Strength is not an issue for Danica Patrick
Bob Alejo, a former strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland A's, was working in the same capacity at UC Santa Barbara and for the U.S. Olympic team in 2005, when Paul Hospenthal invited his old acquaintance for drinks at W New York in Times Square.
Hospenthal, a former sports therapist who had also worked with the A's, was dating a race car driver and was coming to the conclusion that a major league strength and conditioning program might be the next logical component in what was becoming a meticulous and sweeping plan for the driver's career advancement. Alejo had never worked with a driver but was intrigued. They exchanged some ideas. They finished their drinks and went on their way.
Four years passed before Hospenthal again contacted Alejo, who by then had rejoined the Athletics. It was time, Hospenthal said, to move on their previous discussion. It was at that point that Alejo was reminded who his newest, suddenly most high-profile client would be.
"So that woman happened to be Danica Patrick," laughed Alejo, now the assistant athletic director/strength and conditioning coach at North Carolina State, and Patrick's personal trainer since 2010. "We sat down and Paul said, 'I think it's time we do this, because she's to the point where everything has to start clicking now. She's at that level where we have to have everything right.'"
Patrick hired Alejo as she began to transition from IndyCar to NASCAR, but not necessarily because of the heavier, more brutish stock cars she would have to wrangle, Alejo said. He said her workout routine, an all-encompassing regimen that emphasized increasing strength, likely would not have varied if she had remained in open-wheel racing.
"I think it was a concerted idea between all of us that, to whatever degree, athletes are elite in every way -- in thought, act, fitness, the whole thing -- and we needed to do this," Alejo said.
Most successful modern race car drivers belie -- and chafe at -- the notion that they are not well conditioned, nor athletes. While degrees of commitment and success vary, strength and fitness routines have become elemental in drivers' preparation, said five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
"There's certainly huge gains during the race, post-race and during the season from the training," he said. "Being held accountable, week in and week out, helps you make a lot of choices during the week that lead to a better quality of life and, in the end, not only helps you physically, but mentally."
Alejo devised a yearlong workout program with a monthlong "transitional period" in December, designed to build strength and increase endurance throughout the racing season. Though many drivers' routines are adjusted to avoid late-season fatigue, Patrick enters her last Sprint Cup race of the season and next-to-last Nationwide Series event this weekend at Phoenix using the same regimen as in January.
Alejo emails Patrick five-week blocks of routines that she executes herself, informing him of necessary changes prompted by racing or health concerns. Though he rarely is able to supervise her routines, Alejo said Patrick's savvy regarding her fitness and nutritional needs alleviates most potential problems.
"I have access to her calendar, and we speak often either through text message or phone call or email,'' Alejo said. "We're in constant communication about where she is, not only in the year, but week to week, and let's look at last year and what are we doing this year.
"This year's conversation was, 'I'm doubling [racing twice on the same weekend] a few times this year. How do we attack that?' Of course, last year was, 'I'm transitioning from open-wheel to NASCAR, how do you attack that?'
"We pretty much go with a five-week schedule, which we go four weeks pretty hard, and then we have what we call an unloading week where we go a little bit lighter, where it's not complete rest, it's an active sort of rest."
Patrick's regimen is a total-body approach, four days a week in the offseason and three in-season, Alejo said, with one day a week designated for lower-torso work. Patrick is also an avid runner. Workouts may be adjusted to any physical discomfort she feels after time in the race car or postponed if they conflict with a race or test.
"The most important thing is performing in the car," Patrick said, "so if I ever feel like my lifting program interferes with my strength and my endurance inside of the car, then I don't do it, because the only thing I'm weight-training for is the car."
Though Patrick's regimen is "nothing Star Wars-y," Alejo said, "I think we do things that are different than most." He adds that Patrick is loath to allow much of it to be revealed.
"She said, 'Hey, make sure you don't give him too much,'" Alejo said.
Alejo currently trains only two other professional athletes: 2008 Olympic gold-medal-winning beach volleyball tandem Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers. He didn't immerse himself in the physiology of racing to prepare for working with Patrick. Instead, he said, he listened. And if he needed an interpretation, Hospenthal's presence -- he met Patrick while helping her treat a yoga injury -- was invaluable, Alejo said.
"There was no homework. My research project was talking to her," Alejo said.
Benefiting from her own interests and having a husband in the field, Patrick came to the program with an already high level of fitness -- evidenced in part by her pre-Alejo bear-trap handshake -- expediting her transformation into an athlete, he said, who has "remarkable" strength.
"I would say, pound for pound, she has to be one of the strongest athletes," he said. "I wouldn't even put female on it."
Patrick's size, at 5-feetish and 103 pounds, has never been a limiting factor in either her regimen or her ambition, Alejo said.
"I will say this: We have not talked about her size one time ever in any conversation at any time, so I think that says a few things," he said. "One, size isn't an issue. But, two, and I think this is the biggest thing and this is how we speak to each other, is she's one of the best race car drivers in the world, and that's it. It's not man, woman, small, big. It's that, and it's a results-oriented business at that level, so ... she's not lacking in strength.
"When you spend time talking to her, you hear strength in her voice. You hear direction in her voice, and you know what she's talking about and those things are ... it's not as if she woke up two, three years ago and said, 'Wow, I'm short and I only weigh 100 pounds.' That's not how she is at all. It's, 'Bob, how can you make me strong enough to make me the best race car driver in the world?'"