A few of you have asked me a couple of times now if I’d write a bit about fitness and the kind of physical training I do. I should just say that the reality of my training is that most of it isn’t really geared toward the flying as I’m already pretty fit and certainly plenty strong enough for what I do, most of it is focused around the mountain biking and rock climbing that I do and have done for years. That said, there is definitely a fair amount to be said on the subject in relation to flying.
Now, I’m no expert. I’m not a physical trainer, I’m not a super experienced pilot with thousands of aerobatic hours under my belt and I’ve never done any formal study – but, from 9 years of training hard as a climber and several years playing hockey quite seriously before that, and from a couple of years as a runner, fell runner, mountaineer and rescue team member, I know what works for me and how hard I should be working myself to make physical gains, or to just maintain the levels that I need to be at at any given time.
Flying isn’t the most physically demanding of past-times, however aerobatics imposes a number of extreme forces upon the body that have a huge effect on how a pilot operates and needs to operate in order to stay awake and functioning as effectively and precisely as possible. I’m not going to go into too much detail about G-forces in this post as I need to do a fair bit more reading on the subject myself, and there is plenty of good information out there already.
For me it’s the psychological and mental aspect of aerobatic flying that are what I try to gear my physical training around, which may sound strange but let me explain: for several years now I’ve suffered with a fatigue illness that has constantly forced me to think very carefully about how hard and how thoroughly I push myself in different scenarios. Over the years I’ve worked out that for me, physical fitness and hard physical training make a huge difference to how easily I cope with day-to-day life. Since I’ve been flying the Pitts Special I’ve also become acutely aware of just how my physical state effects my mental capacity and speed of reaction. The fitter I am, and the more regularly I push my body to exhaustion, the better I recover and the stronger I become in both body and in mind. My focus and attention are also affected by just how hard I work my body and how well I’m recovering.
I’m by no means special – any person will function more effectively mentally if they’re fitter physically, and not just in the air. As I’ve already mentioned, aerobatic flying imposes a variety of extreme forces on the body and also places the mind under extreme pressure – physical fitness will not only help the body react better to the effects of positive and negative g forces, but the stronger and fitter the body is, the less work the mind will have to do to compensate for the environment that surrounds it. Physical fatigue is a huge mental drain, and so reducing bodily fatigue is a fantastic way to very easily improve mental focus and clarity.
What all of this means for me, is that I love to train. I love the feeling of pushing myself and finding my own limitations and so for me physical effort and training is something I take well to. This winter I’ve had to change my tack from ‘vocational’ training (as when my primary focus was rock and/or ice climbing or big running events) as I’ve spent much of the year injured and unable to get out and rack up the miles running in the mountains. I’m also unable to commit the money or the time to any big ice climbing trips this season due to my commitment to the project here, and as a result, I’ve gone back to gym training. Dull and tedious it may be, but regular, creative, well-structured gym workouts can be incredibly effective, not just for training strength or cardio-vascular endurance (I’d actually argue that fell-running is the best type of cardio work I’ve ever done, closely followed by my present activity of choice – mountain biking), but also for rehabilitating and working around injuries.
At present I’m just trying to re-build my baseline fitness back to where it was before injury and illness set me back at the end of last year. I’m heading out on the mountain bike and enjoying myself in the mud and cursing the long slogging road climbs, hitting the bouldering wall for strength and flexibility, but mainly doing general all-round workouts in the gym. I won’t go into detail about my gym training programs as that’s not what this blog entry is about – the important thing is the regularity, length and intensity of the sessions, and the amount of quality recovery time I’m allowing myself. There’s no point pushing yourself to breaking point over and over again if you never allow your body to recover – it’s the recovery that makes you stronger.
Would I say that physical fitness is important for aerobatics and flying in general? Absolutely – keep your body honed and capable and the mind will follow. I truly believe that physical fitness makes for safer and more capable pilots, which is why I’ll be found in the gym so often!