Carl Edwards is ready for another backflip.
The NASCAR star has two wins and five top-5 finishes under his belt this season as he heads into the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Edwards won the event last year—his first career victory at the track and his first win for the Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Edwards will be looking to defend his title as he prepares for another Sprint Cup championship-caliber season in 2016. And while NASCAR doesn’t have a reputation as a physical sport, Edwards has put himself in strong position by focusing on his fitness, nutrition, and health.
But he didn’t always think that way.
“I used to make fun of people who worked out, Edwards says. “I didn’t understand it. Now I realize it makes me better at my job. It makes me more prepared for my life.”
Edwards has kept himself in peak shape over the years with the help of his #19 car sponsor, Subway—“I’ve been eating at Subway for about 20 years now, basically my whole adult life,” he says—and now the driver is partnering with the company to help support U.S. troops and military families for Memorial Day weekend.
The restaurant chain is giving fans the chance to win a trip to the SUBWAY Firecracker 250 at Daytona on 4th of July weekend—and they are donating $125,000 to the USO, including 5,000 meals. (Fans can participate by purchasing a USO collector’s cup at participating SUBWAY restaurants.)
Edwards talked with Men’s Fitness about the military support, how bike training has helped him in the car, and about his favorite backflip. Keep an eye on Carl at the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, May 29 on FOX at 6:00 PM Eastern Time.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What’s the best piece of training advice or fitness tip that you’ve received over your career? Is there anything you feel you need to keep your mind focused on while working out in the gym?
Carl Edwards: That’s a great question. I think there’s a few of things. Number one: Before you put anything into your body, take a moment and think about it. Is this making me stronger? Is this going to help me or is this going to hurt me?
The second thing: It’s what you do most of the time that matters. Everybody can have a little bit of a cheat day or a little something, but it’s what you do most of the time. You put the work in and you do it. That’s great.
The third thing: It’s taken me a long time to learn that when it’s time to rest, rest. You’ve got to let your body recover.
What is your usual workout routine like? What types of training do you like to do in the gym and outside of the gym?
I don’t have a daily workout, but for me, fitness has been a huge part of my life. I used to make fun of people who worked out. I thought it was stupid. I didn’t understand it. Now I realize it makes me better at my job. It makes me more prepared for my life. I’ve partnered with Carmichael Training Systems out of Colorado Springs—they’ve provided me with a coach, Dean Golich, who has has trained athletes far greater than myself for a long time.
Dean has really helped guide me over the last ten or twelve years to be as fit as I can be for racing. I spent a lot of time on the bicycle and that’s been great. I’ve also worked really closely with a good friend of mine, Rob Hullett. Rob runs an MMA gym, and that training has really helped me, and I combine that with weights a couple of times a week.
When you get the chance to train in the gym, what types of workouts do you like to do? Are there any areas you specifically focus on when it comes to improving on the track?
I’ve actually been going to the gym a little bit more lately. I’ve really been having fun trying to build some power, so I’ve been doing everything—explosive movements, a lot of jump squats, jump lunges, box jumps, explosive pushup drills, and things like that. That’s really been fun because I can keep the weight down a little more. In some ways it becomes a little bit of a part of your workout and I can see real gains. It really hurts. The difference between just doing something at your normal regular speed or really pushing hard through it, it really changes the way it feels. You hurt a little more the next couple of days.
Do you have to change your exercise or nutritional routine up when you are travelling for races?
Because I’m on the road all the time, it’s about eating the right food, so Subway is the perfect partner for me. No matter where I am, I can eat well. With training, sometimes it’s just about doing something different. If I’m on the road I leave the hotel and I go for a run. Sometimes I have more structured weeks with different type of training, but it’s just about getting that time in, getting the work in and making sure I’m doing something that is pushing me.
Has your partnership with Subway helped you in your training? How often do you incorporate their food into your nutritional routine?
Subway’s been a partner of mine for almost ten years you think, ten years. This is literally one of those partnerships that they didn’t have to give me any PR materials or tell me anything about their business. I’ve been eating at Subway three or four times a week for basically my whole adult life. For me the reason I started going to Subway was because I became interested in being as healthful as I could be. I got into really working out trying to be as fit as I could be and Subway is the perfect answer. It’s quick, it’s everywhere and it’s good food. This is not me trying to sell Subway sandwiches. I go to Subway all the time.
Do you feel that has your training given you an advantage when you strap into the car over other drivers? Have you seen a change in the way NASCAR drivers are training over the years as you have incorporated more of a focus on fitness?
I used to feel like I had a big advantage, but now a lot of guys are working out really hard. Guys like Jimmy Johnson, he’s been doing a lot; Landon Cassill, Josh Wise—he’s really a top level triathlete. These guys are good. Matt Kenseth—I went riding bikes with him the other day and he’s blistering fast. Everybody’s working hard, but you don’t have to be an athlete to drive these cars. It’s like anything else.
If you’re fit that part is taken care of and on a tough day you don’t slow down. For me it’s fun. Whether it’s go and play racquetball or going riding the bike, or working on your ground game in an MMA gym, it’s just a challenge and especially if you workout with people who are better than you and I really enjoy it.
When it comes to your nutrition and exercise plan, are there any products—such as energy drinks, supplements, or protein—that you find essential for your training?
I don’t right now. Those things come and go for me. Right now what I’ve really been focusing on is just eating well. That’s been key for me. Fresh fruits and vegetables, making sure I get the right amount of protein, making sure I’m getting good quality carbohydrates like the whole wheat bread at Subway. I try to really balance what I’m eating. Sometimes if I’m trying to put on some weight I look for extra calories with some whey protein or something like that, some lean proteins, but those things come and go.
Do you have any favorite pre-race or post-race meals?
It’s really simple: No new foods. No experimenting on race day. We sit in those cars for sometimes four hours at a time. You cannot stretch. There’s nothing you can do. If you are sick or you don’t feel right it’s a long nasty day. It’s terrible so I keep it really simple. Sometimes it’s just a little peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread or something that, just real simple stuff on race day.
What has it been like helping support our nation’s troops and military families and working with SUBWAY on this USO project? What are you hoping the project can accomplish?
Subway does so much for our team. Here for me I’ve been eating at Subway for about, I don’t know, about 20, 25 years now. It’s my official training restaurant so it’s a good healthful food that’s great. I’ve enjoyed my partnership with them. This weekend, it’s really special. They’re doing so much for our troops. They’re donating $125,000 to the USO including 5,000 meals for troops so that’s huge. They’re also offering up the USO collector’s cups and that gives people a chance to win tickets to the Subway Firecracker 250 in Daytona on Fourth of July weekend. It’s all based around honoring our troops, the people who protect our freedom and I think Subway is doing a real good job of it.
What does it mean for you personally to have a hand in the support for the USO and military families?
I believe that our personal freedom, our personal liberties that we have in this country are what separate us from the rest of the world. It allows us to go do the things that we love to do and to make a living at them. The people who protect those principles and are willing to put their lives on the line for it, they deserve every honor we can give them. This weekend, Memorial Day weekend with the Coca-Cola 600, all of the NASCAR cars have a fallen soldier’s name on the windshield. It’s a really special day and NASCAR allows us to do and I think our sport is one where everybody realizes what ie means. It’s like coach Gibbs says, “There are people around the world who will never have one day as great as the days that we get to have here at these events.” They never get to experience something like this. Simply put, it’s because of the people that defend all those constitutionally protected freedoms and liberties that we’re able to do this stuff.
Is there a particular backflip moment from one of the many in your career that stands out to you?
I did one backflip with my helmet on, and I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, to be honest with you. I did it in Michigan and it was ugly. I almost really screwed up. So that one stands out. That was a bad one.
What advice do you have advice for younger drivers trying to reach the professional level, or for athletes looking to follow your lead and improve their overall fitness?
For me, I started working out because I didn’t have the money to go racing but I had time. It was a way for me to invest in me personally, invest in my health and my fitness and to prepare me for success later. I really think anybody that’s out there, that’s reading [this] and is stuck in a rut, just know that if you just get up and go do it and go put the work in, it does pay off. It’s just taking that first step, just going to the gym and walking in, and once you get going, there’s nothing better.