Professional race driver Olivier Pla rode out France’s recent lockdown like the rest of his country — but with an even greater drive to get back on the road.
“As a professional driver, the biggest part of the job is making sure that we stay fit,” says Olivier, who is perhaps best known for racing the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “The best training is to spend time in the car, but while staying home for lockdown you have to keep going and work on your fitness.”
Why Racing Requires Peak Fitness
The demanding nature of racing puts excessive strain on the driver’s body, requiring impressive fortitude and overall fitness. For endurance racers like Olivier, the pressure is even greater — specifically on the driver’s neck as it must be able to withstand the pressure of G-force over long periods of time. According to Olivier, exercise is critical to not only withstanding G-force but building the stamina necessary for staying hyper-focused and razor-sharp behind the wheel for his favorite race. Known as the “Grand Prix of Endurance Racing,” the 24 Hours of Les Mans first started its engines in 1923 and has been going ever since, making it the world’s oldest annual endurance race.
Olivier typically trains in the gym up to four times a week, including two days with a personal trainer, so not having access to the gym or the racetrack meant he needed to get creative at home. With some help from his trainer, he created a new routine and purchased a few simple pieces of equipment online. Benches, weights and bands were all he needed to round out a routine of bodyweight exercises and cardio.
Translating a Routine to Train at Home
When at the gym, Olivier warms up on the rowing machine by doing 1,000 to 3,000 meters. He also works it into interval training and challenges himself to “set a target like doing 150 meters as quick as possible and trying to improve my time!” That same spirit of pushing himself to best his own times has translated into his at-home workouts.
To train his neck, Olivier focuses on two methods. He either uses an elastic rope to pull or a Swiss ball to push, making sure to hold each position for 30 second intervals before repeating.
“I use the treadmill when the weather is not good or for interval training,” says Olivier. During France’s stay-at-home orders, he replaced the treadmill with running in his neighborhood. “I am lucky to live in the countryside, so I can go outside for a run and breathe fresh air,” he says.
When Olivier uses the treadmill for interval training, he runs .6 miles and does 30 push-ups followed by 25 squats, four times without stopping.
Shoulders and Arms
Maintaining grip on the wheel for the entirely of an endurance race is no small task. To prepare, Olivier uses kettlebells to build up and strengthen his shoulders and arms. By purchasing a bench and a few weights, Olivier has been able to implement a variety of exercises into his at-home routine.
“The battle rope exercises are one of my favorite as you can work all the muscles of the upper body and do interval training in the same time,” says Olivier. He follows a 30/30 routine, 30 seconds of whipping the battle ropes and 30 seconds of rest before repeating twelve times. “It’s quite intense.”
The Importance of Mental Wellbeing
Aside from working to ensure he stayed in racing form, Olivier filled his days attempting to learn a new skill. “I’m really bad at cooking. My friends say that I am better at ordering takeout,” he shares. While he’s not sure he’ll have much time to continue honing his culinary skills once his racing schedule picks back up, Olivier has been “quite happy with the results.” When asked what he has enjoyed cooking most he replied, “oh, chocolate cakes.”
Despite his daily training and newfound baking skills, the lockdown has required intentionality and patience. “You have to stay strong mentally, too. This is not an easy situation because you don’t know when it will end and when we’ll get back to normal life, back to what you love.” Not knowing when he’ll be back in the race car for testing and races has proved challenging, but he notes that since he started racing at just six years old, “a four-month break is not the end of the world.”
Still, Olivier hopes to be back on the track soon. “I know that when I will be able to fly to America to do my job it will be a special feeling. Just knowing I’m going to get in the car will put a smile on my face,” he says. “We have a lot of races to win this year.”