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.
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)
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.
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.