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Triathlon offers ideal cross-training for the five-time NASCAR champion.
Even when he’s off the track and away from his 3,400-pound racecar, Jimmie Johnson can’t stay away from racing. Chasing the finish line is simply in the man’s blood. The five-time NASCAR Cup Series champion famously grew up racing BMX and dirt bikes, and also swam competitively in high school.
Now, with all that experience in the water and on two wheels, he’s found his way into triathlon. “I’ve had an interest in it for a long time,” Johnson says about triathlon. “When I was young, I thought, ‘those athletes are amazing.’ To do all three [sports], I just had a huge respect for what was taking place.”
Training for triathlon pays off in his day job too. Nowadays in auto racing, all top drivers are also great athletes. Most follow intense cardio and weight training programs that shave off precious extra pounds, allow their bodies to withstand severe G forces for hours at a time, and keep their heart rate down and their attention focused for making split-second, sometimes life-or-death decisions at 190 mph.
For Johnson, running and cycling were already a part of his cardio routine, but it was turning into just that—a routine. He got back into swimming, which, he says, made him eager to finally do a triathlon.
“There’s nothing like the feeling I have now after beating myself up all week, then rest Saturday, stretch and then climb in the car on Sunday and race,” Johnson says.
In July, Johnson competed in his first race, the Charleston Sprint Triathlon in Charleston, S.C.—less than 12 hours after the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona, Fla., where he finished 36th after smashing into a wall at top speed.
Running on fumes—five hours of sleep—Johnson finished in 1:11:57, 27 seconds behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, who, along with several crewmen, raced with Johnson. While it was a respectable finish for a first-time triathlete, Johnson wasn’t totally satisfied with the result because he missed his goal by two minutes.
Still, he’s hooked. “I’ve found that there’s some kind of similar mental challenge in racing and in tri. When you’re however many miles in and your mind starts playing that game it does with you—that element is what I deal with in the racecar. That moment is something that I really enjoy, and I think that will keep me in the tri mind-set for a long time.”
On Sept. 1, Johnson began a 12-week Olympic-distance training program, and hopes to race his first Olympic in early December. The only problem? NASCAR’s annual awards banquet takes place Nov. 30—in Las Vegas—and Johnson’s hoping to have lots to celebrate there. Then again, if he can swim, bike and run just hours after crashing at 190 mph, a few celebratory beverages shouldn’t slow him down.
How Jimmie Stays on Track
Jimmie Johnson’s constant travel during racing season means he’s always training in different spots. But the NASCAR lifestyle presents some unique opportunities for triathlon training.
“Most of these racetracks are in rural areas, and there are some amazing country roads to ride on,” he says. “At night, the tracks open up the gates and let families who work within the sport walk, run or even cycle some of these racetracks.
“The hardest part is the swim—but I’ve had a ton of luck with YMCAs! Again, we race in these rural areas that were very far removed years ago, and now there are housing communities being built in the area, which means new YMCAs. So I’ve had a ton of beautiful, brand-new Y’s to swim in.”