AC35 to AC36: Same, same… but harder

Ben Williams, Head of Human Performance talks about the fitness level required for the America's Cup

By Ben Williams 

Ben Williams, Head of Human Performance

The America’s Cup is a unique sporting event; ever-changing and evolving both on and off the water. As the boats get more technical and faster, this evolution plays a significant role in the sailing sports science programme.

The 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda was a challenge for the performance team, the race boats were essentially powered by the humans onboard so the focus was on how sport science and technology would help the athletes optimise their physical output. The fitter they were, the faster they would fly. Now, the 36th America’s Cup in Auckland looks set to be an even bigger physical challenge.

Luke Parkinson and Joey Newton in Fortitude
© Dan Wilkinson

When you look at the Football World Cup in 2018 as an example, the French team that won could use their winning human performance program as a framework; a ‘formula’ that could be reused, safe in the knowledge that the next edition of the World Cup would take place in four years’ time; with 11 players, a standardised pitch size and no change in goal posts. Pun intended. 

In contrast, back in 2014 we used the research and anecdotal evidence from the 33rd America’s Cup in San Francisco as a foundation to develop the team’s human performance program for the next edition. However, the boats for AC34 and AC35 were different sizes, 72 foot compared to 50, and the AC35 was raced in much smaller catamarans with less crew on-board. It was like a cycling time-trial or rowing race; high intensity and sustained. Essentially, it was a completely different sport physiologically other than the fact that hand ergometry was the delivery method.

Moving onto the AC36 once again, it was back to the drawing board. A new and bigger class of boat, an increased number of athletes to sail on it, longer races with a revised mechanical system that requires a different physiological quality. For the AC75, we will see huge increased in power demands. Bigger appendages, more advanced technology = more raw power at peak levels required. Think of it more like a rugby match, the crew will be constantly moving but with regular bouts of explosive anaerobic power. The change from AC35 to AC36 in simple terms means the athletes need to be bigger, stronger and capable of producing higher peak powers consistently for a 30-minute race.

Chris Brittle on the handles

So same same…. but harder!

The INEOS TEAM UK sailing squad is now complete, we have 17 athletes that we categorise into two groups. Firstly, let’s talk about the ‘afterguard’. These athletes are not required to deliver power to the race boat and they conduct a more technical role. As a weight restricted sport (we are working with an average crew weight of 90kg) we don’t want these athletes carrying any extra kilos that our grinders could be using to get bigger and stronger. The afterguard has to sacrifice bodyweight for the sailors producing the power. They will give up the delicious food groups that we all love and the treats after the hard sessions. Their training to an extent will be monotonous. Many hours will be spent crunching calories on the bike or cardio vascular equipment without enjoyment of a hearty meal afterwards.

Iain Jensen, ITUK sailor and member of the 'afterguard’
© Chris Auld

Then we move on to the ‘power units’, the ‘human engines’, the grinders. Although these athletes will have a second role during sailing such as bowman or trimmer, the reality is that they will be powering everything on the boat above the waterline – essentially trimming the giant sails which are power hungry. Due to the determinants of the role their training program looks very different to the afterguard. A similar volume perhaps but much more bias to higher intensity bouts, peak power delivery and absolute strength which supports the power and also prevents injury at the working joints during explosive movements. They also get to eat, a LOT!

INEOS TEAM UK grinder Neil Hunter
© Dan Wilkinson

Although we carried over many learning points from our research of AC34 into AC35 and subsequently into the AC36, we have also had to change many elements of our delivery. Like any elite sport teams we are constantly challenging our technical model and pushing the boundaries of sports science in search of a performance enhancement within our specific sport.

An example of this has been identifying how much recovery is required for the athletes. In the last campaign there was much less peak power required and therefore less fatigue which takes longer to recover. A common observation would be that fitness training makes you fitter. In fact, overloading a training stimulus causes the body to start an adaptation process. Recovering from that overload is what harvests a training stimulus (adaptation) and gives us that feeling of being fitter. Or in elite sport, an increase in measured ability.

INEOS TEAM UK sailor Ben Cornish

Not only has our technical model changed to support the different requirements of the new Cup format, our recovery protocols within that model have also changed to allow greater recovery periods from these higher intensity stimuli.

First team ride for INEOS TEAM UK
© Chris Auld

A catalyst to our human performance strategy has been our partnership with INEOS, especially when it comes to recovery. A keen cyclist himself, Jim Ratcliffe recognised the need for the sailors to be the best athletes they can be and saw cycling as a key tool to help attain that goal.

Jim Ratcliffe & Ben Ainslie lead the INEOS TEAM UK peloton
© Chris Auld

Our whole squad have been issued top of the range Specialised road bikes with disc breaks to increase safety. Cycling provides a non-impact and safe recovery which brings the whole sailing team together; the afterguard gets the long rides - burning the calories - and the grinders get essential non-impact active recovery and a break in monotony from using their arms for what most would see as a working week in hours.

The only difference? The grinders get to eat cake at the coffee stop!

All smiles for Neil Hunter as he gets cake!
© Chris Auld