Downtime, the Importance of Recovery

With the Formula One season finished and the final race at Abu Dhabi back in December feeling like a very distant memory, now is a great time to look at the importance of drivers (and all of us) having some downtime to rest and recover. At the time of writing, there are just 71 days until the 2021 season kicks off with FP1 in Bahrain. Now, with the current pandemic situation, it’s very possible that the season start may be postponed, and various race dates changed around like last season. This kind of unknown in its own right can cause underlying anxiety and stress.

As we have mentioned before, this has everything to do with the way our brains process unpredictability. Unfortunately, when it comes to uncertainty, our brains haven’t evolved quite as much as we would like to think. Our brains are on a constant quest for predictability, for safety, for control. But if there was one way to describe 2020, and the beginning of 2021 so far, then it would be: out of our control. Our brains are not loving this type of unpredictability, so finding ways to unwind, to cope, is incredibly important.

Drivers use this downtime in between the seasons very differently, and understandably so as they are all unique human beings. Some will use the time to eat and drink a little bit less restrictively as they may have been having to work hard to keep their weight down. Some will be partying hard with friends and relatives after spending many many months locked away in a bubble, away from the rest of the world. Others will go off grid for a while, away from social media and the public eye, to give them a chance to rest and recover as the social pressures throughout the season are very unforgiving. All will look back and reflect, look at what they can learn, and what they can do better coming up to the 2021 season.

It’s massively important for them to switch off. Their mental state runs at a very high level most of the time because of the job they do. They are making highly critical decisions at very high speeds. It takes a massive amount of energy to operate at this level over the course of a season. If we look at the brain as a muscle, then it needs to rest the same as a runner will rest their legs after a tough race or workout.

Letting their hair down also gives them a sense of normality, which is important. The F1 carnival is a world like no other, so the opportunity to do normal things with normal people is a huge part of them regrounding back to normality for a short while.

If you are wondering why downtime is so important for F1 drivers, then look at it this way: there is an abundance of research showing that a lack of downtime is detrimental to work performance. Productivity goes down, memory capacity reduces, and attention span decreases. Now imagine your work is driving wheel to wheel at 350 kilometres an hour. Downtime in F1 is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Movable goals

Dealing with, and preparing for, an unknown is really hard work. We can relate to this in our own lives at work, sports, and in relationships. So how do drivers prepare for a season that may or may not start on the 26th of March?

From a physical point of view they will already be working towards the 26th as a goal start date and they will ensure they are strong and fit enough to go and perform at their highest level when the lights go out.

From a psychological point of view it’s a little more tricky, as they need to be ready to trigger the fight-response, mediated by the amygdala, in a positive way at the right time. The last thing they need to do is waste energy firing up the brain unnecessarily.

Drivers and athletes use a tool/term called “Control the Controllables”. They focus and prepare for what they can control in the here and now, they won’t waste energy worrying about things that are currently out of their control days, weeks months ahead of time. A lot of this is down to preparation, being as prepared as they possibly can be so they are ready to go to battle at a moment’s notice. Time will be spent in the Sims working on upgrades and getting valuable seat time and refreshing themselves with the circuits.

This is true for us in our lives as well, especially during this pandemic. Focussing and putting the efforts into what we can control now, and preparing ourselves as much as possible for when we need to perform is incredibly beneficial to our mental health. That way we keep ourselves grounded in the presence, we lighten the load on our brains when dealing with unpredictability, and we allow ourselves to perform to the best of our abilities, no matter what the arena may be.