When we analyze the physiological differences with regard to sporting performance, the gender factor seems to play an import part in most sports. However, where motorsports are concerned, this actually seems to have become less and less of an issue in recent years – if it ever actually was from a functional and physiological standpoint!
I have already covered racing driver fitness training routines. In this article, we will look at how routines may need to be adapted (or not) to allow female drivers to race in a variety of series.
Physiological Differences Between Men & Women In Motorsport
The physiological makeups of male and female drivers are largely the same for the purpose of creating training plans. This means you can create programs according to a standard set of physiological tests, and the training exercises do not need to be sex specific. What is often a more important consideration is the planning of the training of adolescent female drivers, as full physiological growth has not yet been achieved.
Men do have more muscle mass, higher bone density, and less body fat than women, and training programs must address these differences. However, the more important issue is what physical condition the athlete is already in, to determine where the focus should be, irrespective of sex.
Some Important Differences
But there are also less well documented structural and morphological differences between adult males and females that can have profound effects on physiological function. For example, the difference in lung size can play an important role in the success of racing drivers.
Men possess larger lungs, wider airways, and greater lung diffusion capacity than women. As a result, when compared to healthy young men, a woman’s maximal exercise capacity may be limited by pulmonary capacity, especially as they age [study].
However, when creating female driver training programs, and if this is an issue for an individual, training strategies can address these factors. This ensures the success of a driver, whether male or female, is ultimately defined by how each individual prepares physically, mentally, nutritionally, and technically.
In terms of cardiovascular function, there are multiple differences that need to be understood. Men have greater left ventricular mass and chamber size than women. Due to the left ventricular ejection fraction being the same for both sex, stroke volume is greater in men than in women. This also can be addressed by adapting (where required) a cardiovascular training program for a female driver.
The Physical Aspects Of Different Racing Series
We must also consider how physical different series of motorsport can be, and how physically demanding each car is to drive. We can then see how this factors into the success of any female driver and see if it is actually a limitation.
Jamie Chadwick, multiple-time champion in the W Series, has expressed her desire to gain more clarity on this topic. She has suggested changes in Formula 1 and its feeder series that would cater to the physical differences between men and women. These suggestions include things like thinner grips on the steering wheels to cater to those with smaller hands and wider cockpits to accommodate bigger hips.
“I don’t think it is just as straightforward as getting stronger in the gym and jumping in the car. Although our sport is incredibly advanced with a lot of things, the physical human performance side is misunderstood.”Jamie Chadwick, 3-time W Series champion on changes that may need to be made to allow female drivers to make it to Formula 1 (The Guardian)
Simona de Silvestro, arguably one of the best and fittest female drivers, has shown there is no limitation for female drivers in some series at least, having driven in the Formula Atlantic Championship in 2008. She won at the Grand Prix of Long Beach that year, making her the second woman to win in that series after Katherine Legge, who is also known for her incredible physical preparation for driving.
Simona has driven in top motorsports around the world, including as an affiliated driver for the Sauber F1 team in 2014 with the aim of driving in 2015. Due to issues within the team at the time, this opportunity did not come to fruition, but she has also raced in Formula E and IndyCar.
However, it’s worth noting that, as with male drivers, there can be vast differences between the statures of women in motorsport. For example, another point Jamie Chadwick raised in regard to ensuring modern race cars cater to females as well as males was ensuring there are no limits on how close the pedals can be to the driver.
Chadwick is only 5’3” (160 cm), while de Silvestro is 5’7” (170 cm), and so as a smaller driver, she would likely be more affected by any size-specific aspects of driving these cars. However, in Formula 1 we see drivers as tall as 6’1” (like George Russell) competing against those the same height as Chadwick (such as Yuki Tsunoda).
Proper Physical Preparation Is Essential
This illustrates that the only barrier to women being able to drive in any series in professional motorsport should be how well prepared they are (although parts of the cars could definitely be tweaked to better cater to the known differences between male and female bodies). We will elaborate on programs and exercises required for female drivers in the next sections.
Obviously the specifics of open wheel racing like IndyCar and Formula 1 (and F2/F3 etc) may require more time in the gym for female drivers to develop the required upper body strength in the chest, shoulders, and arms to ultimately be successful (although male drivers also require this as well).
We have covered neck training in detail previously, but other aspects specific to race driving include cardiovascular fitness and heat acclimation. The latter is needed in greater capacity for sports car and endurance racing, where drivers are typically in closed cockpit cars (although it is still incredibly hot in an F1 or IndyCar cockpit).
Female Racing Driver Fitness Testing
Physiological testing is crucial, as it ensures that an individual’s training identifies both strengths and weaknesses to be worked on. Weaknesses will of course need to receive priority. To a certain degree, any fitness evaluation is independent of sex, except where there may be a need to adapt a test parameter or exercise for females.
For example, if using push-ups in a test, in order to allow the female athlete to complete this evaluation in good form, adaptive push-ups may be used, using the knees as the lever point, reducing the lever length when compared with a full push-up. Another adaptation could be lowering the resistance used on a bench or dumbbell press to evaluate chest, shoulder and arm strength.
Below is a sample field-based fitness evaluation, but the following are important to keep in mind:
- The use of a heart rate monitor is essential throughout this evaluation
- It’s important to stress that this is not a test for the sake of a test; it’s an evaluation to perfectly target your training regime
- Results will be independent of sex
- Cardiovascular testing is much better under laboratory conditions, but a good field-based test such as this, when properly and professionally supervised, works just as well for most purposes
- These tests should be carried out over several days if possible, but they can be done in one day, as long as you do cardio first then muscle tests afterwards
- Athlete should drink water throughout the cardio evaluations and rest for 10-15 minutes following completion of each day’s test
- Athlete should stretch after each session
Sample Fitness Evaluation For Female Racing Drivers
This stage would consist of a 10-minute steady state run or cycle (indoor or outdoor), along with stretching of the major muscle groups to prepare the upper and lower body.
Road Bike/Exercise Bike
Warm up for 5-10 minutes at what the athlete deems their steady state level, monitoring the athlete’s heart rate throughout. Allow heart rate to climb to 120 bpm before you begin to record heart rate over at least 20-30 minutes of exercise. This 120 bpm will be used as a baseline heart rate (or “working zone”).
You can monitor your heart rate each minute (or other minute) after it goes above 120 bpm, and it will typically increase exponentially for about 12-15 minutes. When your heart rate gets to about 80-90% of your maximum, the rate of increase will slow to about 1-2 bpm, and this indicates Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA).
There is no functional requirement to continue the aerobic fitness test after this point is reached. That’s because this is the point where so much lactate has accumulated that exercise intensity is forcibly reduced due to muscle acidosis induced fatigue. Training just above OBLA will improve it over time.
This is a much better indicator of endurance fitness than a simple VO2 (maximum oxygen consumption) test. You cannot directly measure OBLA without a lab-based test, as you cannot be 100% accurate without taking blood samples, but the test above is a close predictor of an athlete’s anaerobic threshold.
Athletes will typically return to resting heart rate after about 5-7 minutes, while 12 minutes or longer is true for much of the general population. The time it takes the athlete to reach OBLA is not as important as the heart rate once they reach this point and how long it takes for their heart rate to return to their resting rate.
Do a typical run either outside or on a treadmill, following the same format as for the cycle with regard to heart rate monitoring and OBLA. Usually about 20-30 mins is required to get to OBLA, and again it should be carried out at whatever speed the athlete deems their steady state.
Perform inverted rows on a TRX machine, with reps in perfect form completed over 1 minute.
Next, warm up with the bar only or light dumbbells for 20 reps. Then do 15 reps of barbell or dumbbell flat bench press at max weight. Increase the weight by 5 lbs (2.25 kg) and note how many the driver can complete with perfect form.
An alternative is the adaptive push up, which uses the knees as a pivot point, taking some of the driver’s weight off their arms and chest.
Next do abdominal crunches with the tester holding the driver’s feet/having them stabilized in some other way. Count how many perfect reps you can do with elbows touching your knees.
Then, perform the straight bridge position for 1 minute. Note the time when perfect form can no longer be maintained or when you come out of position.
Using the Gatherer Systems neck harness, do timed holds and releases for each position.
How To Approach Creating Female Racing Driver Training Programs
Once you have performed sufficient field or lab-based fitness testing, you can then form a training program. It must take into account both short and long-term goal setting. This includes looking at each driver’s event schedule, before selecting goals together based on a professional periodization model for sports. Periodization is the organization of a yearly training plan to accomplish specific goals, by breaking them into manageable ‘periods.’
The model requires adapting for drivers, perhaps more so for the female driver, to take into consideration limits to performance they may have. Firstly, consider whether the focus should be on strength training or endurance training.
This will require a full physiological analysis of the individual driver. For example, strength training may become a priority for a female driver competing in IndyCar or F1, to develop the required upper body strength along with a dedicated neck training program to prepare them for the increased G-forces present in these sports.
“I need to do the same training as male drivers to increase my stamina and improve my core and upper body strength.”– Mia Flewitt, British GT Championship driver (GT3) on how her training focuses compare to those of a male driver
5 Resistance Exercises For Female Drivers
The exercises below were chosen as they are independent of race series and the athlete’s starting point.
1. Bench Press
This exercise is important as it allows the driver to work multiple upper body muscles with a single movement. Variations of this include a range of inclines to target different areas of the upper chest and shoulders, and it can be performed using dumbbells, a bar, or a machine.
2. Lat Pulldown
This exercise works all of the upper back muscles, including the rhomboids and rear shoulders, along with improving core stabilization. These are all important muscles to strengthen for a race driver. The exercise may also be better for women than the pull-up/chin-up as there is no requirement to move your bodyweight. A wide grip can be used to better target the upper back.
3. Back Extension
This exercise is important as it improves the stability of the spinal erectors.
4. Abdominal Crunch
These can be performed on a physio ball or on a floor mat, and there are lots of variations that specifically target the core.
Drivers should focus on the back squat or dumbbell squat. This focuses on the hip flexors and extensors, ankle flexion, and hamstring activity. These are required in all race disciplines, all the way from karting to the top of the motorsport ladder. The exercise can also be performed using a Smith machine or even a hack squat machine.
Benefits for a driver include:
- Mastering the ability to engage and strengthen the core muscles
- Ability for stabilization of the ankle, knee and hip joints and muscles
- The recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibers in the legs/ankle for braking and control
The Effect Of The Menstrual Cycle On Women In Motorsport
Sex differences in motorsport are based on generalizations with currently no conclusive research evidence to suggest otherwise. However, one interesting study with relevance to motorsport found that the menstrual cycle can have a negative influence on a woman’s concussion symptoms following injury.
Racing performance is limited by a driver’s brain processing capacity. If sufficient brain capacity is not available, drivers will either have to slow down or make errors, especially under pressure. Long-term concussion symptoms could potentially affect cognitive performance such as memory and attention, and consequently racing performance.
A concussion in motorsport is likely going to be due to a crash, and so this may lead some to question whether women should drive more conservatively around certain periods of the menstrual cycle. The answer to this question is outside the scope of this article, and the scope of most existing research in the field, but it’s something that male drivers don’t need to consider.
More Important Factors
Another study by Ferguson et al found that the type of car and how much experience a racing driver has is more important than their menstrual cycle when it comes to their performance. The data from this study did not support the previous suggestions that women experience any greater physiological fatigue than males as a result of the menstrual cycle.
The study also found that there is not enough evidence to say that male and female racing drivers are different when it comes to performance. Ultimately, success in car racing comes down to skill, experience, and opportunity, regardless of sex.
This section was written by Sabine Tyrvainen, CEO The Winner’s Institute UK
“Talent and confidence is the best start whatever gender! Gender isn’t a big part in what makes a great racing driver.”– Mia Flewitt, British GT Championship driver (GT3) on whether there are any sex-dependent advantages in motorsport
While the physical training routines for male and female drivers don’t necessarily need to differ in a general sense, they should be targeted towards the individual’s strengths and weaknesses in any case. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the individual and their physiological capacity at the time and what their objective is.
While there are defined differences between the physical makeups of male and female athletes, the main barrier to entry for women in motorsport should be how well they prepare physically, mentally, nutritionally, and technically.