Strength and Conditioning Primer: a Lesson from Niki Lauda on the Necessity of Both Will and Skill
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Is there any amount of money that could convince you to get behind the wheel of a 200-mile-per-hour, bomb-on-wheels racecar for an entire season– 16 races? OK, I’ll assume you’re humoring me, and named a price. Here’s the catch, you’ll have a 10-percent chance of dying that season. This was the dangerous and exhilarating world that three-time Formula 1 World Champion Niki Lauda raced in during the 1970s. Lauda had a strong, multi-faceted character, chastened by alertness and– driven. In 1976, the year after his first world championship, he was nearly killed in a fiery accident at the Nurburgring in Germany. Breaking the 7-minute mark at the “Green Hell”– as the track is called, is still a test of mettle for million-dollar Supercars today. Lacking sophisticated electronics and technology, Lauda used the Italian four-wheeled version of the Statue of David or Mona Lisa, known as the Ferrari, to complete the course in under 7 minutes in 1975. The next year after nearly being killed at the “Green Hell,” he returned to full competitive form in six weeks.
It is evident that Niki Lauda had one heck of a set of ball bearings to catalyze his career as a champion. But the will is not enough. I think my taste as a writer would be in serious question if I were writing about a driver who never made it to Grand Prix glory– or even, a podium. If his will propelled and sustained him going down the track, I will explain that it was his preparation that kept him on it.
Racing a car has a lot in common with an athlete racing down a field, or exploding out of the bottom of a squat, the way a Ferrari has to be precisely negotiated at full speed around an unforgiving corner. Before Niki Lauda experienced breathtaking Formula 1 glory, he was plagued by the gut-wrenching difficulty associated with such odysseys. In 1974, after years of winless struggling– and nearly car-less, Lauda finally earned a spot on Ferrari’s Formula 1 team.
Skill and Will
Testing the Ferrari pre-season in 1974, Lauda pulled over near an anxious congregation of Ferrari employees, including the “comandante” himself, Enzo Ferrari. The crew anticipated Lauda’s assessment, or rather some serious obligatory “bootlicking.” No one, except the shrewd, brash Austrian, Lauda, had the “guts” to tell Enzo that the car handled like a “pig.” Pig is self-explanatory, but imagine a heavy, wobbly creature with wheels going through a corner really, really fast.
Offering quite the opposite of a death sentence, Enzo simply asked, “What do we need to do to fix it?”
Lauda was not an engineer, but he explained that if the handling were adjusted, he could get a ⅓ of a second out of the car per lap. That’s similar to the difference between running a “4.7” and a “4.5” at the NFL Combine. A 1/3, you’re “kicking butt,” ½ a second makes the other drivers hate life, and with a second, they’re really in trouble. The other cars blowing up, heavy rain, miraculous driving, or using a time machine, like the DeLorean, are the only chance you have left at that point.
It’s no small task, or small adjustment, to refine the engineering of a Ferrari. Enzo warned Lauda, “Niki, you better be right, or we’re going to have a problem.” Lauda was wrong. Lauda was able to go ½ a second per lap quicker, not a ⅓! Of course, he won the team’s trust and confidence.
Assessing and Developing Good Conditioning and Movement Takes Time and Practice
An athlete may wonder why to bother if they have never gotten injured, or if it does not seem like there’s any apparent issue? Lauda’s experience testing racecars explored this question. Before he went to BRM or Ferrari, Lauda was testing at March Formula 1 run by Max Mosley. This car, too, “oinked,” according to Lauda, but his star teammate, the Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson, disagreed. Lauda conceded, only to later have deep regrets and despair. For one, it was a major setback, because due to budgetary constraints, Lauda had to use the “pig” for the rest of the season. Secondly, he was despairing the accumulating debt he was incurring as he financed his career with loans. Thirdly, he had gone against his own expert testing judgment. He realized that talented drivers, like Peterson, would rather tame an uncooperative car and rely on their talent and ability to compensate, instead.
There were several drivers more talented than Lauda in the mid-1970s, like Peterson, and also, James Hunt. But as journalist Peter Windsor said, “Lauda was the first really technical driver.” After the poor season, Lauda learned to trust and continue to develop his ability to manage (and correct) a car’s handling. But it was still tough. Being heavily in debt and stuck in his career, Lauda seriously contemplated suicide by crashing his car into a wall. Luckily, Lauda came to his senses after a few minutes of driving. His ability to refine and test a car would later pay off. Lauda stated his first championship in 1975 was a “breeze.”
Like Peterson, many athletes will compensate for something like poor movement patterns, instead of developing themselves. The very sort of development that would pay compounding interest and dividends in the long run. Why try to compensate and build strength over bad habits or movement?
This poor strategy is in line with another antiquated philosophy that Niki Lauda transcended. Enzo Ferrari would exhort, “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.” An athlete can build superb strength if they need it, of course. But before an athlete gets under that 300-pound barbell to squat, they should make sure that the legs and core that are going to do it move seamlessly. Otherwise, to paraphrase Bill DeSimone, ‘you’re not getting used to poor form, you’re getting away with it.’
This Was Supposed to Be an Article About Conditioning and Training!
It is. Has it not been entertaining so far? As an experiment, think of the human body as a Ferrari. The mind is seated in the body, the way Lauda sat in the cockpit of the Ferrari. The human element– the noological realm, as Dr. Viktor Frankl called it, refers to the part of human beings that makes them human, which is their mind. Things like the ability to choose, find humor, seek meaning, and many other elements, serves each athlete on their path– or track. My friend, cultivate this element! It is the beginning and end– and the trickiest.
Let’s Talk Hardware, First.
Imagine the blueprint of Lauda’s Ferrari. There will be specific parts, made of specific materials, and in specific places. We could downgrade a part, but it would be at our own risk. We could have everything in order, but what if the rubber quality of the tires was lacking? The performance of the whole car would suffer. We want sufficiency and quality overall.
I am going to take a slight bend for a moment to describe and borrow an analogy from Dr. Roger J. Williams. He used a football team in his book “Nutrition Against Disease,” but I want to use a Ferrari, of course. Imagine having a Herculean, possibly overcompensating, V8 engine, but leaving out the supporting cast. Suppose the aerodynamics aren’t so dynamic, the chassis ain’t worth a damn, and the tires might as well be made of “play-doh.” We’re not going to get much out of that engine. But this mentality has caused a conventional misunderstanding among many people, because medical drugs can be tested this way. A “V8 engine” of a drug can be dropped in on any “chassis,” and be effectively tested. It is assumed we can test a single nutrient like a drug, but this is not in line with nature. Nature uses a “shotgun” approach, and a uniform adequacy is first necessary to test the performance of any one part. Additionally, we might have to upgrade the other parts to support an engine with more power, to relate.
I’d like to note, I encourage and suggest kindly, for anyone who wishes to cultivate a profound, rigorous understanding of nutrition, to read, “Nutrition Against Disease,” and “The Wonderful World Within You,” by Dr. Roger Williams. It should improve– and, at least, temper, anyone’s common nutritional and health knowledge. I admire Dr. Williams’ professionalism, as well. He wrote in a classy, encouraging, dignified way.
We Do Our Best with Our Blueprint
Building a Ferrari is convenient compared to formulating a plan to constitute a person properly. Ferrari has a blueprint, we don’t. We are fortunate to have the vast knowledge that allows us to make safe, educated decisions about how we constitute our body– but theoretically, we can always improve nutrition. This is actually a sophisticated and involved research project that Dr. Williams hoped would be taken to task by scientists in a comprehensive way. What would be the result of this work? If we waved a “magic wand,” and asked for it now, it would give us personalized, biochemical assessment tools, thus allowing us to optimize every cell in the body with the growth and maintenance chemicals they need. Most importantly, it would be done according to that person’s exact blueprint, without guess work. Similar to the way Ferrari uses a blueprint to manufacture lightning on wheels. But don’t fret, because without such a sophisticated system, we can still constitute our bodies well with the materials it needs to be robust and ready to race. Vrrooomm!
The Initial Assessment
For a genuine, quality strength and conditioning program, an assessment needs to take place. Like conditioning coach extraordinaire Paul Chek says, “If you’re not assessing, then you’re guessing.” The initial assessment should cover the “soil of self.” Diet. Sleep. Stress levels. Activity. Injuries past and present, and many other factors. This allows a coach to know what the athlete has been constituted of. If the athlete has been smoking, eating donuts, and sitting on the couch, then holding off hard “driving” would be wise. Again, it’d be like testing an engine’s power on a bad chassis, along with tires on their “last leg.” This is similar to what a pit crew would do. Check the car thoroughly. Any leaks? Oil, good? Fuel? Every nut, bolt, and screw in the right place and secure? Foundational health can be looked at on four levels: “piss-poor,” “alright,” “now we’re cooking,” and “butt-kicking-mode.” Kidding. Let’s use poor, fair, good, and superior. An athlete looking to “race,” to start pushing his speed around the track, needs to be at least “good.” It will only super-charge his engine if he (or she) can work his diet, sleep, and the complete recovery package to the best of his ability. I recommend health and balance before an athlete begins to lean into the realms of performance training. Drawing from Nassim Taleb’s “Antifragile,” being physically robust is a prerequisite to experiencing accelerating benefit from physical stress, which he calls “antifragility.”
How’s the handling? Assess movement safely.
At this point, we would have an athlete who is robust and readying for physical challenge and performance. We can take his system for a spin– but carefully. Why? A Ferrari could have all the physical acumen going for it: excessively-bright red paint, a ridiculously noisy and powerful engine, and one determined Austrian dude. But we have to know how this car handles. What if it tail whips around corners when being driven at or near its limit? The physicality is there, but it doesn’t move well. It illustrates what’s going on for an athlete who is sprinting with eccentric discrepancies in coordination or mobility between the right and left sides of their body, for example. Or maybe his (or her, too) lower abdomen isn’t firing and stabilizing while his hips are in flexion? This can cause unnecessary shearing forces in his lumbar spine. Knowing how the musculoskeletal system is functioning can save a lot of headaches and trips to orthopedic surgeons and chiropractors.
The spirit of this analogy is very helpful, but I don’t test the quality of an athlete’s movement by having them do an “all-out” sprint. Although the Ferrari needed to be ran at speed to assess its handling, great care must be taken when assessing an athlete’s movement. A movement and function assessment determines where the athlete:
- “handles” well (moves well),
- “handles” poorly (moves poorly),
- without “risking a crash” (moving forcefully and risking injury).
The entire conditioning program is beyond this article, but if the athlete needs to practice correcting poor movement, strength, and coordination, it is done safely in coordination and synergy with the conditioning regimen. Kapich?
Your Body Is More Important – and Probably More Advanced, Than a Ferrari
By creating a foundation of robust health, seamless movement, and strength, an athlete can ready themselves for serious “testing” and “racing.” When Niki’s car mishandled running at top speed, it lost him a ⅓ of a second. But it’s different for an athlete and their priceless being. Take an athlete that plays a sport that involves hard, frequent sprinting and cutting. Now suppose this athlete’s non-dominant left side is “outgunned” by their right side by 25-percent in terms of movement quality, balance, and strength. Every explosive bound their right side makes is solid. Forced along, the left side cannot support the force nearly as well. For the sake of a pleasant story, we’ll say the athlete has an epiphany, and works to improve and balance their movement in order to avoid injury.
Let’s back up for a moment. Take for example the semi-humorous example of a car merging on the highway in California. It pulls close to the broken white line– 20 miles per hour underspeed, of course. Occasionally, there’s a signal, but that’s wishful thinking on my part. I create space and am waiting for a car to merge, and waiting… and waiting. I finally decide, “OK, they’re not going to merge.” I start to accelerate and pull forward, again, at which point the car merges!
A faulty merge is like faulty movement and function. We can merge frantically and with hesitation, or we can become aware of our faulty style, and develop a seamless, smooth, and safe one. Before we pull out of our driveway, we’d have our mirrors adjusted properly. On the road, we’d develop better judgement of speed, space, and distance. If the driver is hesitant to diverge from their old style, they could practice just looking in their mirrors– which may feel very foreign, and make mental notes on whether or not they think it would be safe to switch lanes. Be safe, informed, and creative.
One More Example: Texting Drivers Are like Injuries Waiting to Happen
Drivers who text whilst driving. Yes, we’ve all seen, and maybe even done it. At worst, it can cause a bad accident, other times a driver will get a ticket, and at best, the driver is getting away with it for the time being. If driving and texting is like faulty movement, then a ticket is like a sprain or a strain, and an accident is like an anterior cruciate ligament tear or other major injury. Correcting the function would be like establishing a safe driving style.
Our driver would learn to:
- hear their ringtone,
- use their properly adjusted mirrors,
- pull over and conduct their business,
- and get back on the road– Aha!, with their recently-developed merging ability.
They would steer clear– pun intended, of any tickets, accidents, and– at least, bad habits.
The Mind of a Champion
I want to come full circle, and discuss the mentality of an athlete. Our mind is the driver in the seat of the “racecar” of our body. Niki Lauda’s courage, will, and intelligence propelled him through a fantastic career. His career was broken up into two parts by a brief retirement in 1980 and 1981. The first part, was depicted brilliantly by director Ron Howard in the movie, “Rush.” The second part of his career was equally brilliant. In the third year of his comeback, Lauda re-established his world-championship-challenging form. The 1984 World Championship had come down to the wire in the last race of the season in Estoril, Portugal. Lauda would have to place at least second to win his third championship.
This would prove far more challenging than it had been in the past. Lauda was to begin the race from 9th on the grid, and his championship-contending teammate, Alain Prost, was on pole position. Earning an optimal grid position had been a struggle for Lauda all season. Uncomfortable with the McLaren’s Porsche Turbo engine, Lauda failed to reel in his teammate Prost during qualifying most of the season. He adapted, and decided that he would adjust his strategy by focusing on the races. It worked. Lauda battled back from 9th on the grid, passed the great Ayrton Senna late in the race for 2nd place, and won the championship by the lowest margin ever– half a point. Although he could not outqualify Prost, reflecting years later, Lauda said that he won with his experience. I’ll add intelligent planning and guts to that equation!
Concluding My Philosophical Treatment of Assessment and Training
Niki Lauda and Formula 1 helped me ground my strength and conditioning philosophy.
- First, assess the person,
- then assess their movement,
- next build a foundation,
- and then, build ever higher levels of performance.
I wish every person a healthy, joyful life, and safe and productive training! Best wishes! I’m happy to hear your comments and questions.
- “Rush To Glory,” by Tom Rubython, Lyons Press 2013, P.146: Rubython describes Lauda’s 6:58.6 minute lap around the Nurburgring. The record remains as of a few years ago. “Rush To Glory,” is a solid, worthwhile read.
- “Legends of F1: Niki Lauda,” Sky Sports, television program: Decades later, Lauda tells his story and challenges as Ferrari in an interview for Sky Sports.
Rubython, P.8: Lauda describes his struggles at March.
- “Man’s Search For Meaning,” by Dr. Viktor Frankl is a must read if you’re a human being.
- “Nutrition Against Disease,” by Dr. Roger J. Williams, 1971. The entire book is a gem. Chapter 15, “New Developments in Basic Medicine,” explores this topic specifically.
- “Antifragile,” by Nassim Taleb, Random House Paperback, 2012.
- “Niki Lauda: Why I Had To Race Again,” Formula 1 YouTube Channel, Interview with Peter Windsor: Lauda describes his comeback to Peter Windsor in an interview for the official Formula 1 organization YouTube video channel.