This is the first in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed interviews involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up first: Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, who offers tips on how the average person can choose a healthier lifestyle.
I know you started a little bit later in life compared to some others. How old were you when you first started getting serious about working out and all that?
I swam in high school and grew up racing motocross — both super physical — and I was in great shape then. But as I started my four-wheel career, there was so much to learn about the vehicles and the tracks and there’s traveling and driving equipment to the races, and I developed all these bad habits along the way of eating at truck stops and fast food — and the fitness just tanked.
So I would say up until 17, 18, I was fit and an athlete and then had this hiatus for a long period of time. I would say probably ’08, ’09, somewhere around there is when I started to get serious again (in his early-30s), and it filled some piece inside of me from my day of feeling accomplished, feeling good about myself, confidence going up and I know that I’m doing that’s important for my career. There’s a lot of positive boxes that I mentally check when I get my workout in, and it’s evolved into many things. But just at a very basic level, that hour or whatever it ends up being in a day, is just vital for me and it gives me such a positive outlook on the rest of the day.
A lot of people have at least tried to get on a workout program, getting healthy habits at some point in life, or maybe they’ve tried diets that haven’t worked out. I noticed that you’ve really stayed consistent with it — and obviously part of it is you’re a professional athlete — but also a lot of it is that you’re doing it on your own. I see sometimes you’ll go on vacation, so you do get off it for a couple days and let yourself enjoy life, but then you go back on it. So how do people, if they want to be healthier, how do they stick with it? What are some of the steps they should take?
I think being honest with yourself about what works for you. New Year’s rolls around and we’re all guilty of saying, “I need to lose 10 pounds, I need to go on some crash diet,” and that’s not sustainable. Three or four days in, you’re like, “The heck with it. I’m out.” So I think setting realistic goals, trying to make just a small change to start with and carrying that for a month — if it’s your eating habits or your training habits, just put one foot in front of the other, literally. Just one step at a time, see what works for you.
And then from there, trying to find things that you enjoy. Being outside has been a big part for me and why cycling and running and all that has worked so well. I just like being outside and that pulls me out.
Signing up for a fitness event is another really good tool for me. For some reason, when I commit to doing some event, I’ll get up earlier or I’ll stay up later, I’ll eat better, like there’s motivation within that. So I think setting some realistic goals and then trying to chase them down from there is really important.
It sounds like to not put too much pressure on yourself. Like you want to better yourself, but without getting to the point where you’re going to fail and then you’re just going to fall off the wagon completely.
I think so. I honestly believe that fitness, health, quality of life, a healthy life — it’s a journey. It’s not like something you’re going to do (overnight). There’s no silver bullet, there’s no quick fix. You need to make adjustments that are going to last through your lifetime, and having a realistic approach and thinking of it as a long journey, I think, is much more useful. And maybe not for all personalities, but for most, I think having that long-term view is key, so you set some realistic goals.
If we can get kind of specific here, it seems like consistently you get up early to do a lot of your workouts, and you have two kids at home. My excuse for myself would be, “Well, I need all the sleep I can get, I’m maxed out with this, I’ve got a lot going on in my life. I just need that extra hour of sleep.” Whereas I see you, you’re getting up at 4:30, 5, something like that to go work out. How do you get yourself up out of bed to do that in the first place?
For me, it’s not easy, and the hardest part is literally putting my feet on the ground and getting out of the bed. From there, everything gets easier as I go. But the way my life works and the way our house works, the kids get up at 6:30, and they go to bed at 7:30, so if I’m going to work out after the house goes down, it’s just not going to work. I’m exhausted. And I find I don’t put in the effort or have the motivation to train later in the day, so I try to get it done early if I can.
Oftentimes, in order to get up early, I’ve got to go to bed early. So the kids go down about 7:30, and I put my phone on silent mode and I’m out most nights by 8, 8:30. That’s the only way. I still need my eight hours of sleep. I mean, I can get by on five to six for a couple days, but I get cranky and don’t function well, so I’ve just got to go to bed earlier to get up earlier.
And then how about with temperatures, because I see that as another excuse that I see myself slide by with. Like it’s either too hot outside or it’s too cold. You live in Charlotte and you also live in Aspen, so you’re having a lot of extremes with the temperature — and yet that doesn’t stop you from working out. So how do you not let that create an excuse for yourself?
I think that’s the nicest thing about my interest in being outdoors, there’s a lot of versatility and sports and a lot of opportunities that I have. In Colorado, one thing that I love to do is to go uphilling or go skinning — you have these downhill skis with carpets on the bottom and the boots and bindings work in a way where you can hike up the hill and you can lock in and you can ski down. So when it’s cold and I want to get a workout in, I do that quite often. I’ll just skip going up on the lift and at least do one trip up the mountain, which is probably an hour, hour and a half to get up. And then ski down and then jump on the lift and do it after that.
So you’ve just got to be creative and take advantage of the environment you’re in. Cycling is tough in the winter; I kind of cycle less because it’s hard to stay warm on a bike. But running works really well, and even going to a pool and swimming works really well.
So just keeping an open mind, and again, thinking of that long-term thing: I just want to have a healthy life and I want to feel good about myself, and I really like to eat — so if I wasn’t training and burning all these calories, I don’t think I’d fit in my suit.
Speaking of eating and diet and things like that, I was at Supercross earlier this year and Aldon Baker, who trains some of the guys, I mean he’s talking about no cheat days ever. He won’t let Jason Anderson and Marvin Musquin enjoy Thanksgiving, nothing. And I see you, you like ice cream, you said you like to eat. So obviously you allow yourself something while still trying to stay healthy. How do you manage eating well with also enjoying the food?
Everybody needs to be pushed and everybody needs to be uncomfortable to succeed, right? I firmly believe in that. I go through windows at times through the season where I get hardcore like that. The motocross world in general, their career span is much shorter than NASCAR. So there’s no way one of those riders is going to go 18 seasons living like that. I have many friends that have ridden for Aldon and they’ve got about a five- to six-year window where they can live life like that, and then they just can’t do it anymore. It’s a tough pace to keep up.
So it depends on what you’re doing. You’ve got to be realistic with yourself and your environment, what you need to be successful. In car racing, we don’t need to be as regimented as those guys do. We just don’t. I’ve found what works for me and I’m playing the long game. A lot of those motocross riders, it’s a short season for starters when you just look at Supercross alone, and then a short career where they’ve got to be so committed. And I respect them all for how high that commitment level is, not only from a fitness and nutrition side, but also the danger that’s involved in riding those things.
So if someone is reading this and they’ve never done anything or never tried to work out, they feel like they can’t do it and they’re just not an athlete, what are the basic first steps they can do just to start? How does somebody learn where to start that’s healthy for them?
I think first and foremost, it’s about not making excuses. And I’m not saying in a way that is harmful or dangerous for yourself, but we all have that little voice that tells us what we probably should do, and it’s usually a really faint soft voice in the back of our minds. Maybe listen to that a little more.
And then just take some realistic first steps to get going. Depending on your health requirements or issues, an event that you have coming up, whatever it might be, there’s different reasons to be highly motivated. And in most cases, and certainly for most of the readers, I think it’s about just consistency.
I see a lot of people start off and they do too much, too soon. If it’s too crazy of a diet, too much lifting, too much running, too much riding and they come out of the gate and they almost burn themselves out in a short period of time. My coach often says, “Quality over quantity.” Just get a quality base started, diet and fitness-wise, and then let the quantity show up down the road if you’re enjoying it.