The America’s Cup Workout

This month in New Zealand, the crew of Oracle/BMW will try to win the America’s Cup with the help of some unorthodox conditioning: grunting up and over sand dunes, terra firma’s closest approximation of a yacht rolling at sea.

Marty Jerome

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At full speed, the carbon-fiber mainsail on the Oracle/BMW single-hull racing boat scoops some 50 tons of force from the sky, all of which is corralled by a handful of lines, gears, and, most important, human muscle. On every tack, the “grinders”—the men who manually crank in the lines that control the sail—have up to 30 seconds to move that sail from side. Now toss in a deck that constantly pitches and yaws at steep angles of up to 45 degrees. If the roiling seas don’t make you puke, then the exertion required at this level of competition most definitely will.

To prepare his crew for these variable loads, Stu Harrison, Oracle/BMW’s chief trainer, has augmented his grinders’ workouts with proprioception training in the gym and more curiously, on the sand dunes near Ventura, California, just a few minutes down the road from the boat’s winter ocean training facility in Ventura Harbor. Proprioception refers to your body’s joints and their position under a changing load. Proprioception exercises strengthen the muscles around those joints by constantly changing your center of gravity. These are the same muscles that allow you to hold an edge on a double-black-diamond ski run, paddle your way out of a nasty hole, and maintain the strength to overcome a crux move on a wall. But why sand dunes? Because of sand’s naturally unstable state, each step brings into play muscles that you usually don’t fire up when trotting over a sidewalk, which means that running through sand requires 10 times more energy than running over a hard surface. Harrison learned firsthand the benefits of sand training in Scotland as a commando in the British Royal Marines. “We had to run eight miles to Lucas Bay in the sand, carrying logs or each other,” he says. As Harrison finished each workout, his cardiovascular endurance and strength had noticeably increased, but perhaps more important, his newfound stability allowed him to excel even while hauling 120 pounds of equipment. He saw a natural connection between his fitness requirements as a marine and the physical tasks onboard a yacht where a crew has less than a minute to haul in and stow a spinnaker.

While we can’t get you a slot on an America’s Cup-class yacht, we can give you their workout. Once a week supplement your regular routine and take a shot at the high-intensity cardio program developed by Harrison below, and see if you’ve got what it takes to be part of the crew.

The America’s Cup Workout


Like circuit training, sand training keeps a workout interesting and builds core strength. No sand dunes handy? Any beach or sandy riverbank will do. Use it once a week as a diversion from your usual cardio workouts. Start by sprinting through each exercise at 20 to 30 second intervals. Rest for 60 seconds before moving to the next. Start the regimen by repeating the circuit for 20 minutes, working up to 40 minutes max.

1) Crab Walk

Squat slightly, then shuffle sideways up a hill and back down again with your torso as near to a 90-degree angle from the slope as you can manage. If your glutes and abs burn, you’re doing it properly.

2) Resistance Sprints

Backpedal up a hill, pulling a partner with a short rope in a tug-of-war (he should be offering some resistance). On the way back down, you should be facing downhill, still engaged in a tug-of-war with your partner. Next, push your partner up the hill with your hands on the back of his waist. Switch roles with your partner and repeat.

3) Reflex Training

Sprint up a 30-to-50-foot hill (the steeper the better), or run for 100 feet on a flat beach, drop for 10 push-ups, then sprint back down and drop for 10 more. Repeat until your arms reach muscle failure.

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