Workout Philosophy from the World’s Toughest Sailors

Team Alvimedica, the U.S. entry in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, during the optional Round Britain & Ireland training race in August.
Team Alvimedica, the U.S. entry in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15, during the optional Round Britain & Ireland training race in August.  Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica

On October 11, seven teams will depart from Alicante, Spain on 65-foot carbon fiber yachts, the start of the most grueling sailing race on the planet — 38,739 nautical miles around the world. Held once every three years, the Volvo Ocean Race encompasses eight legs over the course of 39 weeks, hitting 11 ports on six continents before ending in Gothenburg, Sweden next June. 

In its 41-year history, the race has claimed the lives of five sailors, and injured dozens. The 2014-15 edition promises to be the most physically demanding yet. For the first time, crews will consist of eight sailors instead of 11. That means higher demands on physical (and mental) stamina. The athletes will be on the water up to 25 days at a time and are required to repetitively execute high-intensity, round-the-clock tasks like grinding (trimming/raising the sails with winches), pulling in the sails quickly when they are dropped during a sail change, and quickly moving heavy sails and other items below deck during a critical maneuver that shifts weight from one side to the other. 

Teams have responded by implementing rigorous strength training programs prior to their arrival in Spain. We sat down with three of them to find out their training philosophy.

The Team: Brunel (Holland)
The Strategy:
Hit the Gym, Get Big
Team Brunel came together in spring 2014 and immediately made dry-land training and gym workouts a priority. “We have been in the gym every morning for the past five months,” says skipper Bouwe Bekking. “While the other teams were doing long sailing trips in the summer, including an offshore to England, we were working out in the gym. The other guys are just weaker.” Team Brunel went so far as to deliberately skip the Volvo Ocean Race Prologue — an optional 1,800-mile race about Britain and Ireland in August — in order to focus on their gym workouts. 

The Team:  SCA
The Strategy:
Interval Training
As the only all-female entry in the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 (and the first all-women’s entry since 2001-02), Team SCA is determined not to let the physicality of the race work to their disadvantage. To help even the playing field, they are permitted to use an 11-women crew, compared to all the other eight-man crews. Even so, they started their dry-land training in summer 2013, the earliest of any team. While the team was demure about divulging the specifics of what they consider their competitive advantage, each workout includes the following ten exercises: pull-ups (both kinds), squats, deadlifts, superman push-ups, double lunges, lower body clockwork, burpees, toe skyscrapers, planks, and knee-to-elbows for core. They also do interval training — short bursts of intensity mixed with rest — and partner exercises, which involve training alongside a person of similar ability and trying to match each other in order to push past a plateau.

The Team: Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing
The Strategy: Avoid Injury
The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team started their formal workouts six moths ago, using a mix of sailing and dry-land training in the coastal town of Cascais, Portugal just west of Lisbon. According to the team’s sports science manager Pete Cunningham, the focus of their workouts was not only strength and fitness, but also injury prevention. Cunningham worked with the team in the last race and saw first-hand the demands the race puts on sailors, including a separated shoulder, broken ankle, and countless nicks, cuts, and bruises. And that was with an 11-man crew. “With only eight crew allowed to race the yacht, we cannot afford anyone to be below par, so being at peak fitness has been a very important part of our pre-race build up,” says helmsman and sail-trimmer Phil Harmer.

To prepare for the 2014-2015 race, the team did four to five weight-training sessions per week, lasting about an hour. Each session ended with stretching. Cardio sessions lasted 90 minutes, up to four per week, including running, rowing, and a Sunday team bike ride. In the four weeks immediately before the race, the team has been tapering. “The crew reached a fitness level we were happy with, and now we are concentrating on maintaining this level,” says Harmer.

[More Info: TV coverage begins 1PM ET, October 26 on NBC Sports Network. ]