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Just how strongly can we say sleep improves performance for race car drivers?

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Just how strongly can we say sleep improves performance for race car drivers?

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You may know him from your television or computer screen but Philippe Létourneau’s introduction to cars has much earlier beginnings.

Phil began karting at the age of 10 and raced several hundred times in the 30 some years to follow. With many years under his belt as an instructor, Phil became a head instructor at the Mont-Tremblant circuit and has trained many specialist drivers including Kuno Wittner, who drives from McLaren, and Bruno Spengler, 2012’s DTM champion winner for BMW. In addition to being a specialized driving instructor in high-performance racing, Philippe also has a full-time career in television, on shows like Star Racer and Canada’s Worst Driver.

Phil’s students, who are all in excellent physical condition, need sleep to perform and excel. Even one's physical best can’t help the fatigue that comes from a full day on the track. Practice days mean over 100 rounds on the track, which isn’t just a physical and mental game but also needs a calm spirit and state of mind to perform.


Sleep improves performance, meaning sleepless nights don’t help the cause. A typical race weekend isn’t just about the track and beating out the competition, it also involves a lot of press and journalistic commitments.
Speaking to commentators and recounting events is an additional mental toll on the driver to be poised, detailed, and alert. Those responsibilities need rest and recovery to make them count.


Drivers don’t have the luxury of being out on the scene because of the impact it can have on their driving and reaction times. We need to imagine the actual physical toll that racing takes in terms of lateral force, accelerations, breaking – all in an enclosed environment for two hours at a time.


A driver’s brain needs to be fully functional and working at an optimal speed to be able to understand what it needs to do and to take the conditions of the track into account. All of this is recovered during sleep. Having a mattress and calming environment that allow for an excellent night's sleep is invaluable.
 
Sleep improves performance, speed, reaction times, and athletic accuracy. Traveling for away games and having early morning practices or late-night races puts a massive strain on the mind and body. These effects are made even worse with the addition of competing.


Studies show that sleep deprivation can lead to decreased alertness and reaction times, which means athletes are twice as likely to suffer an injury if they sleep less than eight hours a night. 


Studies also suggest that the amount of sleep and its quality profoundly impact memory and learning, which can have dire consequences on the track. Someone who is sleep-deprived can’t properly focus and can’t think optimally. When we sleep, our neural connections strengthen, and this function allows us to be able to acquire and recall what’s around us when we’re awake. Without sleep, our focus and attention are severely impacted.


We lose the ability to make proper decisions under pressure and these types of lapses in focus can be dangerous for drivers, when it comes to competing and accidents or injury.
 
Sleep has a great impact on performance and wins. A study was done in California that observed young athletes concluded that when sleeping less than 6 hours a night, their injury rates increased. Higher injury rates consequently mean decreased immune function, reduction in physical fitness, and missed practices and races. Increased sleep improves performance quite a bit, which can be the difference between a win and a loss. The smallest function of time makes all the difference.
 
As a race car driver, alertness is vital. Collisions, flips, whiplash, fires, and general accidents are more likely in a sport that involves operating a highspeed vehicle. These dangers aren’t to be taken lightly and so a proper lifestyle of sleep, nutrition, and exercise are at the core of the sport.


We know that sleep improves performance because being able to react in a split second is necessary under pressure and studies show that even a low level of fatigue can impair those reaction times just as much as being legally drunk can. For the sake of argument, a single all-nighter can impair proper reaction times more than 300%. Recovering from that can take up to a few days.  

How does sleep help race car drivers?

Sleep improves performance and motor coordination. One study conducted in 2003, concluded chronic loss of sleep, even just two hours a night, can negatively impact cognitive abilities. With the newer addition of smartphones and exposure to blue light, the average person’s sleep is even more affected.

Just as developing healthy eating habits and maintaining a consistent exercise schedule takes time and patience, the development of an optimal sleep pattern is equally valuable. Especially for a professional driver. 

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