By Daniel Gwartney, M.D.
Residents of Columbia, MO are familiar with the sight of a youngish-looking man riding past on his bike. Students and staff at the University of Missouri – Columbia might not take a second glance at the solitary figure running stadium steps at Faurot Field; even in the local fitness center, he is given the same friendly greeting as other members and guests. There is nothing remarkable about seeing Carl Edwards hustling about in this midwestern college town that has just surpassed 100,000 in population. It’s not because Columbia’s townsfolk are jaded, à la residents of Beverly Hills, CA or South Beach, FL; it’s because it is so common to see Carl moving about with purpose in his hometown.
As American as apple pie, with the mischievous grin of a schoolboy, Carl Edwards is one of the top stars on the NASCAR circuit— the second most watched sport to football. A perennial presence in “The Chase” in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, Carl’s presence on the track and off has electrified the sport. The conclusion of the 2011 Sprint Cup Series (2011 Ford 400) thrilled his fans as he led much of the race, but could not get past Tony Stewart in the final laps, finishing second in the race and the series. Hopefully, the title will not elude him again as he has chosen to focus solely on the Sprint Cup Series this season.
In addition to being famed as a racecar driver, Carl has also achieved iconic status as a fitness role model. Gracing the cover of magazines shirtless or in sleeveless tops, it is evident that staying in shape is integral to Carl personally and professionally. Less than two weeks before the 2012 Sprint Cup opener, the Daytona 500, Carl sat down to discuss his approach to fitness, and its importance to him.
DG: The stories that circulate throughout Columbia are of a teenaged boy riding his bike, skate boarding, etc. Were you an athlete or concerned with fitness in high school?
CE: I wasn’t an athlete in high school. I would see people working out and chuckle; it seemed a waste of time. I was completely focused on racing at that age. I would say the turning point came early in my racing career when I had more energy and time than money. I watched a story about [NASCAR driver] Mark Martin and was impressed with how fit he was, and he said it helped him as a driver. I decided then that I was going to be as physically fit as I could be, to be the best driver I could be. I hadn’t met Mark Martin at that point, but he still competes today and remains a role model to me. If I can be in the shape he is when I reach his age, I would be very happy. [Note: At 53, Martin raced against Edwards in the 2012 Daytona 500.]
I started off using a barbell in my Dad’s basement, getting information from the magazines. I didn’t really know much about nutrition at that point. I thought all chicken was the same; I thought fried chicken was healthy.
DG: How did you progress from that point?
CE: I enrolled at the University of Missouri (Columbia), and went into the student rec center there. That was intimidating. Every guy there had at least one 45-pound plate on each side of the bar, so I put that on. The first time there, I couldn’t even lift it once. I had to take those off and put on a 25-pound plate instead, and I could still only get 4 or 5 reps. I stayed with it though, getting into the weight room every day at 7:00 a.m. I eventually gained about 20 pounds and have benched as much as 325. After a couple of years, my racing career reached the point where I had to stop attending MU.
DG: Is that still your routine, mostly weight training?
CE: Well, I lifted to be a better driver, but most people don’t realize how grueling [NASCAR] driving is— you are focused 100 percent of the time for several hours, sitting in heat conditions that you can’t imagine. After a race, or really, after a couple races and time trials, I am pretty beat. I realized that racing is not about strength— it is part of it, but it is a person’s conditioning that makes the difference.
There are always going to be bigger guys in the gym, or better runners. I just focus on being the best I can be, constantly trying to improve. By not worrying about outdoing other people, I avoid burnout. I don’t have to do what someone else is doing; I do what feels right for me. Right now, I am using kettlebells, doing some TRX, focusing more on bodyweight and explosive movements. My training needs to support the demands of driving.
I really don’t want to discuss specifics, as the sport is pretty competitive. Many of the other drivers are very committed to physical fitness; Jimmy Johnson [driver of the #48 Lowe’s car in the Sprint Cup Series and named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 2009] is a world-class athlete.
I met with the people at Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, and have been working with them for six or seven years. [Note: CTS specializes in providing coaching and training for elite athletes in sports specific programs. Clients include a variety of champions in running, cycling and racing, headlined by Edwards and Lance Armstrong] My trainer, Dean Golich, has really focused me on building my cardio. I still meet with him every month or two, and he will travel with my team at times during the season.