Track Day Food Guide: 5 Meals to Stay Focused

Track days are intense, and the last thing you want is to feel sluggish or weighed down. It's essential to strike a balance between getting the nutrients you need and not overloading your system.
In high-performance driver education (HPDE), every element counts: from the type of tires on your car to the food you put in your body. Surprisingly, the latter often takes a backseat, despite playing a significant role in your overall performance and well-being. If you’ve already dabbled in HPDE or are a seasoned driver, you may have had firsthand experiences of how the wrong diet can make a good track day go bad (I know I have). This Track Day Food Guide offers an overview on eating right at an HPDE event to enhance your focus, prevent brain fog, and avoid the dreaded “food coma.”

Why Eating Right Matters in a High-Performance Driving Setting

Sonoma raceway chicken
Photo by Sarah Stierch

Eating right isn’t just about avoiding hunger pangs on the track. It’s about equipping your body and mind to handle the intense focus and quick decision-making required in HPDE. Whether you’re a beginner, just getting a feel for the track, or an advanced driver working on squeezing that little extra out of you and your car, what you eat plays an important role. Your energy levels, attention span, and even your mood are profoundly affected by your dietary choices.

I want to dig into the importance of ‘mindful eating’ and how it can improve focus, examine foods that either alleviate or trigger brain fog, and touch on the science of postprandial sleepiness, also known as the “food coma.” I’ll also offer practical advice on foods and snacks to consider, or avoid, to get the most out of your HPDE experience.

Just to be clear: Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding vitamins, supplements, or herbal alternatives. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in…

Eating Mindfully Improves Focus

Ok, this is very much stating the obvious but, at HPDE events, focus is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. This is one of the reasons I personally enjoy it so much, I literally can’t think of anything else while on track. Driving at high speeds in a controlled environment demands a heightened level of attention and situational awareness. One small lapse in focus can not only cost you a smooth lap but also compromise your safety – and that of others – on the track.

Cognitive function bandw brain scaled e1695666157916
Photo by Alina Grubnyak

The Role of Nutrition in Cognitive Function

Your brain is a pretty energy-intensive organ, consuming about 20% of your body’s total energy. What you consume naturally has a direct impact on cognitive performance, affecting your ability to maintain focus during those critical moments on the track. Ignoring your diet can lead to decreased reaction times and a decline in decision-making skills, both vital aspects of HPDE.

Vitamins and Minerals That Are Crucial for Focus

Research has clearly shown that certain vitamins and minerals are key players in cognitive health. My wife is the one who researches these things and I find pills and tablets appearing at the breakfast table. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but some of the vitamins/minerals I take on a daily basis. Also, incorporating foods rich in these nutrients can be a game-changer for your HPDE performance, both on the day and just generally.

  • Vitamin B12: Vital for maintaining nerve health
  • Iron: Important for oxygen transportation to brain cells
  • Zinc: Influences neurotransmitters related to focus
  • Magnesium: Regulates the release of stress hormones

Connection Between Blood Sugar Levels and Focus

Another crucial task is managing your blood sugar levels. Both high and low sugar levels can become dangerous – high blood sugar can impair cognitive functions, while low levels can cause a lack of energy and attention lapses. The goal is to maintain balanced blood sugar to keep your focus sharp throughout the day.

Tired on track

TRACK DAY FOOD GUIDE: The Spike and Crash Phenomenon

High-sugar foods and those with a high glycemic index may give you a quick energy burst but are often followed by a sharp drop, affecting your focus and energy. Consuming the wrong types of foods, especially those high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, can exacerbate cognitive difficulties. For HPDE, this “spike and crash” is highly undesirable.

Look at the chart below, specifically the orange line – now consider what you eat at a track day lunch. Say we stop for lunch at 12pm, how do you feel towards 2pm? A little sleepy, sluggish or foggy?

Carb effects on blood sugar

What we’re aiming for here is a gradual release of sugar into the blood, which is depicted by the blue line.

Let’s take a look at some of the foods we should consider avoiding to prevent a sugar spike, and then look at some meals to keep you in ‘the green zone’. 

High-sugar foods

We all have a pretty good idea of what high-sugar foods are but this next section of our track day food guide addresses some of those you think might be OK to bring to a HPDE event.  The amount of sugar found in the following products might surprise you:

Cereal/Granola bars

Though certain protein bars offer a healthier option, a good number have roughly 20 grams of extra sugar, putting them on par with the nutritional profile of a candy bar. To select a better protein bar, examine the nutritional information and steer clear of bars that are sugar-rich.

Cliff bar high sugar

Flavor Coffees

Canned or from a coffeehouse chain enjoy widespread popularity, yet the concealed sugar content in these drinks can be astonishingly high. At certain cafe chains, a large specialty coffee could have 45 grams of sugar or even more, equaling approximately 11 teaspoons of extra sugar in each serving.

Starbucks coffee e1698333359642

Sports drinks

We’ll write a specific hydration article, but in the meantime, take a quick look at your sports drinks. Sports drinks aim to hydrate and energize athletes during long, intense workouts. They are high in fast-absorbing sugars for quick energy. A standard 20-ounce bottle has 34 grams of added sugar and 161 calories, equal to 9 teaspoons of sugar.

Gatorade e1695669809328

Low-fat Yogurt

These often have extra sugar for taste. A single cup can contain over 45 grams of sugar, or about 11 teaspoons. To make healthier choices, opt for yogurts with minimal added sugar and add your own fruit to control sugar and boost nutrition.

Stonyfield yogurt

Foods with high glycemic index

Some of the foods we bring to the track or eat for breakfast on a track day may not be ideal. Did you know that the following are classed in the top bracket of the glycemic index?

  • Instant oatmeal
  • Watermelon
  • Tortilla wraps
  • White rice
  • White bread (wheat)
  • Whole wheat bread

So now we know what we shouldn’t be eating, there doesn’t seem to be much easy/quick food remaining that we can take to the track, but that’s not quite true. The two meals we eat during a track day (breakfast and lunch) should be a conscious decision, and prepared in advance. I really want to enjoy my day. They don’t happen every week (I wish!) so I’ll happily prepare a couple of meals and snacks that will avoid me having to sit out a session specifically because I feel lethargic because of food.

So what are we looking at?

Steady Focus With Balanced Meals

A well-balanced meal rich in protein, healthy fats, and low-glycemic carbohydrates can provide a sustained energy release, saving us from a blood sugar roller-coaster and therefore allowing for prolonged focus and attention on the track.

Track day food guide: Breakfast

Kicking off your track day effectively means feeling both rested and sufficiently energized to tackle the morning sessions. Consuming foods low on the glycemic index, coupled with protein and beneficial fats, serves a dual purpose. Not only do they stabilize your blood sugar levels, but they also offer a steady flow of energy to keep you alert and focused until your lunch break.

Some ideas for you:

Eating right at a track day cooked oatmeal in a bowl with spoon a slice of banana and nuts. Bowl sits on chopping board

Oatmeal with bananas – make sure the oatmeal is steel cut (best) or old-fashioned (ok) and avoid instant oats (not recommended).

Eggs – always a good one! It’s suggested that a higher protein intake can aid in regulating blood sugar levels. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirms this correlation. Can’t cook them? Pack boiled eggs or maybe the hotel has them in the morning.

Whole-grain Avocado ToastMillennial stereotypes aside, this is great to pair with an egg or two. You can buy premade avocado spread/guacamole, but do check the label if you’re trying to be extra cautious about added sugars.

Breakfast Smoothie with Berries & Greek Yogurtprepare at home and throw in your cooler. Easy to prepare and consume! This recipe has only four ingredients; yogurt, frozen, fiber-rich berries, and milk.

TRACK DAY FOOD GUIDE: Lunch

Eating right at a track day. Closeup of chicken being grilled on an outdoor bbq

Sandwiches remain a classic and convenient option for track days, offering both ease of preparation and portability. However, it’s advisable to opt for whole-wheat bread over white or enriched varieties. Whole-wheat bread not only provides additional fiber, but it also has a lower glycemic index. This means it releases energy more slowly, helping to sustain your focus throughout the afternoon sessions.

Pairing it with lean proteins like turkey or chicken, and adding a layer of veggies, can make for a balanced meal that checks all the nutritional boxes you’d want for a day at the track. 

Sandwiches aside, here are a few suggestions based on some (but not all) of the meals I have taken to the track in my cooler:

Tuna Salad with Olives & Eggs

  • Ingredients: Canned tuna in water, mixed with diced celery, lettuce, olives, egg(s), and a light mayo-mustard dressing; with whole-grain crackers on the side.
  • Benefits: Tuna and eggs provide high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Olives & whole-grain crackers offer low-glycemic carbs.
  • Preparation: Mix the salad ingredients and pack them in a container. I keep the dressing in a separate pot and add it at lunch. Also, carry whole-grain crackers separately to maintain crunch.

Grilled Chicken Salad with Avocado and Mixed Greens

  • Ingredients: Grilled chicken breast, mixed greens (spinach, arugula, kale), avocado slices, cherry tomatoes, olive oil dressing.
  • Benefits: High in protein from chicken, healthy fats from avocado, and low-glycemic carbs from leafy greens.
  • Preparation: Grill the chicken in advance and assemble before you head to the track.

Whole-Grain Turkey Wrap

  • Ingredients: Whole-grain tortilla, turkey slices, lettuce, and a smear of hummus or guacamole.
  • Benefits: Whole grains provide slow-releasing energy, while turkey offers lean protein.
  • Preparation: Assemble the wrap and wrap it in foil for an easy-to-carry lunch.
  •  

Beef or Turkey Jerky with Raw Veggies

  • Ingredients: Beef or turkey jerky, sliced raw vegetables (carrots, cucumbers).
  • Benefits: Jerky provides a high-protein, low-fat option. Veggies offer low-glycemic carbs and hydration.
  • Preparation: Simply pack jerky and sliced veggies in separate containers for quick snacking.

Lentil Salad (Vegetarian)

  • Ingredients: Cooked lentils, diced cucumbers, bell peppers, olive oil, spices (cumin, turmeric). In case you don’t like lentils, substitute with chickpeas.
  • Benefits: Lentils offer protein and fiber, while cucumbers and bell peppers add hydration and low-glycemic carbs.
  • Preparation: Cook lentils in advance and toss with veggies and spices on the day.

TRACK DAY FOOD GUIDE: Snacks

Snacking wisely in the morning and afternoon (i.e. between meals) can make a significant difference in your on track performance. In the gap between breakfast and lunch, consider energy-sustaining options like almonds or walnuts, which offer healthy fats and protein without spiking your blood sugar.

Fruits like apple slices or berries can also provide a quick, low-glycemic energy boost. Post-lunch, turn to more protein-rich snacks like Greek yogurt or jerky to sustain energy levels. These options offer a slow release of energy, keeping you alert for your afternoon sessions and avoiding that afternoon dip in energy.

Here are a few ideas for snacks:

Eating right at a track day mixed nuts and cranberries

Jerky – It’s a convenient and effective source of protein, with beef jerky offering a noteworthy 9 grams per one-ounce serving. Common types of jerky include beef, chicken, turkey, and salmon. While readily available at most grocery stores, it’s important to note that jerky often contains added sugars – do check the label!

Trail mix – Typically a blend of dried fruits with nuts, and may also contain chocolate or grains. With 8 grams of protein in a 2-ounce serving, it’s a good source of energy. Note it’s high in calories so go easy to avoid spikes. A handful or so tends to work well.

Protein bars – These offer a quick and convenient method for getting a good dose of protein. As mentioned earlier with granola, they often contain excessive added sugars so do check the label. Here’s a good analysis of many of the protein bars on the market in 2023.

TRACK DAY FOOD GUIDE: Article Summary

  • Importance of Nutrition: A well-balanced diet is crucial for optimizing your performance and focus during HPDE track days.
  • Mindful Eating for Enhanced Focus: Nutrients like vitamins and minerals play a role in cognitive function, thus influencing your focus on the track.
  • Preventing Brain Fog: Foods rich in protein and low-glycemic index carbohydrates can help you maintain a clear mind.
  • Food Timing: Eating too close to your driving session can have negative effects, so plan your meals strategically.
Eating right at a track day. Greasy cheese burger in aluminum foil

Final thought: Why Proper Nutrition Can Make or Break Your Track Day

Being on the track isn’t just about driving skills; it’s also about maintaining the physical and mental stamina to make quick decisions while controlling a high-performance vehicle. It’s a holistic experience where your dietary choices can significantly influence your performance. Improper nutrition can cause lapses in focus, decreased reaction time, and even fatigue—all of which are obviously dangerous when you’re driving on track at high speeds.

In the end, eating right is not just a good practice for daily living, but it’s a performance enhancer on the track. It can be the difference between a good day and a bad one, between achieving the personal goals you set out to or wondering where it went wrong. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple, nutritious meals can provide the energy and mental clarity you need to perform at your peak. You prepare your car for the track, and will very likely spend more time doing that than preparing a few meals and snacks in the kitchen, but the importance of proper nutrition can not be understated. I do hope you got some value from our track day food guide, and appreciate you taking the time to read it. 

What meals or snacks have you found to keep your focus sharp and your energy up while on the track? I’d be grateful if you could share your tried-and-true recipes or snack ideas in the comments below. 

Drive safe!

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