To celebrate the birthday of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Skipper Ian Walker, we look into the challenges he faces with training and nutrition while on his Volvo Ocean Race journey…

Ian Walker driving

© Matt Knighton

“We’ve just crossed the equator!”

Those were the first words I heard as I was connected to the Abu Dhabi racing boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Unwittingly, Ian had given me the perfect opener to this article and from there I got down to business in learning what I could about the training regime and unusual nutrition plan of an extreme sailor.

Ian Walker is one of Britain’s most successful sailors and is currently racing skipper for the Abu Dhabi team in the Volvo Ocean Race – one of the toughest round the world sailing challenges. But with an athletic resume like Ian’s, he is more than equipped for the challenge with two Olympic silver medals, two America’s Cup campaigns and two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns.

The nine-month long race is physically challenging and involves an innate mental strength. The sailors are out at sea for months at a time and do not have access to the diet that most athletes do, instead having to live off freeze-dried food.

“We have our own chef throughout our training and stopovers while on shore, but on the boat our main meals are freeze-dried,” said Ian. “We supplement our three main meals with freeze-dried beef jerky, nuts, dried mango etc. along with a few sweets and one chocolate bar a day. We also make our own calorific breakfast each morning containing 1200 calories and we snack on protein and energy bars. There’s also access to some real food such as tuna, dried ham and cheese so we can make up wraps if needed.”

The challenge, as Ian explains, is not to lose weight while out at sea. Lose weight and you lose strength. “We weigh ourselves and do all of our body fat and muscle measurements before and after each leg of the race and stopover. The teams physiotherapist, Pete Cunningham, puts together recovery training for when we’re on land – it’s just light recovery work as there really isn’t much time to make any significant fitness improvements.”

Ian Walker: team wins leg 1

© Ainhoa Sanchez

Today, Ian celebrates his 45th birthday with seven sailors and a journalist as they make their way to Auckland, New Zealand. When asked about his birthday, Ian said: “To be honest, I’ve lost track of time. It’s not much of a birthday at sea – same as every other day! I don’t think we’re allowed freeze-dried cake, but maybe the lads will surprise me.”

To cope with the physical and mental demands of extreme sailing, Ian and the team went through six months of training with one day off a week. This included three weight sessions and three aerobic sessions a week, along with one long bike ride plus all the sailing preparation. However, there’s nothing you can do to prepare for the lack of sleep when on the aptly named 65-foot carbon racing yacht Azzam, which is Arabic for determination.

“The plan is for us to have three hours in bed, three times a day,” said Ian. “We work in watches and the aim is to have four hours off but when you factor in getting changed, getting into bed and drifting off, you’ve only got three hours to play with. Getting the rest we need all depends on the sea conditions and what’s happening on deck. It’s like sleeping in a carbon drum.”

Abu Dhabi Racing: Big Seas

© Matt Knighton

When asked how well he knew the team before he began this year’s Volvo Ocean Race, Ian said: “I knew five of the guys pretty well but it’s safe to say that the whole team are well-accustomed to one another now. Before we started the race back in October, we had sailed about 17,000 miles as a team and now we’ve sailed the equivalent of 1 ½ times around the world.”

Ian is currently sailing from China to Auckland and if all goes well, his team, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, has a good chance of claiming the overall lead after this leg.

Words: Katherine Weir

You can see more imagery of the race through their Instagram account, here, as well as watching this short video on how unpredictable the sea can be: