Sample size calculations (G*Power 3.1.7 [30]) revealed that a minimum sample size of 20 participants would be appropriate to detect significant differences between the experimental and control groups, assuming a moderate effect size, type I error of 0.05, and power of 0.80. This study was a single-blinded randomized controlled trial. Participants were recruited through Fit4Race which has been involved in the preparation of racing drivers since 2014. Some of the participants were existing clients; however, they have never performed such cognitive tasks or practiced such agility training applied in the present study. The opportunity for participation in the study was advertised on the website and car racing drivers who met the criteria of the research were invited to the research facility. Participation was free of charge, the participants did not receive honoraria for the participation. Twenty-four car racing drivers (Rally, n = 12; Rallycross, n = 4; Touring car, n = 4; Formula 4, n = 4) volunteered in the study and were randomly assigned to either the experimental (EXP, n = 12; mean ± SD age = 24.7 ± 4.4 years; height = 181.4 ± 7.4 cm; mass = 79.3 ± 10.9 kg) or control (CON, n = 12; age = 25.6 ± 3.3 years; height = 178.8 ± 9.2 cm; mass = 78.8 ± 9.4 kg) group. Inclusion criteria were: (1) a minimum of 5 years of experience in racing at competitions, (2) participation at international championships in the previous season (year 2020)/achieving one of the top 5 ranks of the 2020th standings in the Hungarian national championship, and (3) no reported neurological deficits or sensorimotor impairment. After giving both verbal and written explanations of the experimental protocol, participants signed the informed consent document in accordance with the declaration of Helsinki. The study was carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the University Ethical Committee (Approval No. TE-KEB/No11/2020). The study was performed in accordance with CONSORT guidelines (Additional file 1: Appendix).

Experimental Design

Figure 1 provides a schematic illustration of the experimental design. Participants had individual experimental procedures at the research facility (Fit4Race, Budapest, Hungary), which is specialized to test and train motorsport athletes. Both testing and training sessions were done in the morning and were controlled for Hawthorne effects [31, 32]. Specifically, D.H., R.S., or P.J.T. dressed in the official uniform of Fit4Race coaches and were always appropriately identified by their name written on their T-shirt, which also specified their status as ‘coach.’ Baseline and post-intervention tests were performed on three consecutive days. Participants were asked not to drink alcohol 24 h before and during the testing session and not to drink coffee in the mornings of the testing sessions. On the first day, participants performed cognitive tests on the computer. The cognitive tests consisted of a specific test package marketed for car racing drivers (SFMOTOR) from Vienna test system (VTS) including the visual pursuit test (LVT), Stroop test (STROOP), visual memory test (VISGED), time/movement anticipation test (ZBA), and determination test (DT) (Fig. 2). To eliminate auditory cues, a headset was provided during the experiment. The day after the cognitive tests, participants performed a maximal incremental cardio-respiratory test on a treadmill. The test was preceded by an anthropometry measurement in line with the international standards defined and approved by the International Society for the Advancement of Kinanthropometry (ISAK). Lastly, on the third day, participants performed the STROOP and ZBA tests during moderate intensity exercise on a bicycle according to the study from Torbeyns et al. [33].

Fig. 1
figure 1

Schematic illustration of the experimental design. ANTH, anthropometric measurements; B, training block; COGN, cognitive measurements; CON, control group; DT, determination test; EXP, experimental group; HRR, heart rate recovery; LVT, visual pursuit test; PHYS, physiological measurements; REST, resting period between training blocks; STROOP, Stroop test; VISGED, visual memory test; W-UP, warm-up; ZBA, time/movement anticipation test. HRR was measured after the first, sixth, and 12th training bouts

Fig. 2
figure 2

Vienna test system and representative examples of each cognitive task. A The Vienna test system (VTS). B Visual pursuit test (LVT): Participants followed the line marked with a red arrow out of nine intersecting arrows and found the right endpoint as quickly as possible. C Stroop test (STROOP): Participants were asked to press the appropriate button on the test panel as quickly as possible in two conditions (color naming, word reading). D Visual memory test (VISGED): Participants had to memorize and afterward recall the position of symbols on a city map. E Time/movement anticipation test (ZBA): A green ball appeared on the screen and moved at a certain trajectory with changing direction. At an unpredictable time, the ball disappeared and became invisible until two red lines appeared (E) from which the first line marked the place where the ball has disappeared. Participants were instructed to mark the anticipated position and time of the ball crossing the second red line using the buttons of the VTS panel. F Determination test (DT): The participants were presented with color stimuli and acoustic signals and were asked to react by pressing the appropriate buttons on the response panel

The following week, participants in EXP began the 6-week training program twice a week with 48–72 h of rest in between each session. Each participant in both the EXP and CON groups was asked not to perform any cognitive- or motor skills development training during the research study. We also asked them not to change their daily routine or eating habits. Because the research was conducted during the offseason, EXP only performed the reactive agility training regime, while CON only performed their regular aerobic physical activity including walking and/or cycling. The post-tests were performed 2 days after the last training session and was identical to the baseline measurements.

DAY 1: Cognitive Tests (Vienna Test System, VTS)

The Vienna test system (VTS) (Fig. 2A) is a widely used objective measure of various psychological constructs, which have the potential to provide information on the effects of certain factors on athlete cognitive performance (for review see [21]). In the present study, we selected and used five tests from a comprehensive cognitive test package of VTS marketed specifically at motorsport athletes called SFMOTOR (success factors in motorsport) to determine the effects of a 6-week reactive agility training program on car racing drivers’ cognitive performance. Each test was preceded by a familiarization (see the exact number of familiarization trials below for each test). The VTS system provided feedback to the participants in case of incorrect answers and did not allow them to proceed to the testing session until the correct answer was given.

Visual Pursuit Test (LVT)

The visual pursuit test was used to examine the visual orientation performance and selective visual attention of the car racing drivers by determining the perceptual quality of simple elements in a complex environment. After eight familiarization trials, participants started the LVT test. Specifically, an arrow appeared at the top of the display, pointing to the top of one of the nine curves, and the task was to indicate the number on the box to which that curve was connected as quickly as possible (Fig. 2B). The test took about 3–10 min. The median RT and the % of correct answers were evaluated.

Stroop Test (STROOP)

The Stroop test was used to examine the participants’ cognitive flexibility (or switching ability). The test is based on the assumption that the reading speed of a color word is slower if the word is written in a different colored font. Two conditions were used without interfering influences (congruent stimuli) to determine baseline performance and were related to the two interference conditions, i.e., (a) ‘color naming interference’ and (b) ‘word-reading interference’ (incongruent stimuli). Participants were asked to press the appropriate button on the test panel as quickly as possible (Fig. 2C). The test took about 10 min and was preceded by 10–10 familiarization trials for each condition. The reading and naming interference (the difference of the RT medians of the ‘interference conditions’ and the ‘baseline’) were evaluated and used for the statistical analysis. Besides the RT, the % of incorrect answers during the interference conditions was also analyzed to determine whether a faster RT was associated with more errors.

Visual Memory Test (VISGED)

The visual memory test was used to determine the visual short-term memory. Its value may provide information on how participants orientate themselves in a real-life environment. First, five familiarization trials were performed by the participants, and then they had to memorize and afterward recall the position of symbols on a city map (Fig. 2D). Specifically, the participant was initially presented with a city map on which four different symbols of locations (15 symbols in total, e.g., taxi station/hospital/school/church, etc.) are marked. Participants had to memorize the positions of the individual symbols and afterward recall them correctly. This was tested by presenting the city map without symbols and asking the participants to mark the location on the map where the symbol used to be by using a mouse attached to the VTS system. As soon as the respondent has marked a spot on the map, the actual position of the symbol in question is displayed, thus giving the respondent feedback on the correctness of his/her answer. The test took about 10–15 min. Total mean duration, total mean error duration, percent error duration (calculated as the ratio of total error duration to total duration), and coordination difficulty were used to create a score. A higher score indicates that the participant can remember a larger number of items of information.

Time/movement Anticipation Test (ZBA)

The time/movement anticipation test was used to determine participants’ skills in estimating the time-to-coincidence of an object to a designated point in space. The test was preceded by eight familiarization trials. A green ball appeared on the screen and moved at a certain trajectory with changing direction. At an unpredictable time, the ball disappeared and became invisible until two red lines appeared (Fig. 2E) from which the first line marked the place where the ball has disappeared. Participants were instructed to mark the anticipated position and time of the ball crossing the second red line. The position was determined by using the red and green buttons of the VTS panel that moved the cursor on the screen in both vertical (up and down, respectively) and horizontal (left and right, respectively) directions, while the timing of the crossing was determined by pressing the black rectangle button in the middle of the VTS panel (Fig. 2A). In the practice phase of the test, participants performed a practice consisting of 10 items, at which they received feedback. The test then contained 48 items, while no feedback was given. The test took about 5–25 min. The time and position error were evaluated as the time difference in seconds, and the deviation from the correct position, in pixels, respectively.

Determination Test (DT)

The determination test was used to evaluate participants’ reactive stress tolerance, attention, and reaction speed in situations requiring continuous, swift, and varying responses to rapidly changing visual, and acoustic stimuli. Before the start of the test, participants were given a practice session to familiarize themselves with the test. The participants were presented with color stimuli and acoustic signals and were asked to react by pressing the appropriate buttons on the response panel (Fig. 2F). Specifically, the color stimuli were presented via the monitor by (1) five different colors (white, yellow, red, blue, green) that could appear in one of the ten circles or (2) foot signals (left or right) to which the participants had to react as quickly as possible by pressing the corresponding colored button on the manual panel or one of the foot pedals of the VTS, respectively. The acoustic stimuli consisted of high and low tones that were presented via the Test System interface to which participants had to press the upper grey or the lower black rectangular button in the middle of the VTS panel, respectively. The stress element of the DT test comes from the adaptivity of the test, where the participants need to sustain continuous, rapid, and varying responses to rapidly changing stimuli. Adaptivity of the test means that the software continuously adapted the level of challenge based on the performance of each participant, i.e., the better the participant’s performance was, the faster the signals’ presentation speed was. The test took about 6 min. The number of correct, incorrect, and omitted answers were evaluated and then were used in the statistical analysis.

DAY 2: Anthropometric and Physiological Measurements

Anthropometric Measurements

Anthropometric parameters were measured according to the international standards defined and approved by the International Society for the Advancement of Kinanthropometry (ISAK). Specifically, height; body mass; width and depth of chest; shoulder, elbow, hip, and knee widths; body circumferences (chest, flexed upper arm, mid-upper arm, mid-lower arm, wrist, hand, thigh, calf, ankle), and skinfolds (biceps, triceps, subscapular, suprailiac, abdomen, mid-axilla, thigh, calf) were determined by a certified expert. Body mass (BM), body height (BH), and estimated muscle- (M%) and fat mass (F%) were measured and calculated, respectively.

Physiological Measurements

Participants performed a maximal incremental cardio-respiratory treadmill test until complete fatigue. The speed of the treadmill (Life Fitness model 90 T, Schiller Park, IL) was increased in the following manner: starting speed was 5 km/h with 0% inclination, which was increased linearly every second minute, to 10, 12, 14, and 16 km/h. Then inclination was increased by 3% every minute until exhaustion. A heart rate monitor (Polar H10, Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland) set at a sampling frequency of 1 Hz and a breath-by-breath metabolic cart (Jaeger Oxycon Pro, Viasys Healthcare GmbH, Höchberg, Germany) were used for measuring HR, VE, breathing frequency (BF), oxygen consumption (VO2), and carbon dioxide production (VCO2). V̇O2 max was defined as a lack of increase in oxygen consumption with increasing workload. The analysis of the straight-line relations of VCO2 vs VO2 (V-slope method) was used to detect the gas exchange threshold (GET) during the treadmill test [34]. The HR at GET (GETHR) was also recorded to detect the changes in HR corresponding to the lactate threshold.

DAY 3: Cognitive Tests During Moderate Intensity Exercise

After a 5-min warm-up, participants performed the STROOP and ZBA tests (see details at ‘2.3 DAY 1: Cognitive tests (Vienna test system, VTS)’) during moderate intensity exercise (65–75% of peak HR) on a Precor upright bicycle (Precor, Woodinville, WA, USA). The response panel of the VTS was fixed on the ergometer aligned with the eyes of the participants. The experiment took ~ 25–30 min including the warm-up.

Agility Training Program Using Light-Based Stimuli

The experimenters administering the training intervention were knowledgeable of the assigned group the participants were assigned. Participants in the EXP performed 60-min training sessions twice a week for 6 weeks. Participants performed a 10-min warm-up consisting of 2 min of walking (5 km/h) and 3 min of jogging (8 km/h) on a treadmill, which was followed by 5 min of dynamic stretching combined with core exercises.

The training bouts were performed using the Witty SEM© visual reaction test device (Microgate, Bolzano, Italy). All testing and training sessions were performed in isolated rooms, in which the consistent temperature (20 °C) was regulated by a conventional air conditioner. The eight LED lamps were placed person-specifically in a 3 × 3 m dark room according to the results of the anthropometric measurements (Additional file 2: Fig. S1). Lamps ‘A’ and ‘B’ were placed in alignment with the tips of the shoulder, lamps ‘C’ and ‘D’ were placed on the height of the head with a wingspan between them, lamps ‘E’ and ‘F’ were placed on the mid-height of the shinbone with a wingspan between them, and lamps ‘G’ and ‘H’ were placed at the height of the waist with 85° from the starting position (+ 80 cm from arms reach). The starting position was determined as + 80 cm from the lamps and was marked on the floor with a tape (60 × 60 cm square). A green light was used as a stimulus, while the other photocells remained off. The test consisted of five series of 1 to 5 min of trials, respectively, with 2 min of rest in between.

Two sequences were pre-programmed in the following manner:

  • Sequence #1: A,D,B,G,A,H,E,C,F,G,D,A,B,F,E,G,B,H,C,G,H,F,A,E,D,B,F,E,H,E

  • Sequence #2: A,F,C,A,E,G,D,B,H,C,G,A,D,F,G,H,A,G,E,D,B,G,E,C,B,A,F,H,B,E

Sequence #1 was used for the blocks of 1, 3, and 5 min, while sequence #2 was used for the blocks of 2, and 4 min. The sequences were repeated until the end of the blocks. Participants were asked to wave only at the pre-specified photocell as soon as possible, i.e., block 1: green ‘B’; block 2: blue ‘6’; block 3: red ‘D’; block 4: green ‘9’; block 5: red ‘C.’ The generation time between the visual reactions was 1 s. The order of the lamps’ appearance and their position were randomly changed throughout the training program to prevent a potential learning effect of the sequences. HR data were measured using a Polar V800 heart rate monitor with a Polar H7 chest strap (Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland).

The reactive agility performance measured by the number of touches at each training and the RT were the primary performance outcomes. Average and peak HR were determined for each training. Moreover, parasympathetic reactivation was assessed after the first, sixth, and 12th training bouts from heart rate recovery (HRR) in a sitting position by taking the absolute difference between the final HR at exercise completion and the HR recorded following 60 s of recovery.

Statistical Analyses

Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS Statistics Package (version 22.0, SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL). All data were checked for normal distribution using the Shapiro–Wilk’s test. When variables were not normally distributed, log-transformation was performed in each data within the corresponding analysis. These analyses were performed on the transformed data but the data are reported in the non-transformed form. To statistically investigate the effect of the 6-week training program on car racing drivers’ physical and cognitive performance and anthropometric measures, a series of a group (EXP, CON) × time (baseline, post) mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) and post hoc tests were performed for each dependent measures. Separate group (EXP, CON) × time (baseline, post) × task complexity (at rest, during exercise) mixed ANOVAs were performed to determine if results of cognitive tests (STROOP, ZBA) are different when done at rest vs. during moderate intensity exercise. Additional repeated measures ANOVAs (rmANOVAs) and post hoc tests with Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons were used to detect the changes in reactive agility performance, RT, and HR data (average HR, peak HR, HRR) of EXP throughout the training program. For each ANOVA, compound symmetry was evaluated with the Mauchly’s test and the Greenhouse–Geisser correction was used when data violated the assumption of sphericity so that when the Epsilon was less than 0.75 for Mauchly’s test of sphericity, we used the Greenhouse–Geisser-corrected value and the Huynh–Feldt-corrected value for epsilon greater than 0.75. Effect sizes of repetition factors were expressed using partial eta squared (ηp2) [35]. Complementary post hoc analyses (paired samples t tests) with additional Cohen’s effect size (d) calculation were used when indicated. Statistical significance was set at p < 0.05.

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