In mainstream sports heart rate monitoring is a given. It gives you a solid indication of your fitness and your performance potential. In my experience its rare to see people in club motorsports looking at race drivers heart rate data, at least in the context of their track performance.

What is your heart rate on track and does it even matter?

Spoiler alert: You might be shocked by the results!

“Motorsports is not a REAL sport, is it?”

Given motorsports is a “sitting sport” it is often considered, by people who’ve often never done it, as a “non-sport.” Like darts or snooker or even golf where your VO2 max is not a critical determinant to you being competitive.

So how relevant is your heart rate to your driving performance anyway?

Do race drivers heart rates even increase much whilst driving?

What does your body actually go through on a race day or test day?

Are their any physiological differences you might experience sitting in a race car compared to relaxing in your favourite arm chair?

All you want is to be clear on how fit you really need to be so you can get the most from your track time.

In this article I’m going to share the results of a test I did on this, so that you can see how high a drivers heart rate goes. If the headline results don’t surprise you (they did me!) then there are a couple of more subtle aspects that you might also benefit from being aware of.

Of course, then it is up to you what you do with this information but at least you’ll know. You also now have a nice reference to point the motor-sport non-believers too!

Testing A Race Drivers Heart Rate

During a recent coaching session with a driver we ran a simple watch based heart rate monitor on him for the day – until his battery ran out!

You can see the data we gathered here:

Race Drivers Heart Rate data - Your Data Driven
Race drivers heart rate data from recently test. Data gathered via basic watch based HR monitor.

What do you make of that?

There are quite a few things going on here.

Let me give you the context for the day so you can start to put the data into context.

Setting The Scene For The Test Day

The driver was participating in a regular Friday test day that we often run ahead of a race weekend.

Compared to race day, the general atmosphere within the paddock is relaxed. There are non of the pre-race nerves or excessive trips to the bathroom before one gets into the racecar!

The format for this test day was 4 x 20 minute sessions, evenly spread through the day. Two before lunch and two after.

The weather was clear, sunny and dry. Its rarely “hot” here in the UK but neither was it particularly cold.

The track was well known to the driver, who is generally on the pace and competitive in class.

The car used pulls around 1.3 g maximum acceleration under cornering and braking. It is an open top car, with a top speed of about 120 mph (190 kph.)

Racing Drivers Heart Rate In Context – The Inferred Metric

The first thing to say, before getting too deep into the racing drivers heart rate analysis, is that heart rate is a good example of an inferred metric. You can read more about what I mean by inferred metrics here.

In short, this is an example of where you are measuring one thing to infer what is happening somewhere else.

In this case, you are measuring heart rate to infer aspects of the drivers performance – for example,

  • his underlying fitness.
  • the stress he is experiencing.
  • the physicality of the work his is doing.
  • his potential levels of physical and mental fatigue.

These aspects can affect a drivers ability to operate the controls, his concentration and ultimately his performance on track.

If you can get an understanding of what your driver is going through and how this affecting him, you can better prepare and manage the situation.

Assessing A Race Drivers Heart Rate Data

There are four areas in this data that stood out to me. If you have any further observations be sure to sign up here and let me know.

1: Underlying Fitness

This racing driver is fit – he has a resting heart of 54bpm. He is a man – of a certain age! – but if look on the chart below you will see that, for any age, he is at athletic levels of fitness.

Resting heart rate comparison with age - Racing drivers heart rate
Resting heart rate verses fitness level – source Open University

Remember this when you consider the rest of the points. I would guess that someone with less good underlying fitness – i.e. most of you reading this! – the effects you’ll see in a minute will be bigger.

2: Peak Heart Rate – 154 BPM

The scale on the heart rate chart below is not great. However you can see that the peak during the day was just short of 154 BPM.

Racing Drivers Peak Heart Rate During Test
Racing Drivers Peak Heart Rate During Test

For someone of this underlying fitness level, that is working pretty hard. It is not as high as you’d expect running or cycling, but it is a lot more than simply driving to the shops – or sitting on the sofa!

The driver was sweating quite a bit each time he got out of the car. You can see why now.

3: Peaks Match Track Sessions

This is either really really obvious to you or not. Just in case it is not, its worth pointing out that each peak in the racing drivers heart rate matches the sessions he was out on track.

Racing driver heart rate peaks during test day sessions

The first session in the morning, isn’t so high. I don’t really know why that is – maybe he was just getting himself “in the zone.” There were also quite a few session interruptions so that may have been a factor.

The three subsequent sessions show clear peaks during the 20 minute on track.

This is similar to what your heart rate will do if you have ever done “interval” training. I’m really no fitness expert but my feeling is you’d be better to do more interval training, rather than endurance training, if you’re only on track a short period of time.

After each track session you can also see a slight up flick up – we joked about this as that is when I was giving him his feedback … #bebraver 😉🤣

4: Great Sleep

Starting to look a little past what is happening when the driver is on track now, you can see that he actually got a great nights sleep. His heart rate is consistently low all night until he wakes up.

Your sleep before a track event or race day is not always that great. Given this was a test day not a race day that might explain it. You can use data like this a baseline for what your “normal sleep” pattern should look like.

There have been countless articles linking the importance of sleep to performance in sports. Here is one, with some actionable sleep tips you can apply, back from my world in Olympic sports – forgive the authors “Gold medal” theme!

5: Driver Maintains Higher Heart Rate ALL Through Day

One of the most interesting, perhaps more subtle aspects, is the race drivers heart rate recovery i.e. how much does this drivers heart rate come down again once he is out of the race car.

Interestingly, I would say that it doesn’t come down to a “normal” level all day.

You can also see he is at “fat burn” levels for well over 4 HOURS!

The implications of that could be quite important. In effect, the driver is still burning elevated levels of energy even when he is not exercising in the car.

This might be why you feel so tired at the end of a test day?

Whilst you’ve been in and out of the car, your body hasn’t stopped all day. Again the reason for this I can’t say for sure but there is perhaps an underlying stress of knowing you’re about to go back out on track. Or just all the energy between sessions.

On race day, I’d expect this to be even higher for longer.

For that you are probably better off doing more endurance training than intervals – but again designing fitness programmes are outside my understanding!

Summing Up

If you have ever taken a racing car on track, it will come as no surprise to you that drivers have to work pretty hard.

This is evidenced by what I found in this simple heart rate analysis.

Even during a regular test day, the race drivers heart rate peaked at levels you’d expect to only see when “properly” exercising.

If you have access to a heart rate monitor, say in your watch, then I’d encourage you to switch it on and see what your body goes through.

For me the surprise was both the height of the peak heart rate and the lack of recovery. Particularly for a driver this fit, I wasn’t expecting it to be anywhere near that high.

The recovery is less obvious but has potentially more impact. I certainly wasn’t aware of the lack of heart rate recovery before. I’d assumed that when you’re not in the car you’re not working. Instead, my drivers heart rate stayed elevated all day which is draining.

3 Tips To Manage A Race Drivers Heart Rate Between Sessions

I’m no expert here but three things that have worked for me, which you might consider are:

  1. Breathing. So finding a quite space to do that a mindful style breathing exercise. Even for 1 minute I’ve found it helps.
  2. Fish for lunch. The temptation – or only option – sometimes at the track are heavy foods like chips and burgers. I’ve found these can sit heavy and drain you even more. Try something lighter. Fish, I understand, has other beneficial properties for the heart so I try to head that way.
  3. Water. Hydration is important. You don’t want to make more trips to the bathroom than necessary, but staying topped up with fluids has also helped me. When I started racing I used to have Red Bull, as that is what I thought you’d needed! I’ve found however that simple water – or orange squash – is the best balance for me.

I’d be interested in what works for you too.

I hope you found this as fascinating. Being more aware of what your drivers body goes through during the day now can help you better prepare for and manage your days on track.

Best of luck!


Further Reading:

Race cars are all about tyres –> https://www.staging41.yourdatadriven.com/guide-to-interpreting-tyre-temperatures-in-motorsports/

Take the mystery out of Gear Ratio selection –> https://www.staging41.yourdatadriven.com/how-to-use-the-gearing-optimisation-spreadsheet/

How to measure the impossible –> https://www.staging41.yourdatadriven.com/how-to-measure-the-impossible-and-the-inferred-metric/