In regards to the training world of motorcycle racing, Gareth Swanepoel rates right up there among the elites. Once a professional motocross racer himself, Swanepoel’s resume includes an impressive 5th place overall world ranking in the MX2 division, along with an 8th place overall in the MXGP class the following year.
Swanepoel now trains all the Star Racing/Monster Energy Yamaha riders, well, kind of. Upon signing with the team, riders are required to train with Swanepoel for the first year, and then can decide where they go from there. For 2019, Swanepoel trains Justin Cooper and Colt Nichols of Star, Aaron Plessinger and Malcolm Stewart.
The South African native opened up on the training requirements for supercross racers, and just how fit they really are.
When talking training, the physiological effects on the body can’t be understated. What happens to the body and heart rate when it’s put under such stress?
When you’re racing, it’s a maximum heart rate scenario – and that typically happens when the mass adrenalin dump enters the bloodstream, but also coupled with the fact that riders are doing an intense cardio workout, with the addition of wearing many kilograms worth of gear. You really have to factor in the boots, helmets and so on, which adds additional stress on the body in the form of weights.
In terms of heart rate, sometimes I can see say when our guys have a five heart beat drop, which doesn’t sound like much, but that can equate to a one second gain on a lap time. Ultimately, in order to get more comfortable maintaining this level of heart rate, there’s plenty of work that needs to be done off the bike, along with recovery after the riding in order to do it all again the next day. That type of effort can take a while to recover from.
Image: Justin Cooper takes advice of trainer Gareth Swanepoel.
A key component of this sport over say football for example is the sheer length that the athletes are at their max. Generally footballers will spike, and then relax, whereas supercross riders need to maintain the work rate for 20 – 30 straight minutes.
Exactly, and then also it’s not just that. In football if you’re really tired, and you make a mistake because your heart rate is so high, it’s a lot less costly a mistake as opposed to being on a supercross track. If you’re not able to sustain an effort, and you lose concentration because you’re tired and make a mistake, it could have a huge consequence. So when you start analyzing the sport, especially from my perspective, you realize how unique it is. When you factor in the physiological side, the heart rate, fitness, you’re also looking at how well that rider is performing lap time wise, how many mistakes did he make in the moto, and then overlap the two.
It does seem very complex. So basically if a heart rate changes, you can correlate that to a mistake?
Yes. So say a guys running 50 second lap times, and you overlap his heart rate data from that moto, quite often you’ll see after a certain point when maybe he starts running 51’s, you’ll see a slight drop in the heart rate, and it’s just because he couldn’t keep that intensity. So you say ok, he only dropped five beats, but his lap time increased by a full second, so you look at that and start to see where his weakest point is; does it come around lap 10? Lap 12? Other times you’ll see that his heart rate stays the same, but he still had a drop in lap time. And then you can be like, okay, his heart rates fine, but are his legs getting tired? Did he get arm pump? Or if it’s none of those things, is it just a focus issue?
So you need to take into account all the different systems that we’re working with. My end goal is to get a rider as fit as they can be, but also riding as fast they can whilst using the least amount of effort. That’s the goal.
It seems like the ideal scenario would be to have them go as fast as they can, but at their lowest heart rate as that promotes a more relaxed state while riding?
Yes, exactly. More relaxed, expending less energy and then the recovery after that is slightly less. So for them to go do it the next day, or if it’s a heat race and you need to recover from the heat race, those sorts of things mean the less stress on the body the better.
Image: The W Training facility in California is one place world class supercross athletes go to train.
How do you go about trying to minimize the difference you see on race day versus a practice day, as they’re both very different things?
Well, the sports evolved so much nowadays to where I’m fortunate enough to have a few guys ride together, and basically simulate a race environment. Every day they’re training together, pushing each other, and also the programs I’m setting up take this into the equation. I try set it up so that when they do go to the races, we shouldn’t see such a big difference, and also you can measure it purely on the experience of the rider. Come A1, they’re all nervous and there’s a lot of adrenalin going on which is a bit different, but the more experienced riders seem to handle it well and then you see a big difference come round two when round ones in the books. But supercross we tend to do a pretty good job of minimizing the difference between practice and racing.
This is a two pronged question, but supercross requires extreme mental strength, so I was wondering how you strengthen that muscle? And then also technique has become a big deal in recent times, is that something you work with the riders on too?
Basically I’m pretty much an all rounder. I understand how important all components are; it doesn’t matter how fit you are if you’re not fast enough, and vice versa. I do a lot of on the bike stuff, but really as needed. Some riders, all you need to say is that you’re not getting off the brakes enough in the turn, or you’re not soaking up that jump enough and stuff like that depending on the level of the rider. When you’re working with a rookie however, then you’re working on a lot of different technique things. So it really depends on the level.
With the mental side, if we pick up any weaknesses in the mental side, we might have our guys go see sports psychologists if need be. Luckily enough I’ve been fortunate that most riders I’ve worked with are pretty mentally strong – each of them have their own issues – but if it’s something that between the team and myself aren’t able to resolve, then we’ve had a couple of our guys go see sports psychologists and just help with that mental focus and confidence.
In terms of overall fitness, are supercross riders some of the fittest guys in the world?
Yeah! I’d definitely say so. I mean you can see when our guys go do mountain bike races for fun and they’re all extremely competitive. Some are really good runners, some are really good swimmers, and in general they’re really good at the cross training aspects too. I definitely think that for what they do, they’re definitely underrated with how much work they put into it. Our guys do plenty of miles on the bicycle weekly, plenty of rowing, running, swimming, and a lot of core and gym work – so yeah, I’d definitely rate them up there as some of the fittest athletes in the world.
Lastly, what constitutes a perfect rider for you in terms of technique? Do you look at guys like Ken Roczen and Christophe Pourcel, who make riding a motorcycle look completely effortless?
Yeah I think that hits the nail on the head. I think guys who ride effortlessly are using the torque of the engine really well – they’re not over revving – and flowing their corners in one movement. So yeah those two guys do come to mind, like a Pourcel, or Kenny – even like Herlings in the sand; just that effortless technique to go as fast as he goes is incredible. Yeah I think that’s definitely what we try to teach riders to ride like, but the cool thing about our sport is that you’ll have riders who ride like that, then you’ll have those riders who are all heart and battle it out until the very end
The Monster Energy AUS-X Open doubles as the fifth and final round of the Australian Supercross Championship, and Grand Final of the FIM Oceania Supercross Championship – the most prestigious Supercross Championship, outside of the USA.