Dietitian keeps race drivers on the right track.
IF LEGENDARY drivers of the 1970s were any guide, the secret to motorsport success would lie in 40 ciggies a day, steak and frites at the Tip Top Club, then a horizontal workout at the hotel. Today’s race drivers, however, are among the most disciplined and dedicated athletes.
“With the amount of work they do, I’m sure they would be competitive in whatever type of sport they went into,” says Kerry Leech, a dietitian at Brisbane’s Eat Smart Nutrition Consultants. Leech has worked with V8 Supercars drivers Michael Caruso and James Moffat to study how racing affected their bodies and helped formulate an appropriate diet.
“My dad worked in the car industry, so I grew up watching Bathurst,” Leech says. “I had a bit of a motorhead background. I knew that with the g-forces and things it was a stressful environment. But seeing how hot they got within the cars and the efforts the teams put in was fantastic.
“At the Gold Coast endurance race, we did some fluid studies on them, to measure their sweat rates and see how they managed. And I went to their training environment, talked about the off-season work they were doing. I had a chat to their caterers at the races as well. We looked at urine colour and urine specific gravity. It’s important to be well hydrated going into an event, and you work on that hydration in the week or so beforehand.”
Leech compares racing drivers’ challenges with those of fighter pilots and endurance athletes. “There’s a strength component to it and that high-intensity workload – they’re up there with marathon runners, but with the added element of competing against forces. And they have to maintain fantastic levels of concentration.”
The brain is one of the biggest users of carbohydrates, Leech explains. And consumption increases with body temperature. “When body temperatures go up, your carbohydrate, your energy usage, goes to extremes. It makes you work a lot harder, your VO2 max [peak oxygen intake] and those types of things.
“Keeping cool is important. They can now monitor core body temperature accurately during sporting events, by getting the athlete to swallow a pill. It’s actually a little thermometer that sends out an infrared message.
“In the car they need great concentration, so we need to maintain blood-sugar levels. In the lead-up to the race they need to boost their carbohydrate intake, which will help their glycogen stores, and will help them store fluid as well.
“During the week they can be satisfied on a slightly higher-protein diet. That’s going to be lean meats, fish and chicken. But whenever they’ve got to maintain their concentration or have high energy demands, they need carbohydrate intake.
“The night before is probably the most important time to really fuel up. The day of a race, they’ll probably have smaller snacks on a regular basis because when you’re working at those extremes your appetite drops off. But during an endurance race, they may top up their carbohydrate levels with sports drinks and sports gels.
“Liquid meals can be more comfortable; the last thing you want is a full belly and to feel like you need to go to the toilet during a race.”
Why are racing drivers so skinny when they work sitting down? “People don’t function well when they’re overheated,” says sports dietitian Kerry Leech. “The leaner you are, the greater your ability to withstand that. Excess body fat is an insulator. That’s why these guys work very hard on their fitness and keep themselves lean.”