An F1 driver has fitness demands slightly different from your everyday automotive athlete. Drivers like Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, and Lando Norris are tasked with navigating $15 million single seaters through some of the most unique road courses in the world. A typical race—by F1 performance standards—can have drivers weaving through streets at speeds that top 200 KPH for close to 200 miles. Making the podium can require a combination of quick instincts and steady, sniper-like focus and stamina.

And as an F1 performance consultant, it’s the job of Dr. Tommy Wood to create the most optimal methods for his drivers to help maximize results and minimize any type of mental catastrophe.

To those outside of F1, many people would think that cutting-edge mental hacks and strength tips would be the requirements to successfully drive such state of the art machines. But not so fast, says the neuroscientist in charge of helping racers cross the finish line fastest. When it comes to mentally preparing for not just F1 performance but any challenging endeavor, simplicity still works quite well.

“You’d probably be surprised by the number of Formula 1 drivers who don’t do any fancy biohacks or supplements,” he says. “They just do the basics really well. They have a good training program, they make sure they eat well, and they rest and recover. I think that’s something that all of us should focus on more of as well—less biohacks and more of just making sure we’re nailing the basics.”

When it comes to making gains with our own wellness, many of us oftentimes have developed a habit of overthinking the task presented. And it’s easy to fall in that trap when social media is quick to present that latest trend that may or not even work. For instance, more people have become more reliant on fitness trackers these days—so much so it’s become a nearly $80 billion annual industry in the U.S. alone, despite the data surrounding many of these wearables.  On top of that, many of us may not even reading the results correctly. This biohacking blunder can lead to squandered gains by unnecessarily scaling back or even skipping a workout when our wrist monitor readouts put us in the red.

Instead, according to Wood, who also works as an assistant professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at the University of Washington, while there may be some upsides to wearables, there are five old-school common Winning Strategies that we’ve  traded for new tech—from the right motivation to the need to sometimes get out of your comfort zone in order to develop a mindset of being able to work under suboptimal conditions.

Wood uses the Washington Huskies’ run to this past FCS championship game against Michigan to stress the importance of mental toughness. Up until its loss in the championship game, the team’s last five games prior to were determined by less than a touchdown. Although not involved directly with the team, he attributes some of the success to the Huskies’  familiarity with being able to perform in tight contests. And like how similar instances of maximizing focus during uncomfortable situations can help F1 performance as well, it can also greatly benefit the everyday athlete as well.

“It’s mental strength from knowing that they can do those difficult things and still turn it around. And they can keep performing deep into the fourth quarter,” he says.  “There are ways to drill and build up that mentality capacity,  but in reality, the only way you’re really going to know that is once you’ve done it, which is again why that kind of idea of exposing yourself to those challenging situations and knowing you can overcome them that gives you that that strength to know that you can you can keep pushing when you need to.”


1. Like F1 Performance, Different Tasks Require Different Levels of ‘Focus’

Arousal is really important for focus and performance, no matter what sport you’re performing. However, each sport is different—take archery versus sprinting—which means your optimal level of arousal needs to be different as well. Depending on the athlete and the need to be either more or less amped, you may work to increase or decrease your arousal. This could be done through breath work, meditation, or supplements like caffeine.

When a driver’s thinking about focus for a race, there are a few things he has to take into account. One is how amped up he is for the race. And that can be different for different drivers. If a driver’s not amped up enough, he may be slow off the line or have a slower reaction time. But if he’s too amped, the chances are he’s more likely to make a mistake and crash. So you have to find that sweet spot, no matter the activity you’re performing. The important thing to remember is to be as good as you can at the task you’re doing.

When it comes to driving and F1 performance, that’s almost automatic, drivers aren’t even thinking about it—that’s from extended periods of practice. However, as things get more difficult, or their cognitive load increases—this happens as they get tired—then removing distractions becomes important.

If you watch Formula 1, you’ll notice toward the end of the race, particularly if it’s hot and they’re becoming stressed and tired, drivers will stop talking on the radio. Whereas earlier in the race, they’re still feeling good and everything’s functioning properly, back and forth communication is normal. However, near the end of the race, oftentimes, they’ll ask the team to not talk to them as well. This is because they need to put all their resources into focusing on the car.

So for optimal F1 performance, it’s important to either match or be able to regulate your distractions based on your cognitive load. You can kind of see drivers do that in real time. Yes, they’re the best in the world doing that at 200 mph, but sometimes they too get fatigued and overheated. Then it’s just about getting rid of distractions in order to focus on the job at hand.

2. Consistency Always Beats Perfection

Everybody has bad days, even the pros. There was this recent interview with Olympic decathlon champion (Damian Warner), in which he admits the vast majority of his days in the gym were simply OK—he just showed up and did the work.

That’s really important to remember, even when you don’t feel great. For most people, getting the work done won’t feel amazing most of the time. And if you really have a bad day, that’s fine as well, because there’s something you can take away from “bad days.”

Being consistent is the important thing. The next day you may feel great and you’re back on track, but we now spend a lot of time focusing on making everything optimal every time. We’re able to sleep optimally, therefore we have to train optimally every time.

But then when things go wrong, we get mixed up in our head—I didn’t sleep as well as I needed, therefor I’m not going to perform as well.

Whereas if you go in the gym and you had a bad night’s sleep and get the work done anyway, you’ll quickly learn that you can still perform even when things are suboptimal. This way you can reframe your mindset to say that even on a bad day you still got the work done.

It means you can actually still do things even when everything isn’t going well. That’s actually a really good thing to know, whether if’s for F1 performance or your long-term goals. You should be able to perform in suboptimal conditions rather than trying to make sure everything is optimal all the time.

3. Rely on Common Sense More Than Your Wearables

We’ve become too reliant on wearables. [At this point] we don’t necessarily know how good the data are. Some fitness trackers are good, but others may not be at the moment. However, we now know how the data these trackers provide affects us.

There was a [sleep] study by Adam Langer and Steve Lockley at Harvard. People would come into the lab to sleep—they would sleep for either five or eight hours. However, the clocks were changed randomly. So some people who slept for five hours thought they slept for eight hours because the clock on the wall had gone forward eight hours. Some people who slept eight hours and the clock only went forward five hours. They thought they’d only slept five hours.

What most affected them the next day was that researchers looked at reaction times and how sleepy they felt. What affected most people’s performance the next day was how long they thought they’d slept rather than how long they actually slept.

So it kind of showed that we’re kind of letting these wearables—some with not necessarily great data, and then not necessarily interpreting the data correctly, determine how we feel and perform.

In reality, you know often whether you’ve slept well or not. And you might know whether today is the day to work hard in the gym, instead of having an app determine for you whether you should or not.

4. Your Body Is Built to Take on Difficult Challenges

Being able to do things that you need to do when you’re under stress is probably one of the best ways to make sure that you can still perform in that scenario.

As an example, when I was working as a doctor about 10 years ago, I signed up to do a 24-hour off-road Ironman. And I knew that for the event I was going to have to bike through the night and then do a marathon the next morning. So when I did night shift work, I’d work all night and then go and do my training immediately afterward. So I practiced my training while sleep deprived.

You can do this in many different scenarios. You can create fatigue while sleep deprived, then practice what you need to do to be able to perform, whether it’s your job or athletic performance. Once you find yourself in that stress scenario, you’re going to have better performance results because you’ve practiced under those conditions. You’re also going to have the knowledge that you know you can still perform in those types of conditions. You’ll get a placebo effect just from knowing you’re capable of performing well in those conditions.


5. When You’re Fatigued, It’s OK to Rest

I can definitely say that doing that race was not healthy—my body completely fell apart afterward. So yes, there is a trade off. There’s always a possibility that that scenario itself is not a good one for you physiologically, but again, sometimes you’re going to have to be able to perform in that situation. However doing these things once in a while, although it may not feel so great for us in the moment, with adequate recovery afterward, you’ll be just fine.

Maybe this is where wearables can be helpful—it forces people to focus on how well they’re recovering. We’ve developed into this kind of grind culture—the David Goggins approach of keep going and keep pushing yourself. It’s useful to know that we’re able to do difficult things, and occasionally doing stuff that’s really really hard is great and important. But we also have to allow ourselves the time to rest and recover. That is extremely critical if we want to be fitter and healthier over the long term.

There is a balance between difficult things and recovery, and you have to find time for both instead of just going hard every single day. That’s how amateurs get injured—they never give themselves the time to recover.