Fatigue is not a subject to which racers pay much attention. Long hours getting ready for a race are the norm. Often it seems that long hours are viewed as the "measure" of one's commitment to the sport. We need to look at fatigue more closely and see if the prevailing views are conductive to maximizing performance.
First, we need to define different kinds of fatigue. Physical fatigue is the feeling of physical tiredness related to lack of sleep, illness, physical exhaustion, or poor nutrition. Mental fatigue is the feeling of tiredness and exhaustion after prolonged periods of intense mental activity, cognitive evaluation, and even emotional processing.
This is the easiest and most direct place to start as it relates almost entirely to sleep. Physical exhaustion and illness require more sleep as a primary remedy. There is a whole host of research showing degraded performance due to sleep deprivation. Sleep loss has negative effects on memory, attention, reaction time, and cognitive processing. Essentially, you're entire motor control system operates less efficiently.
The case for mental fatigue is a bit more complicated. Mental fatigue includes "brainwork" but also encompasses emotional work, stress, and anxiety. The two forms of fatigue are, of course, not independent. Sleep deprivation cases slower mental processing, which in turn causes a higher level of effort and stress and increased mental fatigue. The more direct sources of mental fatigue are the intensity of concentration, length of time at task, and the prevailing emotional state of the individual.
Fatigue probably has the most detrimental effect on the driver because the level of concentration and the speed of mental processing are so severely affected by fatigue and are the core activities of the driver. Stress and anxiety must be controlled as discussed in a previous chapter. Sleep is obviously the major factor in reducing fatigue… a driver off sleeping is using his time wisely.
Some of you are saying to yourselves, "hey I'm a sprint racer. My races are only 30 or 40 minutes long. This doesn't apply to me". Not true. Research shows that as little as 10 to 15 minutes of intense concentration causes performance degradation if you're sleep deprived. One of the talents a driver needs to develop is the ability to put out a maximum level of attention for the length of time he's driving. He needs to have enough reserve at the end of his [race] so that his performance is not significantly degraded. The driver must learn his limits, and must train to improve those limits, regardless of the length of the race.
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© 2007 Doug Snyder of Force 5 Racing Team
Permission granted; "Driving Advantage"