Spider Energy's Behind the Wheel with Ryan Ellis Interview: Fitness, Recovery, and the NASCAR Grind: Part 2
In a candid discussion about the physical demands of racing, Ellis sheds light on the often-underestimated toll it takes on a driver's body. Contrary to popular belief, racing is not just about sitting behind the wheel and driving. Ellis reveals that drivers can lose between 5-8 pounds during a race, with their heart rates often soaring to 80% or more of their maximum. He dispels the misconception that race car drivers don't need to be in peak physical condition, emphasizing the importance of core strength and hydration. Beyond the race, recovery is crucial, with sleep being a primary focus for Ellis. He also praises the pit crew, emphasizing their athleticism and the risks they take during races.
Ellis reveals that drivers can lose between 5-8 pounds during a race, with their heart rates often soaring to 80% or more of their maximum.
Spider Energy: One of the less talked about subjects is the extreme physical toll a race can have on your body. Can you talk about the stress of racing and its impact?
Ellis: There are races where drivers will lose between 5-8 pounds throughout a race, and I wear a Whoop heart rate monitor (i.e., a whoop heart rate monitor measures heart rate, sleep, stress, and recovery); most of the race, my heart rate is 80% or more of my max heart rate. It's race-dependent, and when it’s hotter, it's definitely worse, but there's no exercise like racing that I've ever done that increases your heart rate like racing. As I mentioned earlier, I played hockey all the time, and your heart rate count varies as the activities go on, but for me, when racing, you're pretty much at peak capacity. It seems like 80-90% of your Max heart rate for the majority of the race, which is pretty wild.
As I am pulling up my whoop statistics from last week’s race, for an hour and 20-minute race, which is a very short race, 66% of my heart rate during the race was between 70 and 80% of my Max heart rate, which is lower than usual; it's typically about 30 to 40 beats higher than that. There were a lot of crashes and cautions last week, which gives us more time to relax and bring our heart rate down.
Spider Energy: Do you do any cardio or strength training to help you stay in peak shape for racing?
Ellis: I was in my best peak condition for racing when I was doing CrossFit because it was you working out in a box, as they call it; it's not air-conditioned and hot. You're sweating and doing long workouts that involve a lot of your core body muscles, and you work so many muscles when doing those compound lifts, so that was always the best exercise I thought worked for me.
To stay in peak conditioning for racing, you have to plan and prepare for the hydration aspect and the sense of preparing for not only the heat but also the elevated heart rate, controlling your breathing, etc., but finding a perfect exercise or activity is hard. A lot of guys go biking in the heat. Hockey is probably the worst activity because it's interval training. You are exercising in a cold environment, the opposite of what happens on the race track, but luckily, in North Carolina, they’re not as great at keeping the ice rinks cold. With the Southern heat pouring in, it's usually pretty hot there, and I can get a good sweat while exercising.
To stay in peak conditioning for racing, you have to plan and prepare for the hydration aspect and the sense of preparing for not only the heat but also the elevated heart rate, controlling your breathing, etc., but finding a perfect exercise or activity is hard.
Spider Energy: Do racers use the sauna to get heat acclimated and adapt to the heat?
Ellis: I've heard stories of guys putting on a stationary bike in a sauna, and I would assume that would work. I still think CrossFit is probably the best exercise, especially in North Carolina; it's always so hot here. However, there is a balance between training, racing, and recuperating. I had to cut back on CrossFit because I hated being sore from the workouts, going to the race weekend, and being tired from race exhaustion, too; I felt like I never recovered completely.
Spider Energy: One of the biggest misconceptions is that you don’t have to be in good shape to be a professional race car driver. Most people think you are just sitting behind the wheel of a car driving.
Ellis: It is a huge misconception. Driving that fast, I feel like it's getting hotter in the cars, or I'm just getting older, but it takes a full day to recover from these races for the most part. Because we travel all over the country for our races, we often finish the race and hop on a plane without any natural recovery, only to get home sometimes in the middle of the night - 3 to 4 a.m. You never feel like you get a chance to recover, especially when you’re a parent and have a kid waking you up the next morning! For example, last week, when I was in Texas racing, I had burned 5500 calories that day; my fitness tracker recommended 14 or 15 hours of sleep or something crazy like that to recover. No way will that ever happen.
It’s just so hard to quantify, outside of wearing a fitness tracker, just how challenging the environment in these race cars can be. And I know that people will point to how some drivers may not look like they're in shape. While those guys might be a little bit bigger, their core muscles are super strong; their hydration is on point; if not, their performance will suffer, and they won’t be in the sport for long.
Last week, when I was in Texas racing, I had burned 5500 calories that day; my fitness tracker recommended 14 or 15 hours of sleep or something crazy like that to recover.
Spider Energy: Do you have any routines that you do to help you recuperate after a race? Do you use ice baths or massages to recover?
Ellis: I have been trying to save up for an ice bath. Ironically, this weekend, we’re headed to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and one of the drivers owns South Point Hotel & Casino. All of the team’s stay there, and they provide complimentary massages for drivers - one of the few times I get a massage throughout the year.
Obviously, I wish I could do that every week, but I try to focus on getting as much sleep as possible on Friday night. I believe in sleep and recovery before a big activity, especially a mental activity like racing. I go to the gym for a light workout if there's enough time before the race. If I can do a light exercise, I get my body loosened up and get going on the day, but it's hard to have any routine.
Spider Energy: Even the Pit Crew has a pretty insane physical training program besides their work at the races.
Ellis: Yes, the pit crew are maniacs!! Most people think the drivers are maniacs, but the pit crew guys are the real psychopaths. They're running out in front of our race cars and trusting us. We’re sliding into the pit box at 45 miles an hour, basically parallel parking, but instead of lines, you got people standing there. Those guys are crazy; they're absolutely athletes. Many are former football, basketball, and hockey players who are phenomenal at their new craft. My pit crew is amazing, and I can’t say enough about them.
Most people think the drivers are maniacs, but the pit crew guys are the real psychopaths. They're running out in front of our race cars and trusting us. We’re sliding into the pit box at 45 miles an hour, basically parallel parking, but instead of lines, you got people standing there.