The fastest man in NASCAR shares the secrets to his success
In case you haven't been paying attention, Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of making NASCAR history. Currently the sport's reigning champ with three consecutive Sprint Cup Series victories, 34-year-old Johnson is just days away from claiming his fourth title in a row, and he's not slowing down. Except to talk to Men's Fitness, that is. After all, regular workouts and a balanced diet are what Johnson says keep him ahead of the pack.
I noticed the scratch under your eye. What happened there?
I was upset because we ran out of gas coming up to the white flag leading, so I got into the pits in a hurry and hit my eye on something as I was getting out of the car. I wish it was from some cool bar fight or something. It would make for a better story.
It still looks badass though. So tell us, your schedule is crazy. How do you manage to fit workouts in there?
It takes time. And there are years when I do a really good job at it and other times that I slack off just like anyone. But Mondays are usually the telltale sign of my fitness level because adrenaline carries you through the race and then Monday morning you wake up and you're like, 'oh boy.' I really have to work hard to make sure I'm eating right and doing the right things so that I can get a good night sleep and then have the energy to train. Over the last eight months I've done a very good job at that and I'm probably in the best shape I've been in.
That's great, and what does your training usually entail
I work with weights four days a week — just the different muscle groups and trying to get more endurance and strength rather than mass, given what we do. There are a lot of core routines. A lot of jump-rope between weight sets, sprints, running, and stuff where we're elevating my heart rate and trying to teach my body to recover. The mindset being that I'll have more energy and perform better at my job. I also love to cycle, but it takes so long to get a good ride in — between that and the gym it's like a three- or four-hour commitment.
Is there any other NASCAR-specific stuff you're doing in the gym?
What I find kind of odd is we clearly turn left the majority of the racetrack, so our muscles develop to support the G-forces and the loads that we deal with. I spend a lot of time stretching and a lot of time trying to balance things out.
So you find one side of your body actually getting stronger than the other?
I'm right-side dominant, so my right foot is stronger from working the gas, and my right arm, shoulder and pec are stronger from turning the steering wheel. It's a chore just to balance out the left and right side.
Put us behind the wheel for a minute. What's it like to be in that car on race day?
When the car's working right, it's not bad—it's just hot. I'd say the hardest thing to get used to is the heat because regardless of the outside air temperature, it's more than 110 inside that car. We don't want air coming into the car because it slows it down. So there's a right-side window and the left side has a window net. If you added up the inches, there's a three-inch inlet that flows air in directly on me, and there's another three-inch inlet that brings air to my back and into my helmet. That's the only cooling I have. There are six inches of air essentially moving in the car—it's a sauna.
Do you even feel that air?
Yeah. You know right where it is and, at times, you almost want to flip your visor up and go up by the window and try to suck in some of that cool air. It's all steel so all the heat radiates through the body of the car. The goal is to not drop any weight and try to consume enough fluids during the race, but for me on a good day I'll lose 3 or 4 pounds and on a bad day it will be 6 to 7 pounds of water weight.
What kind of diet do you keep?
That's been the thing that I've finally committed to. I didn't think I was eating bad before but it's amazing how many empty calories I was consuming. Now, I'm just making sure that I'm getting enough protein, the right carbs, and unlimited vegetables. When I look at how much I eat during the course of the day, it blows my mind, but when you're eating right, you just keep rolling food in. You keep hammering it down.
What about the other drivers? Are they as fitness conscious as you?
In the last 10 years there has been a major push on the fitness side. Before, the car would breakdown before the driver's fitness level would give up. Now the cars are so superior that the weak link is the driver in a lot of the cases. Older drivers, like Bobby Labonte and Dale Jerrett, spend a lot of time [working out]. And the whole younger crowd like Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne are always in the gym too.
The NASCAR season obviously intensifies coming up to those last 10 races. Do you adapt your training as the pressure turns on?
My trainer seems to always have a plan for finding my weak spots and making them stronger. He's based in New York, so when I'm in New York, I go in and he assesses me in his gym. Then he emails files that I print off, do the workouts and then fax them back to him each day so that he can look at where I'm at with my training. He keeps me honest. I also have the Polar watch and I'll email him the files from my runs so he can see what I've been doing. That's really how he polices me.
What's another important aspect in terms of conditioning your body to be race ready?
The thing I put a lot of emphasis on during the course of the season is hydration. I've worked really hard with Gatorade over the years to understand my sweat rate, staying hydrated is so important. We even use tools like hyperbaric chambers to help bring my hydration levels up and it also helps with the carbon dioxide that we breathe in the racecar. It helps vent that stuff out of your lungs.