Just like in any other elite professional sport, physical fitness of the crew of an America’s Cup team is a key factor in its success. Not only do crew have to be excellent sailors they also have to be physically fit and strong in order to carry out their physically demanding duties. In this installment of the “Inside an America’s Cup team” series we visit the Defender of the 32dn America’s Cup in order to learn how the world’s top sailing team keeps fit. Otmar Keller and René De Vries, trainer and physiotherapist respectively of the Swiss America’s Cup team, give us the details.
Alinghi’s sailors training in Valencia. Photo copyright Ivo Rovira / Alinghi
Particularities of an America’s Cup team
The most important factor that determines the fitness program of an America’s Cup team is its sailing program. Sailing activity reaches its highest point, at least in the northern hemisphere, in summer and during that period the team’s sailors either take part in the America’s Cup official races, in the team’s two-boat training schedule or in various regattas throughout the world. As a result, physical training is fashioned in such a way as to provide top physical shape in the period when sailors have to focus on their sailing skills. Winter is usually the period of the year when physical training is more intense.
Unlike other sports, such as basketball, football or athletics, the average age of an America’s Cup team can be significantly higher. In the particular case of Alinghi it reaches 40 years, something unimaginable in a basketball team where the average is 25 years. Consequently, the task of the trainer is different as he has to deal with a group of very experienced athletes, some of whom have more than 2 decades of intense high-level sporting activity. In addition, not all sailors have the same physical needs and tasks on the boat and some degree of differentiation is needed.
The grinders are the “muscle” of the boat, they provide all the power needed to run the boat’s “engine”, the sails. They have to be very powerful, performant and even explosive as they must repeatedly deliver bursts of energy during a couple of minutes in a period of one or two hours. They usually weigh between 100 and 115kg.
The afterguard is situated at the other end of physical needs. They have to be at a very good shape and able to concentrate for long periods (more than 2 hours) under conditions that can be demanding at times.
In between you have the rest of the crew, such as trimmers or foredeck that still have physically demanding positions but not to the degree of the grinders.
Keller divides his sailors roughly into these three groups but stresses that there is also a lot of work done on an individual basis. Some sailors might be weaker in a particular area or come from a different background than the rest of the teams or they can be injured in which case special attention is needed.
Trimmer Claudio Celon is working on his pectorals under the watchful eyes of grinder Nicolas Texier in the team’s gym inside the base in Valencia. Photo copyright Ivo Rovira / Alinghi
Alinghi’s training goal: Balanced overall athletes
The foremost aim is not to transform Alinghi’s men into muscle powerhouses but achieve optimum core stability and physical endurance. The goal of the team’s training program is to achieve a balanced development of each athlete focusing on upper body stability. Not only does this strenghthen each sailor it also makes him less prone to injuries and helps him to better carry out his tasks on the boat. The trainer’s role is after all to provide sailors with a tool to better do their job.
A usual day at Alinghi’s base in Valencia would start at around 7:30am when the first sailors come to the gym to train but the bulk of the team trains at around 9am for approximately an hour and a half. Then all sailors will continue with the preparation of the boat for the day’s training session, usually scheduled at 12pm. If sailing takes place earlier at 10am, there is no prior gym session. As we mentioned, physical training is shaped according to the team’s sailing activities. The gym session doesn’t radically differ from that of any other sports team and mainly consists of the typical weight lifting and more specialized training with the use of sophisticated Tecnogym machines.
In addition to this general schedule, Keller and De Vries obviously pay attention to the particular needs of each sailor depending on his position. Some might need to reinforce their arms or legs while other positions require more endurance. Still, even when focusing on the needs of a position the balanced approach is necessary. For example, grinders don’t necessarily train their arms harder than others in the gym. According to De Vries there is a very realistic risk of injury when one overuses a certain muscle. During an ordinary off-season sailing day in Valencia, a grinder uses his arms extensively on the boat and as a result the trainer might want to rest them rather than exercise them even more in the gym.
Long bicycle rides also form part of the balanced fitness program for the Defender of the America’s Cup. Here a group of Alinghi sailors ride past the Albufera lake, 5km south of Valencia. Photo copyright Ivo Rovira / Alinghi
A large part of the injuries are due to overuse of the muscles from repetitive movements, mainly in the back and the shoulders. Grinders are the ones to suffer more frequently but the afterguard as well can suffer such kind of injuries. Since sailing is not a contact sport you don’t see injuries such as pulled hamstring or ruptures, very common in football. On the contrary you can have a direct trauma when for example a sailor is hit by the boom, the spinnaker pole or any other part of the boat, although these are very rare, given Alinghi’s very experienced crew.
Ironically, most of the injuries take place outside of the boat, even if these are not frequent either, since an America’s Cup sailor spends a considerable part of his day working on the preparation of the boat. Sails are put on the boat by the same men that will later use them. A typical mainsail weighs 100kg and even if 4-5 men are needed to carry it, sailors can suffer back injuries from this effort.
It is of the uttermost importance that injuries be reported immediately after they take place. The physiotherapist insists on that issue even if sailors might be reticent due to the fear of losing their place on the boat. The recovery from an injury is the usual one that all athletes go through. Since most of the injuries are due to muscle overuse, one has to find the origin of this. Usually, the bigger muscles become very strong and as a result pull and stress the smaller muscles around them. If a muscle is overused then the rest of the muscles around it must become stronger and more productive.
Once again, both Keller and De Vries stressed the need for total trunk stability. If all muscles are equally developped there is much less risk of stress on the smaller ones. For this reason, they are very critical of sailors that focus on the big and impressive muscles while ignoring the more important small ones.