At the age of 19, Aric Almirola became a professional driver. In the two decades that have passed since that time, he’s made sure that he’s left no stone unturned in gaining an edge from a competitive standpoint and to mentally and physically be at his best.
In his sixth season for Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and his 12th full-time in NASCAR’s Cup Series, Aric Almirola remains one of the most insightful drivers to speak with when it comes to the challenges drivers face on race days.
Ahead of NASCAR’s first-ever street race in downtown Chicago this Sunday (on NBC on July 2 at 5:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. CT), Aric Almirola spoke with M&F about the challenge the new course presents the drivers, how his approach to training has evolved over his career, and all that goes into making sure he’s at his best when the green flag is waived.
The Challenge of the Unknown
So much of what we do is before we show up to the actual event. We do a lot of preparation throughout the week for each race that we go to. In stick and ball sports, they prep for the game but they’re also prepping to face their opponent. They are scouting and trying to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent. For racing, our opponent is not only who we’re racing against, but we’re also competing against the racetrack. The course itself is the major opponent and we’re trying to figure out how to go around that track faster than everyone else. We put a lot of prep and simulation work in to get ready for that racetrack, but this is a race track we’ve never been on.
We can’t watch film on a previous race on this course. We don’t know where the bumps on the track are going to be, where the walls are going to stick out, or how the pit entry is going to be. All of those things are completely unknown and that makes it a really big challenge as we get ready to head to this race.
Racing Is Not as Easy as It Seems, Says Aric Almirola
People underestimate what we do inside the race cars. I always tell them that if you want to get a good idea of what I do, imagine driving down the interstate at 70 mph on cruise control. Anyone can do that, right? If you come up to one of those exit ramps that circles around, imagine leaving your car on cruise control at 70 miles an hour and making it off that exit ramp. You go around that exit ramp and your entire body tenses up and you’ll have to have a firm grip on the wheel and you’re probably going to hold your breath. As a race car driver, that’s what we’re doing but we’re doing that on a hot summer day with the heater blasting and you have long johns on with flannel pajamas — that’s what we’re experiencing inside the race car.
We’re wearing fireproof Nomex underwear under a three-layer, fireproof suit and the temperature inside the car is 130 degrees in the middle of the summer. What we do is very physical. It’s not like we’re taking a 500-mile road trip from city to city, stopping to use the restroom while listening to music with the AC pumping. People underestimate how physical what we do really is.
For Aric Almirola, Training Is a Year-Round Commitment
During the season, I don’t do as much weight training because as a race car driver, you want to be a little bit lighter because the car performs better with a lower center of gravity. You imagine a semi-truck going around that exit ramp — it has to go way slower than a sports car because it will tip over if it goes too fast because the center of gravity is way higher. I lift weights two days a week during the season and it’s four days a week during the offseason. At least four days out of the week, I’m doing cardio training. Early in the week, it’s more about recovery. Later in the week, it’s more high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and some long-distance, low heart-rate stuff.
There’s a lot of stretching and mobility training in there because what I’m doing as a driver is sitting in a locked position while in a seatbelt. My shoulders are rounded forward. My hips are rolled forward, and my hip flexors are tight because I have my legs up in a seated position. I’m working very hard on Monday to correct those things. I’m trying to get my mobility back and get loosened back up. We’re tight also because of all the g-forces that we’re fighting from going around the turns. So, that’s yoga, mobility, and stretching at the beginning of the week. As it progresses, weight training and all the days during the week that are available, I’m getting a minimum of three cardio workouts.
Aric Almirola Went from from Young and Dumb to Experienced Sage
I got hired to be a professional driver at 19 years old. I was in the middle of going to college and got the opportunity to become a race car driver. I was young and dumb, and I thought I had it all figured out. I thought the only thing I needed to worry about was driving fast. I didn’t have a good grasp on what it looked like to be physically fit or to have a nutrition or hydration plan. When I was young, I could kind of tough through it but as I got older, I quickly realized how important it was to be physically and mentally fit — proper nutrition, hydration, and to be recovered.
Our sport is arguably the longest season in all of sports. We go from the first week of February to the middle of November with only one week off. It’s not like golf, where we get to choose the events, we enter or not. We have to enter all of them and that is taking. We’re crisscrossing the country 40 weeks out of the year, and it is a grind. The only way to endure that year after year and to be at your best is to make sure you’re in great physical condition, that you are mentally fit for that, you’re recovered week in and week out, and all of that stems from a great workout routine, great nutrition, hydration, and sleep.
Maximize The Time Off
We get the week of Thanksgiving off. I usually completely check out and then we come back in December. The first couple of weeks of December are usually dedicated to doing a lot of media and promotion for our sponsors. All our corporate sponsors need all of our photography and commercial shoots that they’re going to air during the season done early in December. That way, they have time to put it all together and have it ready to launch in January and February when the next season starts. I typically then take off the middle of December through New Year. I work out through that time but mostly it’s for fun.
I enjoy working out, riding my bike, going for a run, and lifting weights. All those things for me are a part of my lifestyle but I’m completely removed from the race shop and the team. I’m not taking a bunch of calls or e-mails and I’m not doing any interviews during that time. Once January comes, it is a full grind physically, with sponsors and media to ramp up to the beginning of the season and the Daytona 500 in February.
Aric Almirola is Always Seeking An Edge
I’ve been doing a lot of research over the years to figure out how to have that edge of being as good as I can be in the race car. Obviously, everyone trains, and everyone has a different philosophy on training, but I’ve constantly searched for how I can get better at not only training but making sure my body is at optimal health. I stumbled across a few podcasts on cold, heat, and contrast therapy. I had done cryotherapy for years, but I hadn’t done the contrast, sauna, and cold plunge. I started doing that and I noticed a huge difference in improvement — not only in my physical health but also in my immune health. I have a 10- and 9-year-old and with them going to school and being around kids, sickness runs through the house on the regular. I’m constantly on airplanes, flying across the country, in airports, doing public appearances, and shaking a lot of hands. I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my immune health since I started doing the contrast.
Water Does the Body Good
During the week, I’m drinking three liters of water a day. That’s very regimented for me and it’s without fail. I also have electrolyte supplements I’m drinking. If I’m training, I’m drinking Ultra-formance. If I’m not, 1st Phorm has some other options that have electrolytes. I’m also having protein shakes throughout the day as well. I don’t drink alcohol. I’ll occasionally have a glass of wine. Alcohol dehydrates you and drinking it in the days before a race is a great way to find yourself dehydrated and cramping inside the race car. I don’t drink any sodas and I’m hit or miss on having a cup of coffee. On race day, depending on how hot it is, I’ll lose anywhere from six to eight pounds. I typically try to have that back on by Tuesday and that comes through the hydration part of the recovery after the race leading into Monday. Monday is a big-time recovery day for me and making sure my nutrition and hydration are right so that Tuesday, I can prepare for the upcoming race.
I’m 39 years old and throughout the course of my career, I’ve found that recovery is the hardest part of what we do. If you can figure out how to get the recovery better, everything else elevates. If you can recover better after your workout, your next workout is going to be better. If you can recover after getting home late at night from a long race weekend, your workout on Monday will be better than if you woke up sluggish and tired. Partnering with 1st Phorm has been the number one key to key to recovery. Everything I do with them from the vitamins, supplements, and electrolyte drinks that they have — all help make sure I’m recovered and ready to go for the next workout and race weekend. I’m sleeping and eating better. My macronutrients are more optimal and it’s because they have a group of people that tailor that to me. They also do it for the general public also and that’s been the most gratifying part of the partnership for me.
Rest Is Vital
It’s almost impossible on Sunday night. My adrenaline is still pumping crazy, and we fly home immediately after the race. If we have an afternoon race, I don’t get home until between midnight and 2 a.m. By the time I get home and try and wind down, I’m replaying the race in my head and trying to turn it off but it’s so hard to. That night is rarely eight hours of sleep and it’s about six. During the school year, the kids are getting up for school. My wife usually handles that but occasionally, I’m trying to get up and pitch in with that.
The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights are so important to get those eight to nine hours of sleep. There are things called sleep mechanics and those things matter. Not looking at screens an hour or more before bed. I’m a spiritual guy and love the Lord, so I dig into my bible in the evening time. Once I help my wife get the kids to bed and we’ve got some quiet in the house, I can spend some time in the Bible. That helps me wind down and I can get a good night’s sleep. I make sure the room is cold and dark. 1st Phorm makes some great all-natural supplements that help promote high-quality sleep.