ORACLE TEAM USA’s Craig McFarlane on Training Elite Athletes

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What does it take to race the AC72s–aka the fastest boats on San Francisco Bay? We asked Craig McFarlane, Head Athletic Trainer for ORACLE TEAM USA, Defenders of the 34th America’s Cup. These high-tech wingsailed multihulled racing boats reach sailing speeds of over 30 knots–an incredible advancement over the slower, single-hulled boats of the past. McFarlane shares how these technological advancements raised the bar for the sailors’ training–requiring professional sailors to become elite athletes who are strong, agile, and have quick aerobic recovery–and how he got them there.

Can you start with an overview of the training program?

The sailors train first thing in the morning, Monday through Friday, from about 7:30 until 9:00. If they don’t sail in the afternoons, they’ll have another workout session with me.

I run the recovery sessions in the mornings just before breakfast. These are based on functional strength and power development. Through the week, they’ll see me in the afternoon just once or twice because they get a lot of fitness training in on the boat. The afternoon sessions are cardiovascular-based and shorter–they run about 30 to 45 minutes.

Are there different workouts for different roles?

There’s some positional-specific stuff, but not too much. I work with three different groups. There are the grinders, who need to keep up their strength. And there are guys who need to be strong, but they also need to be on agile on the boat to do their job, whether it’s doing a bit of grinding or trimming. The third group’s a bit older. I focus on keeping them healthy and functionally fit, with a focus on body composition. With the older group, I do mainly functional circuit work with whole-body exercises.

More generally, some guys need to get better at moving on the tramp, which is the mat between the two hulls on the boat. We’ve got a tramp simulator to provide that practice. And some guys don’t run naturally, so I add some motility work where they jump over and run around things and learn to accelerate and decelerate properly.

How has the training has evolved with the new short race format?

Previously, the races were a lot longer, they took about an hour–and the sailors had very taxing jobs. For example, a grinder might have a 10-second burst of intense activity and then do nothing for 5 minutes. So back in those days, the grinders could afford to be 265 to 285 pounds. The sailors didn’t actually have to be fit; they just had to be strong enough to power the boat. Even the older guys who were really experienced–they could read the wind and the sails and they could smoke a cigar and drink a gin and tonic on the boat–but they didn’t have to be fit to be able to make the right decisions.

But now the grinders weigh in around 220 to 235 pounds, because with this new format where the races are only 20 to 30 minutes, they’re constantly running. The new racing format is very demanding physically, and they’re working the entire time. All the guys in all the positions have got to be fit.

What does the training prepare the sailors to do during a race?

At the start of the race course, before the race even begins, there’s quite a bit of work that happens on the boat. It takes about 3 minutes just to jockey into a good position.

Once the race starts, a maneuver could take anywhere from 20 to 45 seconds. It might include running back on the tramp, getting set in position, and then running back to the opposite side of the boat for the next maneuver. There might be 5 to 6 maneuvers per lap and 5 to 6 laps of the race course. There are very short recoveries between these maneuvers and everyone’s got to go across on the boat; no one is hanging on one side.

What’s the toughest part of training?

Grinding. You cannot hide on the grinder! Generally, everyone needs to be prepared to grind to help out a team member. With the old boats and the previous racing format, a few people did all the grinding. So with the new format, there were a bunch of guys who needed to learn how to grind, and grind really well.

Were there particular challenges you faced in designing the training program?

There are four grinding pedestals in each cockpit on these hulls, and two guys on each grinding pedestal; one goes forward and one goes backward. Depending on the scenario, they’re grinding forward and back at different intensities. So when we started sailing the boat, we looked at the work the guys were doing. For example, what was their grinding cadence, what was their grinding load [weight], how long were they grinding those loads?

My challenge was creating a program to support the work they needed to do. The loading on the pedestals on the boat were a lot higher than the level on the grinding pedestals in our gym, so we had to modify our pedestals to deliver similar loads.

How does technology help with training?

A sailor’s role on the boat will dictate his grinding volume, load, and cadence. We monitor their heart rates when they’re working on the boat, and we try and mirror that during training sessions. The technology really helps us there.

How many calories do the sailors burn during a typical workout?

Probably between 800 and 1,000 calories for cardio workouts, and 300 to 500 for strength-based workouts. They also burn about 6,000 calories during a single training session on the boat.

How many calories do you think they burn during a race?

In a 20-minute race, I’d guess around 500 to 700 based on their heart rates.

Who’s the most competitive in the gym?

Jimmy Spithill. He’s uber-competitive. Tom Slingsby and John MacBeth also come to mind. But to be fair, they’re all competitive!

How much of competing at an elite level do you think is mental?

A lot. Obviously, the sailors have to be fit to sail these boats. But they have to want it. You can have a fit person who doesn’t want it as much as the next guy and that can be the difference between winning and losing. On this team, everyone wants to win, everyone’s got the drive.

When these guys have got nothing in the tank at the end of the race, and it’s neck-and-neck and the load is ridiculously high, and they want to give up, lactic acid is screaming in their muscles, they’ve got to want to turn the handle another couple times, as hard as that’s going to be.

Do you focus on collaboration and teamwork in training?

Absolutely. I put them in groups and run competitive sessions. These guys are clever competitors. No matter the task, no matter the rules, they’ll find the best, quickest possible way to win. And that emerges in sailing as well–because the rules can be so vague, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. In groups, the guys have to figure out quickly how to best work together.

How do you get the sailors past mental roadblocks in training?

I have to know what makes that athlete tick, and they’re all different. It’s important that we have a good rapport. I need to know how each guy is doing on a particular day, what’s going on in his life. There are going to be days when I can’t push them. I measure their performance from a physiological perspective–but our heart rate monitoring system doesn’t account for how they’re actually feeling. So I have to weigh the metrics along with the human aspect, and make a judgment call–does a sailor need a day off, or need to sleep in? Of course, there are times I have to call bullshit and say, “Do it, get it over and done with, and you’ll be fine!”

But a strict regimen’s not nice. You’ve got to be happy to perform at your best. And that’s the way I do it.

Editor’s Note: This is our third interview with McFarlane. Get to know him in our first Q&A, and learn how the sailors eat for optimal nutrition in our second installment, where he talks about ORACLE TEAM USA’s nutrition program.

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