Are There Health Benefits from Track Driving?

Can driving on track be beneficial for your health? Can something "dangerous" actually be really good for you? Let's try to find out. Please note that I am a driving enthusiast, not a doctor or researcher. So your mileage may vary. I welcome all information from the medical community to expand on what I have found here.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've not been as focused on training and conditioning as in prior years. And that fact has made itself apparent. I've buckled down and have begun my training regimen once again, thankfully. I'm running moderate distances four or five times per week. And I continue to exercise caution in what I eat. Weight loss is still my primary goal, but I cannot ignore physical conditioning to get there any longer. So I'm finding out how to blend them.

As a part of tracking progress, I've purchased scales for the house that are a bit easier to read consistently and hopefully more accurate than the old metal one we had been using. Another minor investment in trying to stay in the game. I've also started wearing my wife's now-unused Apple watch. It's useful for reminding me to stand and for tracking some portions of daily activity (perhaps inaccurately, but better than no tracking at all). After all, you can't improve what you can't measure, right?

I've been paying close attention to my body weight for some time now, reflecting on how various foods and hydration affect it. I like to measure myself a couple of times per day and I generally see a 3 or 4 pound swing over the course of a day. Hydration is a large part of the change, it seems. Food can be a pound or two swing each day. The variability is more understandable when you have a good set of comparison data on yourself over time. It's kind of like comparing lap times and knowing whether you were really on it, how your tires were that day, track temps, etc. You have to be aware of all of the externalities to try to get to a consistent view of an isolated variable. Or something like that.

I can't be faster than Pierre, but I'm going to try to look racier in my new suit!

So after spending a weekend at Palmer, I was pleasantly surprised to see nearly a pound and a half of body weight reduction. I was there for nearly two full days. But the first day, I consumed far more food in a day than is normal for me right now. I'm sure it was close to 3000 calories (thanks for a great lunch, Pierre!) where I normally shoot to be as far under 2000 as I can physically stand. I was expecting perhaps a slight increase, but definitely not a dramatic decrease. So what would cause it?

My current theory is that it is the magic of adrenaline. When driving on a race track, there is quite the range of emotions and physical responses. We start early in the morning with preparation, stress, and nervousness (did I remember my torque wrench? paperwork?...). We arrive at the track focused but anxious. The element of danger is certainly in mind as we assess the weather, the track, our run groups - we prepare for battle. We are constantly reviewing our mental checklist. And then we roll out on track. We have to assess grip, remember the flags and signals and rules, how to drive our cars, and where to look. It takes time for it all to come together for a comfortable lap at speed. As it starts to feel natural again, we don't see how our bodies are adapting to this new reality. The magic of adrenaline is helping us along, silently. I just looked up what adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) is and what it does for us:

"Epinephrine is a hormone released by the adrenal medulla located within the adrenal glands, atop the kidneys (Reece, et al. 528). It is released in response to an environmental stimulus, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to prepare the body for situations of stress and emergency (Merriam-Webster). It decreases smooth muscle contractions, such as in the stomach and intestines, and increases the heart rate. Epinephrine causes the blood vessels to dilate, enabling them to carry more oxygen and nutrients. Blood vessels transported throughout the body deliver more nutrients to skeletal muscles, and vessels leading to the brain induce greater brain function, creating higher levels of alertness and awareness (Reece, et al. 528).  Epinephrine also causes vascular constriction in the veins, thereby slowing the return of blood to the heart. This keeps the nutrient-filled blood within target areas, prolonging activity." (source)

The article goes on to explain:

"Research...suggests high levels of epinephrine in the blood stream increase glycogen utilization and the rate of glycolysis by the skeletal muscles (Febbraio, et al. 466). Glycogen is a storage form of high-energy sugars within the body. They give skeletal muscles the energy they need in order to contract. Epinephrine allows for greater amounts of glycogen to be released by the muscles for use when engaged in strenuous activity. Glycolysis, or the breakdown of these sugars for immediate energy, allow skeletal muscles to use these sugars at a higher rate. During an adrenaline rush, muscles take quick advantage of glycogen storages in order to produce stronger, prolonged contractions. Glycogen not only aids in increasing the amount of force muscles produce, but also extends how long they can maintain their produced force (467).

Research conducted by Mark French suggests epinephrine and other catecholamines, hormones released alongside epinephrine, stimulate muscular membrane excitability and increase contractile force production (French, et al. 94). These hormones aid in regulating the sodium-potassium pump, needed to maintain muscle excitability, or its readiness to perform an action. Greater contractile force results in more muscle fibers being recruited to perform a high intensity activity.

Though epinephrine allows the body to utilize large amounts of energy, it is not a source of energy itself. Instead, it serves as a hormone stimulant that activates dormant sources of energy to be used by muscles. Hormone sensitive lipase, or HSLs, are fats in the body that are used as energy once stimulated by particular hormones. Evidence demonstrated by Sacha J. West et al., showed increased levels of adrenaline in the blood stream during exercise correlated to an increase in HSL use. Once the fats were stimulated, they were broken down in glucose, and used in the glycolysis process mentioned earlier (728).

An experiment conducted by Gudo A. van Zijderveld et al. supports the idea that epinephrine enhances mental performance (167). ... Results showed that both subject groups had higher task performance scores when infused with adrenaline than when infused with placebo, or at baseline adrenaline levels (161)."

From all this information, we can ascertain that there are many short-term advantages gained from this chemical stimulation. Our brains get more oxygen and nutrients which help it think faster. Our muscles get more fuel so they can be faster and stronger. And to produce these benefits, we get there by burning more fat to make the glycogen (sugar) that acts as fuel. It's like overclocking the CPU in a computer. Or putting nitrous oxide into a motor. There is a short term performance benefit but I'd also argue that there is a longer-term benefit too by burning fat that might otherwise not get touched in less intense activities. Even running, while hard on the body, does not often produce the stress and anxiety levels that the feeling of "danger" can produce.

Awesome Apple car up in Turn 4

There are downsides too. Prolonged exposure to this chemical "overclocking" appears to not be particularly good for the body - "Exposure to epinephrine for an excessive amount of time, i.e., several weeks of constant stimulation, or feeling “on edge,” without any set period of rest and relaxation, can be detrimental to one’s health. Excessive exposure causes an increase in blood pressure and a suppression of the immune system (528). Epinephrine is a hormone whose short-term effects benefit the body more than its long-term effects." (same source)

Christian and Eddie finding new speeds

From this information and my experience, I'd like to declare track driving as the next great fitness movement! (kidding) But I do think the short-term (if you call ~80 minutes of it for each day of track driving) burst of adrenaline has some real ability to burn some extra fat. And I'll take that as a net positive.

The perfect look for a GT4

Huge thanks once again to my family for the time to go do this for a weekend. And thanks also to the great group of people in the PCA Northeast region for pulling together another great (and safe!) event! And personal thanks to Alex, Eddie, Christian, Alain, Pierre, Ray, David, Mike, Igor, Boris, Chris, Norbert, John D, Kristin and all the other great friends I've been fortunate to meet on the track. The people make these events. It's a trophy we all get to share at the end of the weekend.

Unorthodox Autocross Is Norm at ADSI

What happens when you allow for true variety at the autocross? Amazing fun. That's what. The July autocross at ADSI had a little bit of everything you could ever want! 700+ hp? Yes, that was there. A full-on airport fire truck running the course? Sure. Kids in a Polaris gas buggy? Absolutely. 24 Hours of Lemons race cars? Check. A hill climb car that would kill you just for looking at it? Uh huh. We saw it all.

If it's Sunday, it's time to autocross

This coming Sunday is my first autocross day of the year at ADSI! And I hope you will come join me!

The predicted showers should add some extra fun and challenge. But doesn't look like a washout. 

8am for lessons until noon. Noon to 5pm for open autocross. Morning students get to jump the afternoon lines all day and get in many, many runs. 

So I hope you'll come see Brother Rich break in his new Potenza RE71r tires by whupping us all on the course. That takes the pressure off the rest of us - "he's got new tires, so, of course he's 10 seconds faster and lapped me twice." Just start saying it now and it will roll off the tongue. 

Hope to see you there. Contact me if you want to meet up or need directions. 

Does Having Kids Make You Faster Or Slower?

I just opened my Tuesday Speed Secrets email from Mr. Ross Bentley to be intrigued by the topic of having kids and how it affects your driving (and general attitude toward risk in life). Mr. Bentley was, in turn, inspired by Will Buxton, F1 pit lane commentator, who wrote an article about the same topic on Racer.com using Nico Rosberg as the example du jour.

Here is what Mr. Buxton has to say, "Rosberg is unquestionably different in 2016...Rosberg's delicate savoir faire seems to come from a place of personal contentment...He joked with me in an NBCSN interview on Saturday evening in China that perhaps it has something to do with becoming a father, before brushing the idea away. But it was something I wanted to push him on...Has being a father changed him? I'd argue it has. Becoming a parent can do one of two things to a racing driver. For some, the knowledge that there is a small person on this earth that you have created and who needs you in his or her life, will cost them a tenth of a second. It will make them lift where they would have stayed flat, duck out of a move they'd never have flinched at previously. It dulls the sharpness that made them such a potent force."

But for others, having a child reminds them that there is more in this world and more to this world than racing cars and winning races. Far from slowing them down, that awakening to a world far bigger and far more important than everything they've known since they were 6 years old actually has the opposite effect. It lifts the self-imposed burden and pressure. It frees them to do their very best, and if it doesn't work out ... well, who really cares? Because there's a wonderful little human at home who is going to think they're the most amazing person in the world, whether they're a world champion or a refuse collector."

Mr. Bentley's analysis of the psychology behind this potential affect is what resonates deeply with me at this point in my life: "when one relaxes, performance improves. It's easy to get caught up in the pressure of 'having' to turn a lap time, or get a certain result. But as Rosberg's performance has shown, it's definitely not the best way to get what you want. You're not negotiating world peace. You're negotiating a track!"

I'm often surprised by how competitive my adopted sport can be a times. Whether it is negotiating cones on an airstrip or driving around in circles on race tracks all over New England, most of what I do is not inherently competitive. There are no trophies and no money will be won (only lost - by turning it into smoke and noise). I've often found myself looking at this from a very detached perspective. My goal is to have massive fun...and be safe...and to be home in time to enjoy my kids and my wife some more. For me, that is the "win". Every time.

Don't get me wrong. I love to improve. And I softly "compete" with my own expectations at each outing. But I'm also grounded by my goals and try to remain humble and realistic. The thing I love most is learning something I didn't know before. That, for me, is also a "win."

So for those of you who are able, please head down the to the first ADSI autocross of the season this Sunday, May 1. I'll be proudly watching my son receive his first Holy Communion in Providence and hosting my family to celebrate him. My heart will also be with you all on the track. Hopefully you'll be finding out for yourself whether your kids have made you more or less relaxed in your outlook on life!

The Most Important Thing for a Snow Autocross

It turns out that the most necessary item for a snow autocross is....snow! I recently went to Lime Rock Park to enjoy a day of sliding sideways on a snowy, low-traction autocross surface. Until a short time ago, driving in snow was one of my great joys in life, ironically, due to the relative safety of it - low grip, low speeds, low danger, high fun. But everything has it's limits. Lime Rock has been hosting winter snow autocross days for the past couple of years. Cars and SUVs are invited to turn up and have a go around the paved autocross portion of the track. They even have snow-making! It was something I was counting on when trying to decide what tires to run.