Jeff Richter is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Level 2 Certified Coach with USA Weightlifting. Since receiving his bachelor’s degree in fitness and health promotion from the Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Department at Samford University in 2010, he has been at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis for the last nine years. Richter gained experience from coaching athletes from middle school to the professional levels of multiple team sports, and is currently the Strength and Conditioning Coach for Motorsports at SVSP for eight pit crews and three drivers in the NTT IndyCar series.
Freelap USA: Coming from other sports and now working with motorsports, what do you think you would do differently with team sports and Olympic sports based on what you know from racing now? While not everything will apply to soccer or basketball, for example, I am sure some of your experiences over the last few years have made you a better coach.
Jeff Richter: When I first started working with IndyCar pit crews and drivers full-time in 2015, I had some previous experience from working with a pit crew in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but I was still brand-new to the sport in many ways. From the culture to the training needs, I really started with such a limited knowledge base that I had to make sure from the start that I was intentional and thorough in formulating an accurate programming strategy. There was really only one way to do this: I had to humble myself and do two things I didn’t do much of when I worked with other team sports—ask good questions and listen.
The truth is, I will never know what it’s like to drive a race car with no power steering at 230 mph into Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nor will I ever change a tire in an actual race. For the first time in my coaching career, I had not experienced what my athletes experience. I was a three-sport athlete in high school and previously had played every sport imaginable, so when I trained an NFL athlete, I at least had some context of what actually happens on the football field.
In 2015, I found value for the first time in assuming nothing and sitting down with my athletes and hearing them talk.
- What do you feel in the race car when “x” is happening?
- How does the change from the old aero kit to the new package affect the physical demands of the car?
- Show me the technique you use to change a tire!
- What areas do you feel weak in during or after a pit stop?
These are just a few examples of questions that not only provided me with insight into programming needs but—unknowingly at the time—brought “buy-in” from my athletes as they felt heard and, perhaps even deeper, respected. Everyone has heard the adage: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This became true right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t use fancy coaching jargon to impress them. I had to show up to their race shops, spend time in their garages, and get to know them one-on-one to build relational equity. Then, and only then, would they respect me when I said, “We are doing x because I feel this best prepares you for y.”
So, if I could go back to my coaching career pre-motorsports, I wouldn’t assume that I knew everything about the athletes and sports I was training. I would ask more questions. I would explore the nuances of different positions better. I would try to go inside the heads of my athletes to really find out what made them click.If I could go back to my coaching career pre-motorsports, I wouldn’t assume that I knew everything about the athletes and sports I was training. I would ask more questions. Click To Tweet
I have discovered my athletes are human and humans are psychosocial with complexities. If I want to get the most out of them on the training floor, I need to know them, what motivates them, and how they individually perceive what they need to perform better. That’s when coaching can happen.
Freelap USA: Pit crews and drivers are very polarized as both need speed and power, but operating a car during a long race requires extreme aerobic capacity. How do you test drivers for conditioning and how do you build their “aerobic engine”?
Jeff Richter: You are absolutely correct that IndyCar pit crew athletes represent the ultimate “power athlete,” as they have to change four tires, refuel an 18.5-gallon tank, and jack a car up and down in well under 10 seconds. Not to be outdone, drivers most definitely need to be powerful as well—especially in IndyCar—as they must have the ability to work a steering wheel in various high-g corners with no power steering.
With races lasting multiple hours and a car chassis that is sometimes well over 120 degrees, drivers must also possess the ability to maintain their strength and power in a race environment where poor aerobic fitness can lead to costly errors.
My approach for improving their aerobic engine starts with periodically assessing their 2000-meter time trial on the Concept 2 Rower at certain checkpoints in the five-month off-season and during the seven-month racing calendar. Aside from the obvious fact that drivers are some of the only athletes in the world who are seated 100% of the time, I find the row erg to be immensely valuable for the driver as it gives me information about the question: “How well can they maintain power with their entire body in sport-conscious positions and meet aerobic demands?”
Traditional forms of cardio fall short of the row erg in terms of practical application for the driver. The driver’s aerobic demands simultaneously occur with demanding strength and power situations. Whether it be a heavy braking zone or high-g corners, they need to be aerobically tested in strength-endurance/power-endurance situations to ensure aerobic fitness will best translate to the physical demands of the car.
Ultimately, a driver must improve their ability to row for more power while sustaining that higher power to see their 2k TT improve. For example, one of my drivers started the previous off-season with a 7:02.1 2k TT, which came out to an average pace of 1:45.5/500m (298.1 watts). By the end of the off-season, he was at a 6:47.3 2k TT for an average pace of 1:41.8/500m (331.8 watts). I attribute the 11.3% increase in average watt output to staying dedicated to an ever-changing balance between the following programming principles:
- Seek to increase maximum force output.
- Convert greater force potential to greater peak power and rate of force development.
- Program progressively greater row volumes while improving sustained power (slightly slower than 2k pace).
- Program lower rowing volumes while improving sustained power (much faster than 2k pace).
As I obtain heart rate information and power output (the PM5 performance monitor is extremely helpful) at various points of the 2k test, I can then get a better understanding of how the athlete is arriving at a given 2k time. As a result, the nuances of their 2k help me prioritize the amount of training time we will spend moving forward on each of the four principles listed above.
Questions I consider after a 2k TT:
- Where were heart rate readings in relation to power output? Is there any “apples to apples” comparison between intensity and heart rate from previous tests?
- At what average watt output did heart rate eclipse projected lactate threshold? What happened after that?
- Was there a specific distance where power output started significantly decreasing?
- As power started significantly decreasing, what happened to heart rate?
- As power increased at any point of the row, what happened to heart rate?
- Did the athlete feel significant fatigue in the legs or upper body first? Where in the legs or upper body specifically?
- At what point did the athlete lose technical proficiency in the rowing motion?
- Was resting HR “off” from a normal value?
- Was the athlete’s weight “off” from a normal value?
I then consider these questions when developing the focus of the next training block:
- Is the athlete increasing maximum force output (force plates)? By how much?
- Does my testing show the athlete transferring greater maximum force to greater power in the weight room (VBT)?
- Is the greater power capability being applied to the row erg (500m TT)?
- Am I taking advantage of maximizing aerobic development by having the athlete improve at greater distances (5k TT)?
When a new training block direction is chosen and I strategize the primary, secondary, and tertiary goals, the success of the training block will often be measured in the result of the next row erg 2k TT. Again, my big question is, “How well can they maintain power with their entire body in sport-conscious positions and meet aerobic demands?”
Freelap USA: Isometric testing is very effective for collecting the maximal force qualities of an athlete. Can you explain how you use isometric testing in more detail—especially how you create strength programs after assessments?
Jeff Richter: Since obtaining access to force plates at our gym, I have the ability to test isometric strength with my athletes. I can say unequivocally that the ability to test isometric strength has had a profound effect on my coaching ability due to the objective and safe nature of the testing protocols.The ability to test isometric strength with force plates has had a profound effect on my coaching ability due to the objective and safe nature of the testing protocols, says @RichterJeff. Click To Tweet
For my drivers, I use the isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP) with the trap bar for a lower body strength testing protocol. First and foremost, a strength and conditioning coach must weigh the risk-reward ratio of a testing protocol as their first obligation to the athlete. This means that you may have to give up a “good” testing option for what is “best,” and this is the lens through which I view the trap bar IMTP compared to, say, a traditional 1RM trap bar deadlift.
The trap bar IMTP on force plates can be a very accurate and meaningful way to test lower body strength for an IndyCar driver, as I get to choose the knee and hip angles that best transfer to the car where the driver is seated. Since the hip angle never changes in the car and the knee angle only changes slightly, I can obtain an isometric strength measurement that is useful. The improvement of this means a driver has a greater capacity to handle the heavy braking zones. Additionally, as a driver receives g-forces throughout their body during high-g sections, there is a need for robust isometric strength to “brace” and maintain the aggressive, yet delicate, skill set of working the pedals and wheel to achieve the fastest lap time.
Once I have obtained a value of force production from the IMTP, I typically work through a comprehensive triphasic approach of eccentric-, isometric-, and concentric-focused blocks to further improve the IMTP. In other words, I believe at this moment in time that a well-rounded and holistic triphasic approach is the ticket to an improved IMTP value as long as you include the bar/exercise being tested in the training program. Full AND partial range of motion movements with trap bar deadlifts, squats, RDLs, glute-ham work, and split squats all deserve to be included in a lower body strength program for a driver.
Perhaps the greatest decision I make from the IMTP test is what training consequences need to take place when time to peak force is lagging and not improving at an acceptable rate. If time to peak force is a concern, I often have to make subtle changes to the triphasic emphasis and spend more time on rate of force development through Olympic lifting and plyometrics. I use VBT (Tendo units) as my checks and balances throughout the training block to ensure rate of force development improves and is not just a guess.
IndyCar driver training is more than just reflexes/hand-eye coordination expressed in catching balls or hitting reaction lights; it’s also about the ability to rapidly generate maximal force throughout your entire body in as short a time as possible. There is a distinct difference between the two, and I believe this is an area in motorsports training that falls woefully short in many cases.
It is common to see crazy hand-eye coordination drills or reaction drills that take place on unstable surfaces, which is quite ironic considering these athletes compete on the most stable of surfaces—an individually fitted seat. These circus tricks—often promoted for social media likes and kudos—tell me more about how elite the reaction/coordination already is in an athlete at the highest levels of racing than what was actually improved through training. Time to peak force production and reaction time are two different qualities and, unfortunately, the former is often neglected at the expense of the latter. I believe a great coach is one who understands training value through the lens of “How vital is this for the success of my athlete in their sport and what is the potential for improvement?”Time to peak force production and reaction time are two different qualities and, unfortunately, the former is often neglected at the expense of the latter, says @RichterJeff. Click To Tweet
We see this with football, soccer, and field sport athletes when there is a video of an athlete performing a drill in the agility ladder with extreme quickness. Is this athlete merely showcasing a feat in an existing skill set or were they made that quick through training? We must be careful to differentiate between the two, as our failure to do so can result in wasted training time, and training time is not unlimited.
Freelap USA: Neck training is important when the forces are so demanding during turns. Please share a simple way to train athletes systematically when you don’t have a load cell or measuring device. Lots of high school athletes need to get their necks stronger but don’t have access to a lot of technology or machines. Maybe cover how you use the Iron Neck?
Jeff Richter: With IndyCar drivers dealing with hundreds of episodes of g-forces up to 4-5 g’s at some tracks, neck strength is a critical piece of our training systems.
Of particular interest for me is challenging the driver to resist movement through isometric strength with all the “anti’s”—anti-side bend, anti-flexion, and anti-extension—in order to meet all the demands a circuit can bring from decelerating the race car, accelerating the race car, and turning the race car. “Yielding” isometric neck training has great value and is a priority for an IndyCar driver, especially when combined with a visual memory recall component and/or isometric upper or lower body drill.
The Iron Neck has been an outstanding tool for me because even though I do not have load cells, I can use the data from its band tensions to understand how precise my loading is on the driver’s neck. Precise numbers ensure precise adaptations when it comes to neck training. Iron Neck sells three different bands that have tensions from 0-25 pounds, 0-35 pounds, and 0-50 pounds, depending on how many feet of stretch takes place in the band (they provide this chart). Fortunately for me, our flooring is in 2-foot by 2-foot squares, so I can use that as a guide to determine precise loading schemes.Even though I don’t have load cells, the Iron Neck allows me to use the data from its band tensions to understand how precise my loading is on the driver’s neck, says @RichterJeff. Click To Tweet
Even though nothing can truly replicate being in the race car, I can find out how many g-forces a driver will have to brace against for a particular circuit and use simple math to recreate the specific loads they will feel. Like anything in the weight room, elementary principles of progressive overload apply, and you generally want to put the driver in a situation where they have to brace against progressively more load for progressively more time, with the “win” being sustained bracing ability against race-specific g-forces.
The keen high school strength coach can research what kind of loading their athletes will have to absorb via their necks and train in an intentional way that progressively loads their athletes to translate to the demands of the sport. Like any other exercise, it is a disservice to our athletes to have them perform an exercise—even if performed flawlessly—if we do not control the load. The neck is arguably more vulnerable to a catastrophic injury than other areas of the body in the event we have our athlete perform neck training without knowing exactly how much load is being supplied.
Freelap USA: A pit crew is often seen as the best example of teamwork, as they have to work together to be perfect. How have you tapped into the culture and nuances of the sport to take advantage of its unique qualities? How are you better because of your experiences with training drivers?
Jeff Richter: You are exactly right: Pit crews have an extraordinary sense of pride and teamwork in how they go about their business. Many people don’t know that the IndyCar pit crew member differs from other motorsport pit crew members because they also act as a full-time mechanic on their race car and specialize in various skill sets such as dampers and gearboxes.
Because of that, these guys spend hours upon hours together working on the race car and then also have to practice and perfect pit stops on top of their time with me in the gym. Training in the gym is an opportunity for them to get out of their normal routine at the shop and build camaraderie and accountability through the process of physical preparation. Just one of six over-the-wall guys being “off” during a stop has significant implications for the team, as a longer pit stop can cause the car to lose precious track position. The margin for error in IndyCar is extremely small because it’s the norm for races to be decided by a few seconds, and sometimes even tenths of seconds. This means that guys are called out when they don’t give their best in the gym.
One of the ways I try to foster a team-building atmosphere is by creating competition when appropriate. For example, our power testing staple of the laser-timed 20-yard sled push has generated some of our loudest moments in the gym. Everyone wants to win, yet everyone wants their teammate to get better too. PRs are celebrated and backs are slapped. “Your” win is “my” win and “my” win is “your” win, so let’s make sure we give each other a tough target to push for!
I am better from working with drivers because they are extremely hungry for knowledge and information and need to know why they are doing what you have for them. For that reason, I am better at presenting our training strategy in pragmatic and concise terms.
Drivers crave information because that is their world in the race car every weekend, where they live in the “tenths of a second.” The margin for error and the difference between winning and losing is so small that they are used to trying to find and understand a process to make them 1% better than their competition. Every race weekend, they work with their engineers to find tenths of a second. If a driver and engineer have a disagreement about a setup or strategy, the engineer better have a good reason as to why their opinion is superior.Race car drivers appreciate the “why” more than any other athlete I’ve worked with. I try to build a foundation of trust through logical explanations that are very pragmatic. Click To Tweet
Since they live in this world, they appreciate the “why” more than any other athlete I have worked with. I try to build a foundation of trust through logical explanations that are very pragmatic. “We are doing x because I think this will accomplish y and here is where that fits into our short-term and long-term goals.” Any fluff in a program that is indefensible is thrown out. There must be a reason for everything we do.
When they trust and believe in you, they will give you their all, and that has resulted in some of the best friendships I have formed with athletes in my coaching career.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF