Moving Parts | Pete Cunningham Head of Human Performance

Pete Cunningham is the Head of Human Performance for INEOS Britannia, an exercise physiologist whose job it is to get the very best physical and mental performance from the sailing team. He’s been a keen sailor since his childhood and sees this role as the very top of the sport of sailing.

“I started off sailing years ago when I was around ten or 11. I used to race a Topper [dinghy] when I was quite young. I outgrew that and then started windsurfing. I got really into windsurfing when I was 17 or 18, around A-level time. I probably didn't do that well on the A-levels because I was too into my windsurfing. I've stuck at windsurfing ever since really. I don't go out that much anymore, but I’m still quite active when I can be.

“I started with the RYA [Royal Yachting Association] in 1993, so straight after the Barcelona Olympics, and I started in sports science. Sports science was quite in its infancy. I did five Olympic campaigns with the British Sailing Team, starting in 1996, finishing after 2012. Then I did a couple of Cup campaigns with Artemis, the San Francisco Cup and the Bermuda Cup, so AC34 and AC35. And then I did a couple of years in Singapore, running the Olympic program for their sailing team. And now here I am, back in the Cup, hopefully to win it.


“Olympic sailing has different demands to the Cup. We used to train people on bikes too, but the physical fitness wasn't everything. When you come to the Cup half the team are really into their bike training with the same sort of programs you'd expect from elite cyclists. And then the other half, the after-guard [flight controllers, helms and tacticians] are just trying to manage weight, be nimble, be reasonably fit and look after themselves -- but no serious [power] numbers [are expected].”

Pete Cunningham completed two America’s Cup campaigns when the power was generated with the arms [by grinders], whereas now it’s generated with the legs [by cyclors]. We asked him about the differences. “The underlying physiology's the same. You've got to develop aerobic power, with some top end, sprint-anaerobic capacity. It's really just a matter of trying to get the numbers as high as we can, which is not too dissimilar to the challenge with the arm grinding.  


“However, I think the arm grinding's a real niche activity, it's a very complicated movement, whereas the bike training's more straightforward. There are less day-to-day aerobic activities that involve the upper body. People walk, jog, run, cycle; all are aerobic for the lower body. So I personally think it's a more straight-forward program, but the underlying physiology's the same. The principles of training are the same.

“The key challenges are to keep everyone fit and healthy and try to get their power numbers as high as we possibly can. I'm sure all the teams are doing modelling on what they think the demands are going to be on the water, and I know from our modelling those numbers are fairly high. It's a 25-minute time trial, twice a day, for a number of days. So it's just a matter of trying to look after people, get them fit and healthy so they can perform day-in and day-out over a period of quite a few weeks.

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“And with all that focus on the cyclor power, it's quite easy to forget about the after-guard and let them just go out and do their own thing, go [International] Moth sailing instead of doing a gym training session. So I think the thing for them is building a culture that makes  them realise that fitness is still quite important for them; being alert, being able to handle the heat. There are lots of advantages to being fit.  

“Their weight management is pretty high up on the list, especially as our after-guard probably aren't the smallest compared to all the other teams. So, for them to lose a little bit of weight and be trim is going to be quite important. We want the [muscle] mass on the cyclors ideally; the greater the mass, the greater the absolute power output with everything else remaining the same. So weight management is important, but I think it's really the team culture, installing that professional culture with a training ethos into them that is really important.”

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Pete Cunningham came into the team after the previous Head of Human Performance, Ben Williams left for an opportunity in another sport. “I think Ben Williams has done a great job of getting the guys in the position they are, and with the crew selection. We've got four rowers out of eight cyclors and the numbers aren't shabby at all. If the Cup was tomorrow I think we'd be in a pretty good position to be able to do what we need to, to match the power demands of the yacht. And, being optimistic, I think the next 16 months we've got loads of further development we can do to get the guys into great shape, really great shape.

“It's great to be here with this opportunity, I did five Olympic campaigns with Ben [Ainslie, CEO and Team Principal] and it's great to be back in a British team. These jobs don't come up very often. There's not very many British teams doing the America's Cup! Ben Williams was doing a good job, so the opening only just came up and it means everything. It's great. The national pride of it is enormous and there's hope that we can make a good showing of it.” 


Pete Cunningham joined the RYA right after the Barcelona Olympics, and we asked him what he thought of the venue. “It's a lovely city. I'm certainly looking forward to getting out there. It's a hot, hot city in the summer time, so it'll be quite interesting. That adds a few more challenges to the picture, but it's certainly an exciting prospect.” 

Another challenge is the hardware that will allow the cyclors to power the hydraulics that drive the sail systems. We asked Pete whether he thought the physiology was more important than the engineering technology.

“Being a physiologist, I'd say it's nearly all physiology, but to get four people cycling together while powering a very high-pressured hydraulic system is quite complicated. The other teams have done it though, as we've seen them sailing their old AC75s with cyclors. And having Mercedes here, we've got a lot of technology, a lot of expertise on the engineering side, but I think the physiology is the thing that really underpins the engine. It doesn't matter if you have a great mechanical set-up, if you haven't got the engine to drive it, you're still going to struggle. So as a physiologist, I'd say it's all about the physiology, but I'm sure the engineers would say the same thing about the engineering.

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“I like getting the most out of people. We've got a few in the team at the moment whose power numbers aren't… they're okay, but they're not brilliant. So probably the most rewarding part for me will be to see them develop, see their physiology develop. I'm sure we can see people bring the most out of themselves, and that’s probably the most rewarding part, apart from winning the overall thing -- but I haven't done that yet. To see people make the most out of themselves is super rewarding.

“The thing about the America’s Cup is that it's so hard to win. People put years and years of their lives into it without winning it. I've worked with a lot of successful teams, a lot of Olympic medallists. I've worked with a team that's won the Volvo Ocean Race. It would be great to win the America's Cup and I think it's the pinnacle of the sport. I think even if you asked the top sailors with their [Olympic] gold medals, if they then won the America's Cup, they'd probably say that's the pinnacle of their career. So it means everything to win it.”