Formula 1

SSA Blog: Neck on the line

It’s been another disappointing weekend for Ferrari in the Formula 1 Driver and Constructor Championships. After such a promising showing in pre-season testing in Barcelona, they returned to the Spanish track and failed to gain a podium place. Sebastian Vettel is now under considerable pressure. His failure to challenge Mercedes and the early promise shown by new teammate Charles Leclerc has meant an increased focus on the former world champion.     

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In such a technologically advanced sport it’s easy focus on the tech often overlooking the athleticism, physicality and training needed to produce race winning performances. Drivers are now required to train to levels associated with sports such as football, rugby or even boxing.

An area now commanding particular focus is neck strength. The forces the drivers experience in the car can top 6 G. This means a driver’s head would ‘feel’ as though it weighs round 40kg at these points.  As an open cockpit sport, neck strength, in order to maintain head position, has become a major performance factor. Last season Vettel struggled with neck injury during the congested European season and almost missed the British Grand Prix (a race he went on to win). Vettel wasn’t the only one to suffer, a number of drivers were not physically prepared for the increase in force production and towards the end of races had to rest their heads on the side of cars in order to maintain something approaching race pace.

Recognising the need for greater strength, driver’s training regimes have totally changed over the past two seasons. Previously, 100% of a drivers’ training was focused on endurance. Now around 40% of their training is devoted to strength in order to cope with the extreme forces experienced throughout a race weekend. This must be among the most dramatic training shifts of any sport. Most sports have evolved so athletes are now fitter and stronger, but very few have necessitated a signifiant shift in basic training principles between seasons.   

The research regarding physical preparation in elite motor racing is sparse compared with other major professionalised sports. However, with the changing physical and mental demands, drivers are now focusing on these aspects more than ever to maximise their performance in the car. A recent paper written by McKnight et al (2019) showed that F1 drivers registered higher scores across a number of physical benchmarks, including neck strength when compared to their counterparts in other racing championships.  

Now that benchmarks are beginning to be set as to the strength needed to compete at the very top of motor sport, drivers know the physical side of the sport is going to be increasingly evaluated. In a sport often separated by hundredths if not thousandths of a second, every rep in the gym is going to count.

As Vettel contemplates a way back into the Driver Championship and Ferrari consider how to make up ground in the Constructor award, spare a thought for the four-time world champion as his neck is truly on the line…        

SSA Blog: The diet of a champion

The Formula 1 season kicks off today in Australia with all eyes on World Champion and pole sitter Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is, without doubt, the sports biggest draw and maybe it’s only true crossover star. He goes into the season chasing a 5th world title, which if he achieves it would move him up to joint second on the all time list.

Midway through last season, a different spotlight was shone on Hamilton after he announced his decision to follow a vegan diet. Many questioned the wisdom of this lifestyle change at such a time, but any criticism was soon overshadowed by his imperious form following the mid-season break, which saw him storm to the driver’s crown with two races remaining.

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Hamilton is by no means the first major sports star to promote the virtues of a vegan diet. Perhaps the most famous advocate of a vegan, or predominantly vegan diet, is NFL star, Tom Brady. Brady, at the age of 40 has the most super bowl wins of any current NFL player. His longevity and continued success have created considerable attention around his diet and training practices. Brady’s diet is reportedly vegan throughout the year except during the winter playing period when he introduces limited lean meat to help with protein intake.

But are there performance benefits to such a diet for athletes?  

In a 2010 paper, Drs Fuhrman and Ferreri suggest potential training and recovery benefits linked to a vegan diet. They attributed this to high antioxidant, micronutrient and carbohydrate rich foods that a plant-based diet would provide. A recent review by David Rogerson, based at the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, also highlighted evidence a vegan diet could promote health in non athletics populations. To substantiate the claim, he points to lower rates of obesity and reduced incidence of heart disease and cancer among vegetarians and vegans. However, the same review outlines that individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets tend to be more health-conscious and therefore other lifestyle factors (e.g. exercise) may confound these effects. Rogerson concludes that currently when examining athletes, there is a lack quality scientific evidence to support any major performance benefit linked to a vegan diet.

There can be no doubt, however, that veganism is becoming more visible. It’s not only Hamilton and Brady that feel they are benefiting from a shift in traditional nutritional strategy, David Haye and Venus Williams have also moved to a plant based diet. Often this is linked to a desire to extend their careers and an increased focus on health. With all of them now past their 30th birthday it provides a new avenue for commercial partnerships beyond sport.

The growing influencer trend across social media has left sport stars with fewer traditional endorsements opportunities in the later stages of their careers. This is due, in part, to their lack of relevance among digital natives who look to people like them for product reviews, lifestyle tips and day to day information about health, diet, exercise and fitness.

However, major dietary changes and health based transitions focused on conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer are the domain of the middle aged. These audiences are looking for role models to support a change in their behaviour rather than, in the case of generation Z, a behaviour to follow in the first place.

This trend opens the door to athletes maintaining a career into their late 30’s and even early 40’s who can create an opportunity for themselves by highlighting their switch to vegan or plant based diets. Moving away from their sporting glories, instead showcasing their story of change, the process of adoption and the shift in behaviour, adapting to a new lifestyle for health and performance reasons.

Now 33, Lewis Hamilton’s status within Formula 1 and across the globe as a sporting icon is secure. The narrative surrounding his two year transition to veganism creates a new, less performance focused story providing the extra ingredient that maintains his relevance to fans and even opens the doors to a new, older and more affluent target audience away from the track. Watch this space for the Lewis Hamilton cookbook and range of vegan ready meals!

 Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink.

  

Life after sport - how athletes handle the transition to retirement

Retirement happens to every athlete in every sport. At the end of each season or Olympic cycle, countless athletes are faced with the most difficult decision of their careers. And those in a position to make that decision for themselves are the lucky ones.