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The benefits of trail running (and training variety) for race drivers

From Romain Grosjean to Stoffel Vandoorne, and even the seven-time champ Lewis Hamilton; there is a reason why you’ll often see race drivers hitting the mountain trails and diverging from an established norm of running and cycling on the road for their endurance work. In this article, we’ll go through the benefits of mixing up your training to incorporate off-road outdoor adventuring, and highlight some surprising sport-specific benefits you can take back to the cockpit on race day. Don’t live in Monaco? Not to worry! You don’t need access to the principalities’ mountains to introduce some new challenges to your own training sessions.



Proprioception


Not to get too Marvel Cinematic Universe here, but proprioception is seen by some as a secret weapon for athletes, and sometimes referred to as ‘the sixth sense’. Simply put, proprioception relates to a network of nerve sensors around muscle groups that, in conjuction with your inner ear, govern your balance on uneven surfaces and inform your brain of the position of your body parts at any given time. If you think about some of the complex movements involved in technical gross muscle skills such as sprinting or a tennis serve, then realise how essential this communication path to the brain is; you’d quickly be an uncoordinated mess during most athletic movements without it!


For a quick test: stand up on a flat surface, balance on one foot (without shoes) and close your eyes. If you have to immediately put your other foot down or hands out to prevent tipping over, then this is an indication that your proprioceptor sensors are not functioning as well as they could be.

Moving rapidly over uneven terrain is the perfect way to train this system, getting your body used to making tiny alterations and corrections to your trajectory over rocks, through mud, and when running downhill at speed. Placing your foot while running on the road is a cyclic and somewhat autonomous movement that absolutely does utilise proprioception, but placing your foot while moving on constantly changing ground requires it to work a lot harder. With every foot placement you’re constantly having to make tiny micro-adjustments to your ankle position and foot angle, and then also stabilize this all the way up your body through counter-balancing with core muscles and arm movements. When we then think about how this relates back to motorsport, there is a link to your 'feel through the seat' and ability to make rapid hand movements and corrections bracing against a strong core while fighting g-forces.


Brain training


A key skill of any race driver is fast reaction speed and decision making, but also the ability to do this under increasing fatigue and heat conditions throughout the course of a race distance. Using our previous example of foot placement on a paved, flat road verses on a constantly changing trail surface: as well as the unconscious process of proprioception, your brain is constantly processing and acting upon the stimuli of the upcoming surface; judging how best to place your foot, assessing how slippy the surface will be based on past experience from earlier in the run, and predicting how to modulate your leg cadence to match.


Training your brain to make these very fast decisions while becoming increasingly fatigued is a skill that will reap benefits on the race track for obvious reasons, and perhaps outside of a Batak board is a very particular neural pathway that is difficult to train for when you’re not in the car in a competitive environment (think: quickly reacting to other car movements at race starts, for example). Going one step further, if you’re blessed to be training in a warm environment (or even simulating a warm environment with extra layers of clothing) then this further adds in an element of training these brain systems alongside fatigue AND heat tolerance... which starts to get directly relevant to what you’re having to do in the race car.



Core stability


The athlete’s holy grail… as a race driver, much of your strength & conditioning work in the gym will likely be based around balance and core stability work, therefore any activity that compliments this is a bonus. Alongside proprioception, core strength and stability is an integral part of counterbalancing rapid changes in movement, and managing the movements involved in running at pace over lumpy trails.


Your abdominal and lower back muscles are taking a lot of the load as you perform stabilisation movements on an undulating or unstable surface, and a strong core ultimately means better balance, better running form, and less chance of injury. So when you consider that as well as providing a core strength session, hitting the trails is also ideal for building leg strength and top-end aerobic conditioning… it could be considered as the ultimate endurance workout!


Get outside


If you’ve ever experienced the zen-like state of flow while out running or cycling solo on the road, you can potentially expect to access that state more often in a more sensory stimulating outdoor environment. Ultimately, this can again benefit your on track performance by allowing you to train the feelings associated with being in this relaxed state and make it easier for you to access this (with some practice) on race day or in other stressful settings. There is a wealth of research pointing to the wider mental health benefits of exercising or training in the outdoor environment, particularly amongst greenery and countryside settings.


If much of your training incorporates road -based running and cycling as a means to an end to rack up the weekly miles, mixing up one or two sessions could have a real motivating effect, stave off boredom and rejuvenate your training schedule. Running up hills or over mixed surfaces can be a very challenging workout, and ultimately a lot of fun… which might be just what you need! Sometimes the best trail runs are the ones where you leave the GPS watch and gadgets at home, put your phone on flight mode and simply enjoy the views on an unstructured run.


Furthermore, if we incorporate hours potentially spent in a gym or simulator environment as part of your overall race weekend preparation, getting outside for a few sessions could really help to mix things up and provide some much needed variety in your training sessions. Uphill running is also a great way to build leg strength, and can provide welcome variety from gym leg pressing exercises if you’re racing in a series requiring fitness for significant braking pressures.



Disclaimer


If you’re new to trail running, you should definitely treat the activity with the respect you would with any new skill and build up gradually. Particularly on downhill sections, there is potential for some gnarly injuries if you get a little too ambitious, and the last thing you want to do is go tearing into a challenging trail, misplace your footfall on a slippery rock and find yourself out for the motorsport season with torn ankle ligaments… Start with a sensible route and consider that it’s best to have some base aerobic fitness under your belt before transitioning into the more challenging and/or undulating routes.


Appropriate footwear is also a must, and trail-specific trainers will offer a lightweight shoe with good grip profile, with waterproofing also a consideration for those muddy puddles you’ll be splashing through! Don’t be afraid to walk sections instead of running while you’re building up your skills/fitness, you’re still moving on changing surfaces and reaping the benefit of working those crucial proprioception sensors; even at a slightly reduced pace. Finally, if the area you’re running in is rural or remote then consider what would happen if you were to injure yourself with no-one around; take the basic safety steps of letting someone know where you’re going and take a mobile phone with you (although bear in mind there won’t always be coverage in remote locations).


Alternatives


As mentioned in the introduction, it’s all well and good benefiting from the outside environment when you’re an elite driver living at the foot of Monaco’s mountain playground, but what about if you live in a more urban environment? Perhaps you can find some gradient and mixed/softer surfaces such as grass in a local park, or there may even be features around the streets that could be used, such as steps, slopes, flyovers… use your imagination! The UK is surprisingly compact, and in many cities you can find some variation in terrain and even beautiful countryside just by driving for 10-15 minutes out of the urban sprawl. If you’re lucky enough to live near a coastline then you are definitely in business, with access to sand dunes, beach running, and hidden cliff side trails to potentially explore.


Training Camp


Interested in adding some variety to your training this season and learning more about how trail running can benefit your motorsport performance? Join us for our training camp in August and sample some of the Peak District’s most challenging and picturesque trail routes, where we’ll be directly working on all of the motorsport-specific skill sets outlined in the article you’ve just read! For more information, how to book, and details of an early bird discount offer, please see the dedicated web page here.