Physical health and on-track performance

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As we turn the calendar and welcome 2023, many of us have resolved to improve various aspects of our lives in the coming year. It seems like a trendy time of year to focus on weight loss, and physical fitness in general. As racers (and specifically: those of us who view most pursuits through the lens of a racer) this brings about an age-old question: Does improved physical health have a positive impact on our ability to perform on the race track?

It’s a topic that comes up commonly in conversation at the track and within ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE. Personally, I even feel relatively qualified to answer: For decades, I’ve worked with and competed against racers on all ends of the health spectrum, and am fortunate to have had numerous honest conversations on the topic. I’m also proud to say that personally I’ve transitioned from relatively poor health to relatively strong health over the last several years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a model of physical fitness by any means; but I can honestly say that at 41 I’m in the best shape of my life. 

So back to the original question… Does improved physical health have a positive impact on performance? If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the answer to that question depends on who you ask! A quick look around the staging lanes (and into the winner’s circle) at most events might elicit a questionable response: there are plenty of great racers (standout racers even), who are obviously not in tip-top physical condition. I’ll speak for myself: I had tremendous success in my younger years, despite less than ideal health. I didn’t pay any attention to my diet. I drank. I didn’t get any significant exercise. I often sacrificed sleep. And in some of the deepest valleys of my physical health trajectory, I won two world championships and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the big dollar bracket scene. It does seem hypocritical for me to stand on a soapbox today to say that getting fit is a necessity to becoming the best racer that I can be (or to be the best racer that you can be). 

We can all agree that our game is more mental than it is physical. In a game constantly decided by thousandths of a second, we’re all looking for any edge that we can get. Can superb fitness provide that edge?

It’s hard to argue that increased stamina and energy would be a positive for us as drivers; particularly on long days at the track, hot days in the summer months, and “Day number last” of a grueling weekend at the track. While competition is mostly a mental pursuit, it’s undeniable that there is a physical element to it as well: as I continue to count off birthdays, I find myself reminded of that on Monday morning more often now than ever!

One could argue that those tangible benefits easily associated with improved health may not be worth much in competition. Many a successful racer can be attributed with a quote along the lines of “You only really need to concentrate for about 10 seconds.” The idea is that we can coax ourselves into that optimal state almost regardless of physical condition. Perhaps that’s largely accurate. 

About 5 years ago, I made a commitment to improving my health, and for the first time in my life it has seemed to stick. My aim here is not to put myself on a pedestal – like I said before I’m no model of perfect health. But it’s all relative: I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in (not since High School… ever), and that’s something that I’m really proud of. Admittedly, my reasoning for getting my act together wasn’t driven by racing. Sure, there was an element of squeezing out every ounce of competitive advantage I can. There was also an element of setting a positive example for my children. And an element of doing what little is within my control to extend my life and time with my loved ones for as long as possible. But if I’m being completely honest, my driving force was simply proving to myself that I could do it. For as long as I can remember, I was the pudgy kid. I came to identify with it. I even developed a bit of a victim mentality around it: as if, try as I may, there was no way to overcome that. Even as I enjoyed successes that I had previously only dreamed of in several aspects of life, personal health (and weight) was seemingly the one domain that I continued to prove unable to master. In short, I wanted to get fit to prove to myself that I could.

And I have.

Now back to the racing aspect of this… My argument is not mine alone. It is shared by many physically active racers who intentionally strive for improved health. And that argument isn’t rooted in the tangible, relatively quantifiable benefits of improved health at the race track. No, the biggest case that I can make for getting fit as a racer is in the intangibles. 

What if, as we improve physical condition, we gain confidence? That doesn’t seem like a huge stretch. Confidence, not in terms of what we can do in a race car necessarily, but in everyday things? What if we felt better? What if we moved easier? What if we felt like we looked better? Wouldn’t it feel great to look in the mirror and be proud of the transformation we see? Wouldn’t it be incredibly empowering to know that WE did that – that we’re capable of doing hard things, despite slow, incremental progress and no immediate reward?

Would that increase our confidence? And would… could… Could that increased confidence spill over into multiple domains of our lives? Maybe all of them? Could feeling better, and feeling like we look and move better allow us to be more confident in our work? In our personal relationships? In our competitive pursuits? In our… racing? 

I’ll reiterate one more time: we play a game routinely decided by thousandths of a second. A little edge can go a long way.

Perhaps I’m wrong on this one. Maybe the world’s fastest man or woman wouldn’t have any advantage over the rest of us, if equally trained and experienced, in a race car. Maybe improved health won’t make us any better. Perhaps from a racing standpoint, eating right, hydrating properly, and getting to the gym regularly is a waste of time and energy. But if racing is the justification that catalyzes getting our butts into gear and into better shape, what’s the harm in that, even if it is a false narrative? I can’t fathom an argument that an increased commitment to physical fitness would make us any less adept behind the wheel!


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