At the age of 19, Aric Almirola became a professional driver. In the two decades that have passed since then, he's made sure to leave no stone unturned to gain an edge in competition and be at his best, mentally and physically.
In his sixth season for Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and his twelfth full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Aric Almirola remains one of the most experienced drivers to talk to when it comes to the challenges drivers face on race day.
Ahead of this Sunday's first-ever NASCAR street race in downtown Chicago (on NBC on July 2 at 5:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. CT), Aric Almirola spoke to M&F about the challenge the new track presents to drivers and what his challenges are. The approach to training has evolved throughout his career and everything is designed to ensure he is at his best when the green flag is waved.
Photo by Courtney Culbreath/Getty Images
The challenge of the unknown
Much of what we do happens before we show up for the actual event. We prepare intensively throughout the week for every race we participate in. In stick and ball sports, they prepare for the game, but also for competing against their opponent. They explore and try to identify their opponent's strengths and weaknesses. In racing, not only is our opponent who we are competing against, we are also competing with the race track. The course itself is the main opponent and we're trying to figure out how to go around this course faster than everyone else. We've done a lot of prep and simulation work to prepare for this circuit, but this is a circuit we've never been to.
We cannot watch a previous race film at this track. We don't know where the bumps will be on the track, where the walls will protrude or what the pit entrance will be like. All these things are completely unknown and that makes it a really big challenge as we prepare for this race.
Racing isn't as easy as it seems, says Aric Almirola
People underestimate what we do in the race cars. I always tell them, if you want to get a good idea of what I'm doing, picture me driving down the freeway at 70 miles an hour on cruise control. Anyone can do that, right? When you arrive at one of these circular exit ramps, imagine leaving your car on cruise control at 70 miles per hour and exiting the exit ramp. As you drive around the exit ramp, your whole body is tense, you need a firm grip on the steering wheel, and you'll likely be holding your breath. As racers we do exactly that, but we do it on a hot summer day with the heater on and you're wearing long johns with flannel pajamas - that's what we experience in the race car.
We are wearing mex fireproof underwear under a three-layer fireproof suit and the temperature in the car is 130 degrees in the middle of summer. What we do is very physical. It's not like we take a 500-mile drive from city to city, stopping to use the bathroom while listening to music with the air conditioner on. People underestimate how physical what we do is.
For Aric Almirola, training is a year-round commitment
I don't do that much strength training during the season because as a racer you want to be a little lighter because the car performs better with a lower center of gravity. Imagine a semi truck driving around that exit - it has to go much slower than a sports car because if it goes too fast it will tip over because the center of gravity is much higher. I weight train two days a week during the season and four days a week during the off-season. I do cardio at least four days a week. The beginning of the week is more about rest. Later in the week there's more high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and some long-distance, low-heart rate workouts.
There's a lot of stretching and flexibility training because as a driver I'm in a locked position in the seat belt. My shoulders are rounded forward. My hips are rolled forward and my hip flexors are tight from raising my legs in a seated position. I am working very hard on Monday to correct these things. I'm trying to regain my mobility and relax again. We're also tight because of all the G-forces we're dealing with in the corners. So that's yoga, mobility, and stretching to start the week. As the strength training progresses and all available days of the week, I do at least three cardio workouts.
Chandler Murray, True Speed Communication
Aric Almirola went from being young and dumb to being a seasoned sage
At the age of 19 I was hired as a professional driver. I was in college and got the opportunity to be a racing driver. I was young and dumb and thought I figured it all out. I thought the only thing I would have to worry about was driving fast. I didn't have a good idea of what it looked like to be physically fit or to have a diet or fluid plan. I was able to pull through it to some extent when I was young, but as I got older I quickly realized the importance of being physically and mentally fit - proper nutrition, hydration and rest.
Our sport is probably the longest season of all sports. We go from the first week of February to mid-vember and only have one week off. It's not like golf where we can choose the events we participate in or not. We have to enter them all and that is time consuming. We criss-cross the country 40 weeks a year and it's exhausting. The only way to get through this and be at your best year after year is to make sure you're in top physical condition, mentally fit, recovering week after week, and all of that has its part Originating from a great exercise program, good nutrition, hydration and sleep.
Maximize free time
We have Thanksgiving week off. I usually check out completely and then we come back in December. In the first weeks of December we usually dedicate ourselves intensively to media and advertising work for our sponsors. All of our corporate sponsors require all of our photo and promotional footage which they broadcast throughout the season in early December. That way they have time to put everything together and launch it in January and February when the next season starts. I then usually take time off from mid-December until the New Year. I train during this time, but mostly for fun.
I like to exercise, bike, run and lift weights. All of these things are part of my lifestyle for me, but I am completely removed from the race shop and the team. I don't take many calls or emails during this time, nor do I give interviews. Once January arrives, physical activity is in full swing as sponsors and media prepare for the start of the season and the Daytona 500 in February.
Aric Almirola is always looking for an advantage
I've done a lot of research over the years to find out how to be as good as possible in the race car. Of course, everyone trains and everyone has a different training philosophy, but I've constantly looked for ways to not only get better at training, but also to keep my body in optimal health. I happened upon a couple of podcasts on cold, heat and contrast therapy. I had done cryotherapy for years, but I hadn't done the contrast media, sauna, and cold diving. I started using it and noticed a huge difference in improvement - not just in my physical health but in my immune health as well. I have a 10 year old and a 9 year old child and since they go to school and are around children, illnesses regularly run rampant in the house. I'm constantly on planes, flying across the country, in airports, making public appearances and shaking hands a lot. I've noticed a huge improvement in my immune health since I started contrast media therapy.
Courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing
Water is good for the body
I drink three liters of water a day during the week. It's very regulated for me and it's like that without exception. I also drink electrolyte supplements. When I train, I drink Ultra-Formance. If not, 1st Phorm offers some other options with electrolytes. I also eat protein shakes throughout the day. I do not drink alcohol. w and then I drink a glass of wine. Alcohol dehydrates you, and drinking alcohol in the days leading up to a race is a great way to keep yourself feeling dehydrated and cramping in the race car. I don't drink sodas and depend on a cup of coffee. On race day, depending on how hot it is, I'll lose between six and eight pounds. I usually try to get that back by Tuesday, and that's done through the hydration portion of post-race recovery by Monday. Monday is an important rest day for me. I make sure my diet and hydration are right so I can prepare for the upcoming race on Tuesday.
I am 39 years old and throughout my career I have found that recovery is the most difficult part of our job. When you figure out how to improve recovery, everything else improves. If you can recover better after your workout, your next workout will be better. If you can recover home late at night after a long weekend of racing, your training on Monday will be better than waking up sluggish and tired. Partnering with 1st Phorm was the most important key to recovery. Everything I do with them, from the vitamins, supplements and electrolyte drinks they have, helps keep me rested and ready for the next weekend of practice and racing. I sleep and eat better. My macros are more optimal and that's because they have a group of people tailoring that for me. They also do this for the general public and for me that was the most enjoyable part of the partnership.
Rest is vital
It's almost impossible on Sunday evening. My adrenaline level is still shooting up and we fly home right after the race. If we have an afternoon race, I don't get home until between midnight and 2am. When I get home and try to relax, I replay the race in my head and try to turn it off, but it's so hard to. This night rarely lasts eight hours of sleep and it's about six. During the school year, children get up for school. My wife usually takes care of this, but every now and then I try to get involved.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights are so important to get eight to nine hours of sleep. There are things called sleep mechanics, and those things are important. Avoid looking at screens an hour or more before bed. I'm a spiritual guy and I love the Lord, so I flip through my Bible at night. As soon as I help my wife put the kids to bed and there is some quiet in the house, I can spend some time in the Bible. It helps me switch off and sleep well. I make sure the room is cold and dark. 1st Phorm makes some great all natural supplements to help get a good night's sleep.