with high-end athletes is very exciting from the design point of view. It takes us much more into the the sporting arena like the guys at Team Sky with their cyclists. We've now got a boat full of highly tuned athletes and it's our job to make sure they can deliver the power as effectively as possible."
“The designers are chasing performance enhancers in the boat and they need the guys to be able to deal with the demand. We’re basically just chasing watts,” says Ben.
The team trains for 12-15 hours a week in the gym, combined with yoga sessions to enhance mobility and prevent injury.
As well as weight training, focusing on the upper body, four cardio sessions a week build the endurance base so they can produce power over long periods of time, similar to a cycling time trial.
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High-intensity interval training – using a grinder, rowing machines, ski ergos or other exercises to maintain variety – is designed to improve the sailors performance when they are nearing their VO2 maximum – the maximum rate of oxygen consumption.
“It’s about what wattage you can grind for in an hour without going anaerobic (causing lactic acid to form in muscles) at the maximum end of the energy scales,” says Ben.
“Or, how can we produce the most power but by staying green?”
Sometimes, he pushes them further, into their upper heart-rate ranges, otherwise known as the “red zone". Or as he calls it, the “hard, gritty stuff, where it’s about mental toughness”.
“The reality is, your best sailor mentally and tactically may not be your best sailor when he his heart is beating at 186 beats per minute and he’s head down sweating all over the pedestal,” he says.
“He has to be able to tolerate the physical output to be able to think.”
According to Ben, “We’re entering an era now with this sport where people look at it and go, ‘I can’t do that.’
"That’s what moves it from recreational sport to elite sport. The levels of athleticism combined with the technology just makes it even more intriguing.”