Four Ways to Tune Up Your Body for Race Day
By Ross Bentley
November 11, 2014
Whether you're a pro-in-training or a casual track day driver, physical and mental fitness makes a difference to how you perform. A participant in HPDE and track days, as well as an instructor, Ingrid Steffensen shares her thoughts on how you can give your driving a physical tune-up in this week's feature article. - Ross
From my point of view, the Sunday edition of the New York Times is a crossword puzzle wrapped in several pounds of protective newsprint. My family knows that (a) no one gets to look at the paper until I have removed the crossword puzzle first; and (b) I am not to be disturbed until the puzzle is complete. A steaming mug of tea, the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, and a ballpoint pen equals bliss in my world.
Which is to say: I’m more of a thinker than a doer. So it surprised me when I was first exposed to the world of high-performance driving that I liked it so much. It had never occurred to me—before I tried it—that it was an activity that was almost purely mental. I wasn’t raised in a sports-oriented environment, and I always thought that I was basically no good at physical things; my talents were musical, intellectual, and artistic. One of the reasons I found I loved driving was that it was something physical that I was actually good at, and that was because it was more of a head game than a bodily one.
All sports depend on the mind-body connection, of course. But if, say, cross-country running is 90% physical conditioning and 10% mental preparedness, then high-performance driving is probably as far as you can get at the other end of the spectrum. So why should we, who drive for pleasure on the occasional weekend at the racetrack, care about physical conditioning?
The truthful answer is that you won’t have to if you really don’t want to. “Aha,” you’re thinking right now, “she’s gonna let me off the hook!” Crack open a beer and break out the nachos, right? Wrong. Sorry, my slothful friends. For though I came late to the physical fitness party, I am now a huge advocate, and I am convinced that getting and staying in shape is a tremendously important part of driving well. Why?
1) Mens sana in corpore sano. Told you I was a nerd. That’s Latin for “sound mind in a sound body.” Your biggest driving asset may be your brain, but your brain is served by the blood that is pumped to it, by the oxygen it needs, and the fuel it devours. Your brain is the body’s biggest energy hog, using more energy than any other organ in your body. The better condition your body is in, the better it can serve the mainframe in your cranium.
2) Air conditioning. Because you turned it off, right? How hot do you get while you’re driving? When I clean up, I look like a lady, but when I’m driving, I sweat like a racehorse (I’ve read that pigs don’t actually sweat). It gets really hot in there! If you’re accustomed to working out, your body is better able to handle and process the heat, the sweat, and the adrenalin. Beware the Weekend Warrior effect. Regular workouts will keep you from overstressing your system.
3) Simple strength. it’s not just for muscleheads. Okay, so it doesn’t take a lot of physical strength to turn a steering wheel. That’s why I can be just as good at it as all the big, strong dudes. But a strong core especially (hello, crunches!) keeps you in your seat and better able to keep your arms and legs moving in concert and where you want them to be when the rest of your body is just trying to stay put.
4) Flexibility. When I think of flexibility, I do think of physical flexibility—like, getting in and out of my Lotus—but maybe even more importantly, mental flexibility. Ross recommends Cross Crawls as a way to bring the mind and the body together; I do a version of them inside my car while I’m waiting at staging. But, really, anything you do that requires your body to move in unaccustomed but coordinated, even balletic, ways—whether that’s tennis or yoga, skiing or swimming—will help give you that connectedness between what your brain tells you to do and what your body actually does to carry out its instructions.
5) Focus. Is there any activity requiring more of it than driving? Maintaining focus is physically depleting, so there’s another good reason to be in all-around good physical condition. But doing other difficult physical activities can also hone both your focus and the stamina required to maintain it. Finding and maintaining focus is a skill like any other—exercise it elsewhere, and you can draw upon it more readily when you drive.
So what, ideally, should you do to be in the best shape for driving? I try to vary my routines so that I do a little bit of everything from the following menu:
1. Cardio, cardio, cardio. ’Nuff said.
2. Strength training. Old-fashioned pumping iron, lunges, crunches, all that good stuff.
3. Flexibility. Me, I’m a big fan of yoga. It’s not just for tree-huggers anymore! And it’s a lot harder than you think. Go on, I dare you.
4. Coordination. Anything that requires you to use your body in challenging ways, in unaccustomed maneuvers (basically, anything that isn’t walking or poking at your phone). Take a surfing class. Go for a bike ride or a trail run. Play some basketball. Find your inner Billy Ray Cyrus and do some line dancing.
For me, this means three or four cardio workouts a week; two or three strength elements worked in; yoga once a week; and, finally, challenging myself and changing things up to keep it fresh and keep my brain off balance—skiing in the winter, bike riding in the summer, going for a challenging hike.
The good news is, these activities are the same things that will put you in best shape for life. But if you find the motivation in faster lap times, your body will thank you for it, anyway.
- Ingrid Steffensen