For many successful people, health and fitness isn't a luxury -- health and fitness plays a major role in their success. The physical benefits are clear, but the mental advantages -- perseverance, resilience, determination, and mental toughness -- are just as important.
This is the first in a series where I follow an incredibly successful person's workout plan for one week. This time it's Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and winner of seven Nascar championships. (Hey, why not start at the top?)
The goal is to give you an inside look at how health and fitness help drive each person's success... and hopefully inspire you to add working out to your daily routine. After all, if someone like me can do it for a seven days... imagine what you can do.
And if you're wondering how the week went, Clubber Lang said it best: "Pain."
By 2007, Jimmie Johnson had reached the top level of Nascar -- including twice finishing second in the points championship -- and yet, "I knew in the back of my mind I wasn't doing things right," he says.
So he started a weight training program. "That focus on fitness changed my life," he says. "Just adding that one layer of discipline was good for me."
But he didn't stop there. Soon he started training to compete in his first triathlon. "I was fast on the swim, okay on the bike," Jimmie says, "and cramped badly on the run. That ignited my competitive spirit." In recent years the worst he's finished a triathlon for his age group is 2nd, including a half Ironman.
"Focusing on fitness," he says, "was something I needed, and it took me to the next level in my professional and personal life. The mental benefits are what led me to try to convince driver friends to get involved. Focus, discipline, mental toughness... plus it's a great way to build non-competitive friendships outside the sport."
It's hardly a coincidence that Jimmie is now a seven-time Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series champion. He also uses fitness events to raise money to support his charitable foundation and raise funds for K-12 public education, like the upcoming Jimmie Johnson Foundation Fit Fest.
Jimmie was kind enough to connect me with his trainer, Jamey Yon, the founder of TriYON Performance, a multi-sport lifestyle coaching service based in Charlotte, NC. I used TriYON's online coaching service, and it's great. (And so is Jamey, even though there were plenty of moments during the week when I pretty much hated him.)
The following is a typical week for Jimmie; depending on his schedule, travel plans, and what he is training for, sometimes he does more, sometimes less.
I like to think I'm in pretty good shape... but I'm glad Jamey didn't give me a "more" week, because a "typical" week was more than plenty.
Session 1: Run and Strength
1. 45 minute easy run. Stay at 60 to 75% of max heart rate. Short, quick, efficient strides. Don't over-stride. Stay at a conversational pace; 157 to 180 steps per minute is your goal.
Complete strength after run. Make sure to hydrate with electrolytes please!
Using short, quick strides was interesting; I usually stride longer. Shorter strides are more efficient. Plus, I realized that when I settled into using relatively short strides, increasing my stride length slightly while maintaining the same cadence automatically increased my pace -- and for me was a lot less painful than trying to maintain a long stride while increasing my cadence.
Yep: Jamey is pretty smart.
Since I don't run a lot, I was tired at the end of the 45 minutes, but in a "pleasantly fatigued" rather than a "where is the freaking couch?" way.
And that's a good thing, because I had more to do.
2. Strength workout.
1 minute: Walking lunges with 20-pound dumbbells in each hand. 1 minute: Single leg bench lunges, 30 seconds each leg, no extra weight, go deep (quad parallel to floor). 30 seconds: Calf raises (push against the wall as if you are being arrested; should get 20 to 30 reps before fatigue) 30 seconds: Deep squat thrusters with 20-pound dumbbells. 1:15: Wall sit. Repeat sequence 2 more times, adding 15 seconds to each wall sit.
I don't normally combine workouts. If I lift, I just lift. If I ride my bike, I just ride. Going from the run to the strength portion of the workout felt strange, but I liked it. I was already warmed up and in the flow, and it was interesting to feel the difference in how my legs responded after having jogged for 45 minutes.
That's one of the hallmarks of multi-sport training. To Jamey, fitness is all about balance, and combining workouts helps you achieve that balance and get even fitter.
Session 2: Ride
75 minute recovery ride. Ride aerobically for 1:15, which should be 20 to 25 miles. Keep cadence at 95-plus revolutions per minute for the majority of the ride, except when out of seat on climbs. Change position often on climbs.
Due to his schedule, it's almost impossible for Jimmie to devote several hours in a row to working out. That means most of his days involve two separate sessions.
The majority of my cardio typically involves cycling, so the recovery ride was relatively easy. The pedaling cadence was interesting, though. I tend to average 80-85 RPMs. Maintaining a faster cadence required me to stay in slightly easier gears, and while it felt a little uncomfortable, it was also fun to try something new.
And maybe it's just me, but trying something new is a lot easier when you're told to try something new. I like being told what to do; it's easier than telling yourself what to do.
Although I was about to realize I actually don't like being told what to do.
Session 1: 3,000 Yard Swim
I hate swimming. Mostly that's because I can't really swim; I don't sink to the bottom, but I have zero technique (unless flailing and thrashing can be considered "technique.")
So yeah, I dreaded the pool work.
Warm-up: 200: Easy swim 200: Easy pull swim (25 fist / 25 Fingertip drag)
200: Swim with fins (25 636 drill, 25 backstroke, 50 swim) 4 x 25 swim build effort (20 second rests)
Main Set: 600: Pull paddle tempo (rest 20) 6 x 50: Swim fast (rest 20) 200: Kick with fins 3 x 200 Pull paddle descend (rest 20) 6 x 25 Swim fast (rest 20) 200 Kick with fins 2 x 100 IM with fins (fly kick with breaststroke) (rest 30) 100 Easy cool down
This is where my workout plan became more of a guide than a prescription. I had to rest way more than Jamey suggested. Way more. My breaststroke probably looked more like a dog paddle, and my fly probably looked... well, let's just say that at one point the lifeguard asked what stroke I was trying to do.
Then again, I did learn that I love swimming with fins. Whoever invented fins is now my new best friend.
Seemingly hours later, I finished all the yards and was able to crawl out of the pool. At that point I knew 1) how it feels to be a dish rag, and 2) swimmers are some tough SOBs.
Session 2: Ride
30 Miles with 3 x 8:00 at race pace (80-85% perceived effort or max HR).
Let your body fully warm up and feel decent and sweaty before starting the 3 x 8 minute efforts. Start out at 80% perceived effort and your heart rate will slowly climb through first 3 to 4 minutes of the 8 minute effort. Maintain cadence around 85 RPM. Pedal smooth strong circles and use hamstrings and calves to pick that pedal up.
Especially focus on pedaling form on slight uphill grades or into the wind. Don't be a masher! Do 4-minute recoveries with easy spinning between each interval. Then finish the 30 miles at 60 to 70% of max HR at 95+ cadence.
I went to the pool early in the morning to give myself plenty of time to recover, and that helped... but not a ton. I loosened up pretty quickly but didn't feel strong at all during the first interval. I watched the clock much of the time, desperately wishing to see 8:00 appear.
Oddly enough, though, I felt stronger during the second interval, and even a tiny bit stronger on the third. Granted, I wasn't as strong as I would have been had I not swam early in the day, but still. And I actually enjoyed the 95 RPM cadence at the end of the ride; even though my legs were really tired, it felt good to spin.
I also noticed that my core was weaker than usual; swimming took more out of my back and abs than I would have imagined. As I climbed off the bike I realized Jamey's focus on balance makes even more sense than I thought.
But I didn't have time to think about it for long since I went to bed at 8.30.
Session 1 (and only, yay!) Run and Core
1. Hill repeats
Warm-up: 2 miles easy jog
Main Set: 10 x 80 second hill repeats. Run 5k effort for 80 seconds up moderate to steep hill. Mark that spot. Easy jog recovery down hill, then start next repeat. Run all repeats to that same spot. Times should stay at or under 80 seconds and should get slightly faster as workout continues.
Cool down to get in 7 miles total.
2 minutes: Prone plank :30: Right side :30: Left side 1 minute: Prone plank :30: Right side :30: Left side :30: Prone plank
Hills suck. Hill repeats suck worse.
After the first two, my "easy jog" down the hill was more like a leisurely stagger than a jog. And I walked around for 10 or 15 seconds at the bottom before starting the next run up.
But, like most things that suck, hill repeats are also really good for you. Research shows interval training provides a much greater increase in endurance. And interval training can also help reverse the effects of aging.
Once the hills were over I knew the worst was behind me, and it was actually fun to jog out the rest of the miles. For once I was even tempted to run a little farther.
But only tempted. I did my core work and then enjoyed that wonderful sense of pride that comes from knowing you've done something hard, if only for you. Not the kind of pride that makes you want to tell other people what you've accomplished... but the kind of pride you carry around inside.
Which is the best kind of pride.
Session 1: Ride and Strength Work
Part 1: Ride at 60 to 70% of max HR. Maintain cadence at 95+. In and out of seat on climbs, but stay under that 70% max heart rate as best you can. Pedal smooth circles!
Take in two bottles of electrolytes on the ride! Jimmie makes sure to get in enough sodium, especially as the weather warms up: 500-750 mg/hour on bike.
Rehydrate and snack on 300 calories with 20 grams of protein after ride.
Then go straight to strength workout.
Part 2: Strength
Lower Body Deep squats: Choose weight that causes failure at approximately 20 reps (JJ starts at 135 lbs.) Leg press: Choose weight that causes failure at approximately 20 reps. (JJ starts at 270.)
Repeat Squats and leg press, add 20 lbs to squats and 50 lbs to leg press.
Walking lunges: 40, carrying two 20-lb dumbbells. Leg extension: 1 set to failure. Leg curls: 1 set to failure. Seated calf raises: one set to failure. Upper Body
Lat pull down: 15 to 20 reps to failure. Pushups: to failure. Tricep dips: to failure. Seated dumbbell shoulder press: to failure. Chest flies: to failure. Seated running dumbbell curls: to failure. Single arm bench rows: to failure. Shoulder raises (side, front, rear): 3 different motions, 12-15 reps each direction, to failure. Core Bicycle abs: to fatigue, shoot for 120 to 130 counting both sides. Rocking chair: 30 reps. Crunches, feet planted: 30 reps. Crunches, feet elevated: 30 reps. Superman, with a 2 second hold at contraction: 30 seconds. Bird dogs: 30 seconds each side Planks: :40 elbow plank, :20 right side, :20 left side, :20 reverse. Perform twice.
I lift five or six days a week, but I generally focus on building strength and muscle, so I do less reps per set than Jimmie. His goal is to build strength, but also endurance and stamina. After all, he has to muscle a car around a track for three or four hours straight every weekend. Plus, he trains for triathlons.
That makes the focus of his strength work 100% go and 0% show, while mine is admittedly at least 50% show. (After all, most of us do want to look good, or in my case to at least look as good as it is possible for a guy like me to look.)
So when you're used to doing 6-10 reps to failure per set, choosing a weight that lets you do 15 to 20 reps per set before you fail yields a different kind of muscle pain. And not in a pleasant way.
But I also woke up the next day a lot more sore than I normally would from lifting. Muscles adapt best when exposed to different forms of overload. I knew that, but I had fallen into the habit of lifting a certain way. Jimmie's strength workout is a nice reminder that the best way to grow -- in fitness, as in all things -- is to constantly seek different ways to push yourself.
That's something I tried to remember the next day.
Session 1: Run, and Pool, and Run
Part 1: 3 mile easy run to pool.
Part 2: 3,000 yard swim
Warm up: 600 Swim (100 swim, 25 backstroke, 25 breast) 100 Pull fist (Swim with closed fist and pull buoy) 100 Kick Main Set:
Fast swim with extra recovery 6 x 100 Solid tempo (:45 rest recoveries) 100 Easy pull recovery 6 x 75 Faster (:45) 100 Easy pull recovery 6 x 50 Fast (45) 100 Easy pull recovery 6 x 25 Fast (:30-:45) (only 1-2 breaths) 3 x 100 Pull cruise bilateral breathe (15) 100 Cool down
Part 3: Run 3 miles home, then Core. 2 minutes: Prone plank. :30: Right plank and left plank. :90: Prone plank. :30: Right and left plank. 1 minute: Prone plank.
Let's get right to the point. The swim workout was the hardest physical thing I've ever done, and I once rode a 100-mile Gran Fondo, with four mountains and 11,000 total feet of climbing, less than five months after I had a heart attack.
All those yards seemed to stretch out to infinity, so I did what I always try to do. I forgot about the finish line and focused solely on what was next. Swim to the wall? I did that.... and then I thought about what was next.
Early on I evidently was struggling so hard to pull myself up and look at my workout sheet that the lifeguard took pity on me; she grabbed the clipboard, sat in a chair at the end of the lane, and told me what to do.
Finally I finished. Then I had to run home. I was so wrung out by then that Raggedy Andy would have displayed better running form. I staggered in the door, lay on the floor for five minutes, and struggled through the core workout.
And then I stayed on the floor. I was supposed to stretch right away, but it was about 30 minutes before I felt like doing it. (Sorry, Jamey.)
Session 1: 50 Mile Bike Ride
Ride at a steady aerobic pace of 60-75% of max HR, then work the uphills at 80 to 85% max HR.
The key is to hold that effort an additional 10 to 15 seconds over the top of the hill -- this helps you maintain momentum and speed before letting your heart rate recover back to 70 to 75%.
And make sure you drink one bottle of 100% electrolytes per hour.
I love cycling, but I so didn't want to get on the bike that morning. I had gone to bed early the night before, but every time I rolled over during the night the muscle soreness woke me up. (That's when you know you're sore.)
Still, since this was the last workout day of the week I wanted to finish strong, so I picked a route that involved plenty of climbing so I would have no choice but to work harder and increase my heart rate. (I wasn't sure that willpower alone would be enough.)
Holding the same effort once over the top of the hill is hard, though -- the crest of a climb is like a symbolic finish line, and the sense of relief is often so great that all you want to do is enjoy the fact you no longer have to pedal as hard. But the extra momentum you build at the top results in greater speed throughout the descent, so it's worth it.
To make sure I did 15 seconds, I counted in my head...but instead of saying "One Mississippi, two Mississippi..." I tried, "One I hate Jamey, two I hate Jamey..."
Okay, not really, but in retrospect, not a bad idea.
But that's what a good coach does for you. "With Jamey's experience as a pro," Jimmie says, "and being an early pro in the triathlon space, they didn't have the science we do today. He's been able to learn the hard way... and now has science to back it up. He's still extremely fit. I train with him, and he kicks my butt on everything. He's not just a good example. He holds me accountable."
And that's why, even though Jamey made it optional...
Session 2: 20 Minute Easy Run
Optional, but good when JJ is training for a triathlon. Within 5 minutes after ride, run an easy 10 minute outs and back. You should feel much better on way back.
Then do some quick core before stretching!
Pushups and plank holds: Do a straight 2 minutes: 10 seconds pushups, 10 seconds hold plank, 10 seconds pushups... 6 total for each, 2 minutes total.
Physically, I didn't feel "much" better on the way back. A little, but not "much."
Mentally I felt really good, though. I had done it. I had done it all -- no matter how hard (see: swimming) or how impossible it had sometimes felt.
What I Learned
Sometimes Jimmie will go for a ride on Sunday race days. I didn't, because if the week taught me nothing else it was that I am not Jimmie Johnson.
But I learned a lot more than that.
We'll start with fitness. Normally I lift for strength and ride a bike for cardio. But that approach means I am lacking some degree of balance. I don't often run and I never swim, and those exercises use muscles in different ways.
So I've decided to run at least twice a week, and swim once a week. Swimming, especially at my age, is highly beneficial: no impact, great for cardio, great total-body workout... as much as I hate swimming, I need to learn to like it, because swimming will definitely like me.
I also better appreciate the benefits of combining different types of workouts. Lifting immediately after cycling forced my muscles to work and then adapt differently. Running after swimming felt like hot death, but finding a running rhythm after all that swimming was definitely good for me.
So I'll combine workout types more often; after all, the only way to improve is to force yourself to adapt to new stimuli. If your results have hit a plateau, that usually means you need to shake up your workout.
From a mental point of view, my "Jimmie Johnson week" confirmed yet again how rewarding it is to accomplish something you didn't know you could. The confidence boost that comes from competing against yourself -- and winning -- naturally extends into other aspects of your life.
We can always do more than we think. We always have more in us. Always. Most of our "limits" are arbitrary and self-imposed. When we think we're out of strength or energy... when we think we're out of brain power or willpower... we're not: We just think we are.
That's a wonderful thing to remember, because the distance between any dream and the reality of the present can present a major problem. Setting a huge -- even crazy -- goal is intended to be hugely motivating, but comparing your current state to your eventual goal turns out to be hugely de-motivating and demoralizing -- and is usually the reason we give up.
But if you break any goal down into chunks, and create a routine to knock off those chunks, you can get there. Figure out a plan that works, stick to the plan...and with time and effort, you'll get there.
Pick something huge you want to accomplish. Start a business. Change careers. Go back to school. Set a personal goal. Add 10% to every day of Jimmie's workout, and beat me.
Whatever you choose, break it down into chunks. Commit to keeping your head down and grinding out those chunks.
Do that consistently, do that without fail, and one day you'll pick up your head and realize you have accomplished what once seemed impossible.
Especially to you.
Thanks to Jimmie Johnson and the folks at Hendrick Motorsports for agreeing to help me do this. Special thanks to Jamey Yon of TriYON Performance for giving me a detailed workout plan and answering all of my (sometimes dumb) questions... and providing constant encouragement throughout the week.
Not only does Jamey know his stuff, he's a really good guy.