Race Superstar Phil Hanson Shares His Formula for Staying Awake at Le Mans

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At age 22, Phil Hanson has quickly achieved plenty of victories as an endurance motorsports driver.

In last year’s condensed season, The British racing driver, who only began competing in 2016, became the first driver to win the FIA World Endurance Championship (LMP2), European Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24 Hours (LMP2) all in the same year.

This weekend, he hopes to add endurance racing’s most challenging event to his list of notable feats — a repeat victory at Le Mans — a race in which he and his team at United Autosports are the favorites heading into the 89th running of the grueling 24-hour marathon auto race.

But before getting behind the wheel, Hanson has to get both his mind and body prepared for the excruciating demands and miles each races puts on his young physique. To that, Hanson, going into his fifth Le Mans, is a dedicated weightroom warrior and also a mindfulness proponent — but has his workouts tailored not for aesthetics but for practical purposes, such as flexing his to the finish line in a manner necessary for an auto-endurance athlete.

“Having won last year, I understand exactly how to prepare, what worked and didn’t work, and I can just build on every year pretty much,” Hanson says. “A lot of the training that I do are things that challenge me the way I need to be challenged. It would be pointless for me to go through a tough biceps workout, although it would be good to have larger biceps. They won’t make me better racecar driver and it won’t make a difference for Le Mans.”

The reigning Le Mans champion shares how he prepares both mentally and physically for the biggest event in endurance racing.

WORKING OUT FOR LE MANS

Race car driver Phil Hanson performing a compound movement performing a single arm overhead dumbbell press exercise
Courtesy of Tom Kahler

When i get to the gym, I start by tying and untying my shoelaces while in a deep squat for about five minutes. This helps open my hips. I’ll do some more hip-opening exercises and some general mobility work. I’ll do some foam rolling if there’s something hurting from the last session but normally, I leave my foam rolling and stretching for the end. It’s normally dynamic stuff at the start.

Normally, I’ll do some sort of foundational movement in my workout, usually compound lift, like power cleans. We do power cleans every week. It could be a hang cleans, deadlifts, or squats, normally in the ranges of three to eight reps. If it’s three reps, it’s normally a pause rep and two quick reps. It normally changes from week to week.

I’ll follow that with some sort of conditioning mixed with the lifts, like cycling. An example workout would be a bentover row for five sets of 10 reps, followed by 500 meters of cycling, then a one-minute max pushup. It’s like a barbell, cycling sort of superset which is done at a higher intensity. This is with a two-minute rest, so the pushups are really tough.

Then it goes into a Metcon EMOM. A recent 16-minute EMOM was 500 meters on the bike, then 14 box jumps, 14 burpees, then rest on the fourth minute. That’s less intense than what I would do otherwise, but I don’t want to pick up any injuries before Le Mans. I kept looking at the box and thinking that if my foot slipped, I better not hit my shin off the corner — not before Le Mans.

ELIMINATING WHAT DOESN’T WORK

Race car driver Phil Hanson using a foam roller for recovery and stretching
Courtesy of Tom Kahler

For an endurance race you need lots of stamina. I found that the more I went down that route and tried doing more Zone 2 stuff, like sitting on a bike and continuing to pedal in a buildup to Le Mans. I felt like it wasn’t really helping much and I really couldn’t see the immediate effects, which makes it hard to stay motivated — even for the casual gymgoer.

In racing, your heart rate isn’t following the traditional map of endurance. Your heart rate is moving throughout the lap based on the rest periods you get on the straight where you’re physically not doing anything. Even though you’re going at speeds up to nearly 200 mph, physically, you’re not working. When you get to the braking zones and you have the G-forces, holding your breath through the high-speed corners, all that stuff elevates your heart rate.

When we moved [our training] toward Metcon EMOMs, like doing more high-intensity workouts, I could see the benefits of it such as how my recovery allows me to be able to perform for a longer period. I feel better, and feel like I can tackle longer periods of stress at that intensity.

FUELING FOR LE MANS

I’m burning lots of calories, so I need to replenish them by loading up on carbs. I’m at my fastest when I just eat salads and having nothing else in my body. If I eat too much pasta for lunch, or it’s not a light meal, I’m slow.

At Le Mans, you need to be able to recover and get back in the car for two to three hours at a time. If I just carb-load and wake up from a 40-minute sleep — if I can manage that — I’m going to feel slow.

Last year, as I was getting into the car before the last half of Le Mans, I had a craving for Yorkshire pudding. I ended up eating about four or five of them. It probably wasn’t a bad thing, looking back at it, because it’s just calories. It made me happy and put me in a good headspace. But normally, I have a pretty clean and healthy diet. I don’t normally eat much junk food at all.

This year is going to be slightly different. Each year I try different supplements to see what works. Kinetica is a UK-based supplement brand and they’re sponsoring me this year. I got all my BCAA, energy gels, and all these good things and I’ve been using them in preparation for Le Mans to make sure I’m comfortable with the supplements. I’m now excited get in the car for three hours, and try an energy gel that I know how it’s going to affect me.

SLEEP IF YOU CAN

Car racing superstar Phil Hanson preparing for a race
Courtesy of Tom Kahler

There’s no turning off the adrenaline when you’re leading a race.

[When I first started], I used to believe Le Mans was just a contest of will of seeing who can sleep less for 24 hours. I used to think that everyone could sleep there because if your body is shattered, you can sleep. But last year, when we were leading the race, I couldn’t sleep at all because the adrenaline kept me up. I would lay in bed, close my eyes to relax, have Headspace on and I tried everything. It’s not even the noise of the cars going around because you’re used to it. I had slept at Le Mans before that, but last year was different.

This year will hopefully be the same. If I can sleep, it probably it means that things are going well. I slept 40 minutes last year, and it felt so amazing. But I’ll probably have to start taking sleeping pills at some point, but not yet. If the adrenaline wants to keep me awake, it’s going to keep me awake.

RACEDAY CHECKLIST

Race car driver Phil Hanson crossing the finish line while a man waves the checkered flag
Courtesy of Tom Kahler

Normally, I try and keep things very simple and not to change things too much because your mindset and mental preparation are probably your biggest factors. I’m a big breakfast person. I love dry cereal — I’m talking Rice Krispies and the healthy cereals that get overlooked. I absolutely love them. There’s some sort of protein source in there. At home, I always eat a yogurt.

If I become lactose intolerant one day, my diet is destroyed because I use so much dairy, especially for breakfast. I’ll have some sort of toasted bread. If I’m abroad, it’s a fresh croissant.

Depending on how soon I get to the track, it can just be that. If I get there later, I might have some eggs and toast.

When I get to the track, there’s normally a last-minute briefing. Stress is building and there’s a lot of silence because there are normally no support races before a big event like Le Mans. We used to have autograph sessions but with COVID, that doesn’t happen now. I’ll be going to the bathroom a lot because I’m drinking loads of water. And as you get nervous, the more you end up thinking you need to go to the bathroom, which doesn’t always help because then you can barely pee.

As the car is getting ready, you’re going back and forth to check if your kit is there to make sure no one has stolen anything, or nothing is missing before you need to put it on and get into the car.

Then you’re just sitting on your phone, to be honest. Once all the meetings are done, you’ve done all the last-minute checks, it’s all about the water and going to the bathroom because the last thing you want to do is have to go to the bathroom 10 minutes after getting into the car. Throughout the race, my meal will be chicken, spinach, and pasta. The caterers think that’s the only thing I eat. That’s normally my go-to meal during the race. It’s the best balance for the three things I need: my starch, a protein source, and fiber. It’s kind of like a ritual. I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious, but I probably am when it comes to that sort of stuff.

The longer the race goes, the less I’ll be ordering chicken, spinach, and pasta because it gets repetitive. By the end of it, I’m probably eating Yorkshire puddings or having a Mars bar. After the race, depending on how I feel, I’ll drink loads of water because you sweat a lot. I’ll use the washroom. If I get out the car and I feel like I’m beginning to ache a bit, I might take some BCAAs or maybe some magnesium or even an energy gel. Waking up for Le Mans in the middle of the night, you need some sort of stimulant sometimes to get you going. For me, it used to be a cold shower, now, I use the energy gels to wake up.

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