Like NFLers and Olympians, the sailors of Oracle Team USA are elite athletes.
As USA's representatives in the prestigious America's Cup—an international yachting competition that dates back to 1851—the sailors of Oracle Team USA must tame a precision 50-foot foiling catamaran that seemingly "floats" above water at stomach-churning speeds.
At this level of competitive sailing, modern-day sailors are as fine-tuned as the vessels they crew. Sailors need the explosiveness of a 100-meter sprinter, the output of a powerlifter, and the aerobic capacity of a Tour de France cyclist. Most of these guys hover around 8-10% body fat and can plow through 400-lb deadlifts—more than twice their bodyweight. Their training is enough to make your workouts look like child's play, and their races are agonizingly tough (right now the U.S. team is battling it out with France, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, and Great Britain at the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda).
"An America’s Cup race is about 20 minutes of very high heart rate and muscular endurance work," says Craig McFarlane, Oracle Team USA's physical performance manager and head athletic trainer. "The primary grinders on the catamarans will average ~90-94% of their max heart rate for the entirety of the race."
Those "grinders"? They're the guys frantically cranking handles that charge the catamaran's hydraulic system, juicing up crucial parts like the wing sail. As you can imagine, it's total-body, lung-bursting exercise, and it's especially taxing on the upper body—especially at the grueling speed these guys are moving.
In a race, the sailors start by sailing downwind to a buoy in about four minutes, hitting speeds of about 50 knots, McFarlane explains. The boat crew will generally perform only two "gybes" (when the boat changes direction and the sail swings overhead). "[The sailors'] grinding cadence will be at a quick and efficient 85-95rpm and really skyrocket heart rates," he says.
"Each time the boat maneuvers, the sailors step out of their cockpit, onto a moving trampoline, and sprint across the 'tramps' to their cockpits on the opposite hull," McFarlane says. Sprinting the 12 or so meters over the moving tramp will take the primary grinder about five seconds. The quicker they can get themselves from one cockpit to the other, the quicker they can start powering the boat. And because of that need for speed, the sailors risk injury—and being booted overboard.
Oh, and if that doesn't sound tough, consider this: These guys are racing nearly every day from the end of May 'til the end of June.
In the America's Cup, which is contested as a series of races, each win equals one point. Ultimately, the top four teams will move on to the America’s Cup Challenger Playoffs, which comprises two semifinals and a finals. As the defending champ, Oracle Team USA advances straight to the finals (although they still have to race beforehand). Whichever team collects the most overall wins in the playoffs will face off with Oracle in a best-of-13 set of races.
Tune in online with NBC's live stream or watch the America's Cup unfold on TV via NBCSN.
Want to train like an Oracle Team USA sailor? Give their killer conditioning workout a try. It mimics what it's like to race on an America's Cup-grade catamaran.
What you'll need:
- Rowing machine
- Heart rate monitor
- Marker cone for shuttle run set out six meters from the erg machine
How to do it:
This is a timed, 20-minute workout. Your objective should be to complete as much distance on the rower as possible, and get as close to your maximum heart rate as possible, within 20 minutes.
The workout has two circuits: the "downwind" circuit immediately followed by the "upwind" circuit. You'll then repeat the pair of circuits, so you do two "downwind" and two "upwind" in total. The "downwind" leg should be high-tempo and at the top of your aerobic capacity, keeping your heart rate close to its max. The "upwind" leg will train your muscle endurance as you grind (row) on a higher resistance setting.
For the "downwind" (conditioning) circuit:
- Set the rower to count down from 20 minutes.
- Set the fan break to L4.
- Row at 28-32 strokes per minute.
- At the 2:00 mark and 4:00 mark: Get off the rower, sprint the six meters to the shuttle cone, touch the cone, and sprint back to the rower. (This simulates the sailors' dash across the catamaran as it maneuvers.)
- Buckle in your feet and go straight into the "upwind" circuit.
For the "upwind" (muscle endurance) circuit:
- Set the rower fan break to L10.
- Row at 20-24 SPM.
- At 6:30, 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00: Get off the rower, sprint the six meters to the shuttle cone, touch the cone, and sprint back to the rower.
- Buckle in your feet and go straight back into the "downwind" circuit.
- Follow the same dash pattern for the next two circuits: Dash once every two minutes for four minutes in the "downwind" circuit, and dash once every minute and a half for six minutes in the "upwind" circuit.
Record your total distance rowed and your average heart rate to improve both each time.