Digging deep to beat the heat

How do riders prepare for Thailand? Round 2 of the WorldSBK season is the biggest physical test of the year. WorldSBK commentator Steve English stepped out of the air conditioning to try and find out what it’s like

There is no challenge like Buriram on the WorldSBK calendar. It is the hottest round of the year and it places huge physical and mental demands on riders. With temperatures expected to be in the high 30’s the sun and heat will sap the power from riders.

Leon Camier has described racing in those conditions as “brutal” in the past and he’s not wrong. To get an idea of what the riders will go through this weekend try sitting in a sauna for 30 minutes and then imagine doing that while your heart is racing and you’re wearing leathers and a helmet. Before travelling to Thailand I tried to put myself into a rider’s frame of mind and the results were interesting to say the least. We’ve all heard that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s a lie. I didn’t die but I definitely wasn’t strong afterwards!

“Give it a go, it won’t kill you…and at least you’ll give all of us a laugh,” was how Alex Lowes talked me into seeing how rider’s prepare for a WorldSBK race weekend. In the name of research, and for Lowes’ own personal amusement, I wanted to see the difference between a world class motorcycle racer and what separates them from a normal, everyday Joe Soap.

I’ve been lucky to train with professional footballers, MotoGP riders, world champion sprinters and Olympic level athletes over the years and it’s left me with no delusions about where I stand in the pecking over of athletic ability. Middle ground is safe ground. But what happens to riders when they’re looking for that extra tenth of a second. Where to do they find the ability to train a little harder for a little longer.

World class athletes have an insatiable need to always improve. It’s why riders are fitter than ever, they’ll drive themselves into the ground to make sure they can pick up a win. Look around the next time you’re in the gym and you’ll see good enough is enough for most people. Training as a group is used by a lot of riders. Lowes has uses group training with Leon Haslam and his brother Sam to make sure that he is in constant competition. GoEleven Ducati’s Eugene Laverty cycles in a group that includes Bradley Smith amongst others.

If you’re cycling in a pack you want to show you can do your stint pulling the group and you never want to get dropped. If you’re running you never want to be the first to drop out. That mentality is universal across any group. If you think back to your school sports day almost everyone digs deep to ensure they’re not on the sidelines first.

Aprilia MotoGP test rider Smith explained another benefit of the group mentality; increased determination.

“In Monaco I train with the cycling group and no-one wants to join that group after a bad weekend,” said Smith. “We all know what goes in to performing at the top level but you want to get into the group and say you had a good race. It’s not easy to join them after a tough weekend. They definitely drive you on to perform and train harder.”

That group mentality means the need for constant competition keeps burning in a rider. Whether its cycling, rowing, running or strength training top riders will force themselves through the pain barrier.

Alberto Puig famously drove that will to win at everything into his riders during their times in his academy. The Spaniard has been a renowned talent spotter for a generation but the biggest trait that most of his riders share is determination. If their backs are against the wall the top riders find a way to make sure they can still get a win. They dig deep and find a way to compete.

As riders have evolved and competition has increased their training has changed considerably. For many it has become about finding a balance. You don’t want to do too much weight training otherwise you’ll be too bulky but you need some mass to absorb the forces from a crash. You need to have good cardio performance so cycling and running are popular but you also need to be supple and flexible so yoga is important. You need bike fitness and practice but you also need to limit the chances of injuries. There’s no one training regime that’s perfect so it’s about finding the perfect balance for you. As you get older you need to stimulate yourself with new training and that’s what the reigning WorldSBK champion has done this winter.

“I’ve been working with a new trainer this year,” said Jonathan Rea. “I wanted to have a change and I went to Johnny Davies who was the head of performance at Ulster Rugby. I told him that I wanted to increase my strength without adding weight. He put me on a whole new regime with a lot more weight training. I was running sleds in the car park and when I was riding in the winter I felt better. It’s good to change your routines but I’m 32 years old now and I’ve my habits so even though I’m being told to change my nutrition I don’t want people preaching to me about what I should eat!”

Training and nutrition go hand in hand but too much focus on one or the other can have a detrimental effect. Former MotoGP rider Michael Laverty explained that finding the balance is key.

“Some riders love to cycle, Eugene or Cal Crutchlow will do a lot of that, some will do a lot of running, others bulk up but for me it’s always been important to have variety,” explained the Irishman. “Having that balance in your training keeps you motivated and allows riders to stay challenged. Eugene will cycle with professional cyclists and Cal cycles with Mark Cavindish because being able to stay in that elite company provides lots of motivation.”

Whether that motivation comes from an inherit desire to perform or a failure to admit defeat is unimportant. All that matters is that in almost any environment an elite racer will find something that forces them to dig deeper within themselves.

Stepping out of the sauna after 30 minutes of trying to simulate the heat of Thailand I didn’t have any desire to dig deep within myself. I was absolutely spent and wanted nothing more than to try and get myself cooled down. It’s why you’ll see riders in paddling pools dotted around the paddock this weekend. The cold water will bring down their core body temperatures and they’ll rehydrate and reload for the next race. There’s always a next race and there’s always an improvement they can make.

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