I worked out like a Formula E race car driver – and it nearly broke me

I’ve asked them to turn the heating up because it can get up to around 60 degrees in the cockpit,” says Formula E driver Sam Bird to a group of open-mouthed, anxious people in workout gear. I am one of them – and I’m already sweating buckets. It’s 9am on a Monday morning and I’m about to learn how to train like Bird. As a Formula E driver, he is legitimately one of the fittest people on the planet.

You wouldn’t think driving a car around a race track over and over again required such physical stamina. At least, I didn’t. “They’re drivers, how hard can their workout regimes be?” I texted a friend on my way to upmarket gym BXR, which was hosting the session. “They’re literally sitting down.” It transpires they’re actually doing quite a lot more than that.

“The drivers in Formula E have to maintain a high level of both strength and conditioning to succeed at the top level,” says BXR director Alex Nicholl, who co-created the Formula E workout with Bird. “With no power steering in Formula E’s current race cars, strength is a must. Alongside this, the duration of the race, the high temperatures they experience in the car and the concentration needed are all integral to a high level of conditioning.” While in the car, a driver’s heart rate can soar up to 200 beats per minute – a normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60bpm to 100bpm. “If your conditioning isn’t up to scratch, drivers run the risk of early-onset fatigue and impacting their focus and overall performance on the track,” adds Nicholl.

Combine this with the fact that Formula E races last 45 minutes and also that cars are generally capable of hitting top speeds of up to 320km/h, and, well, it’s no wonder the drivers need to be so fit. Because of the nature of the position you’re in – sitting in a car that’s fairly low to the ground – there are specific muscles that need to be particularly strong, too. “Overall strength is important but there is a need to focus on neck, core and arm strength,” says Nicholl. It’s these areas that the workout we’re about to do is specifically designed to target.

The Attack Mode by Formula E workout is a one-of-a-kind, high-intensity routine that involves assault bikes, TRX (total-body resistance exercise), free weights and sprints. “With upper body, neck strength, and cardio all a critical part of a race car driver’s training, the workout hones in on these skills with exercises like TRX rows and banded sprints,” adds Nicholl.

The idea is that the workout offers you a sense of the physical strength and endurance as well as the mental resilience and agility required to be a Formula E driver. After giving us a brief pep talk, Bird and BXR performance coach Lewis Prosser talk us through the nature of the workout and we’re split into small groups; the idea is that we’ll perform the exercises in a circuit style.

In order to really get the full Formula E experience, you also need to examine your diet – rosé is sadly not on the menu

We do the same exercise three times for 45 seconds before moving on to the next. I’m paired with two intimidatingly strong men, who look like they do this kind of thing all the time. Thankfully, there’s a range of weights available; I opt for the lightest ones in every movement. Before we get started, I gently warn my new beefcake pals that I’m a little tired and hungover and might not be at my best. They laugh and wish me luck. It doesn’t make me feel any better.

The first few exercises are fairly straightforward: press-ups, kettlebell swings and lunge jumps. Most involve weights in one form or another. After the first few rounds, my abs and shoulders are already starting to ache. There is not much recovery time between exercises – “this is to help the body adapt to these high heart rates,” explains Nicholl – which means I spend a lot of time panting and clutching at my chest, wondering whether the second bottle of rosé I shared with friends the previous night was really necessary.

After completing one full round of exercises, we move on to a second set. This time, it’s even tougher, with sprints, ski trainers and squats. Midway through, everything hurts. And when it’s finally all over, I and several others flop down onto the floor, dripping in sweat and wondering how on earth Bird does this on an almost daily basis.

This specific BXR workout is only available until 14 July at the luxury gym chain’s outposts in London. But those wanting to train like a Formula E driver at home can do so just as easily. The key, says Nicholl, is to plan strategically.

“Don’t make your workout unrealistic,” he says. “Planning to do something much harder than you’ve ever done before will likely mean you’ll lose interest or get knackered quickly. Think about doing an exercise that gets you away from watching TV for a short while, but also keeps you engaged enough to want to come back to it.”

If you’re tight on time, there’s plenty you can do to put your body through a quick burst of Formula E-style agony. “Most people will have a kettle, which takes around 90 seconds – two minutes to boil before you have your cup of tea. That’s a time when you can get 20/40 air squats in. And, if you’re doing that a few times a day, then you could be reaching 100 air squats daily with minimal effort and time spent.”

Formula E driver Sam Bird behind the wheel (Supplied)
Formula E driver Sam Bird behind the wheel (Supplied)

You don’t need to start reaching for bottles of wine to use as weights, either. “Press-ups, burpees, stair climbers and bear crawls are some of the most impactful exercises in building tone and muscle,” says Nicholl. “And if you have a wooden or tiled floor, you just need a towel to have an effective core workout. Starting in a plank position, put the towel under your hands or feet and slide them towards your chest and then back out again. You’ll really feel the burn with this one.”

In order to really get the full Formula E experience, though, you also need to examine your diet – rosé is sadly not on the menu. “Before a workout, choose carbohydrates that are higher in fibre, so they release their energy slowly, and lean protein to help build muscle,” advises Nicholl. “For example, if you’re exercising at lunchtime, have a porridge made with low-fat milk and some fruit, or egg on whole grain toast for breakfast. Or you could have chicken and rice for lunch if you’re exercising in the early evening.”

Frankly, I wish I’d known all this before I stepped into the gym that Monday morning. Next time let’s hope I’m a little better prepared.

The BXR Formula E workout runs from 8-14 July. Find more details here