Key to Sustainable Performance: Periodization
In the world of exercise science, the cycle of stress and rest is often referred to as periodization. Stress such as lifting a heavy weight challenges the body, in some cases pushing it close to failure. This process is usually followed by a slight dip in function; think about how useless your arms are after a weight-lifting session. But if after the stressful period you give your body time to recover, it adapts and becomes stronger, allowing you to push a little harder in the future.
To simplify, the cycle looks like this:
- Isolate the muscle or capability you want to grow
- Stress it
- Rest and recover, allowing for adaptation to occur
- Repeat—this time stressing the muscle or capability a bit more than you did the last time
World-class athletes are masters at this cycle. Their training alternates between hard days and easy days. Those who can’t figure out the right balance either get hurt or burn out (too much stress, not enough rest) or become complacent and plateau (not enough stress, too much rest). Those who can figure out the right balance, however, become life-long champions.
Stressing yourself is tiring. Great performers understand and respect that there is a limit to how much stress they can tolerate. They are aware that if they exceed this limit, then good, productive stress can turn into harmful and toxic one.
While the exact work-to-rest ratio depends on the demands of the job and individual preferences, the overall theme is clear: alternating between blocks of 50 to 90 minutes of intense work and recovery breaks of 7 to 20 minutes enables people to sustain the physical, cognitive, and emotional energy required for peak performance.
Rest Like the Best
Part of the reason Bernard Lagat, who has run in five Olympics and won two world championships, remains atop the international running scene is because of this break, which he’s been taking every year. “Rest,” Lagat says, “is a good thing.” Lagat credits his annual respite with keeping him physically and psychologically healthy over the years. The extended shutdown period allows his body to recuperate from grinding 80-mile running weeks.
We consistently work on weekends and rarely use all our paid time off, let alone take extended vacations. Instead, we get trapped into thinking that if we’re not always working hard, we’ll be surpassed by the competition. Our misguided thinking is the result of years of conditioning. Remember growing up to the tune of popular inspirational quotes like, “When you are not practicing, remember somewhere someone else is, and if you meet him, he will win.”
But here’s the thing: If we never take “easy” periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the “hard” periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. This vicious cycle is often referred to by a much less vicious name—“going through the motions”—but it’s a huge problem nonetheless.
When it comes to a comprehensive “rest” strategy, vacations are not the cake—they are merely the icing on top of it, a chance to more fully regroup after accumulating stress so we can come back stronger and better than before. When Lagat finishes a season, he is fatigued—but he’s not broken. Fatigue is a stimulus for growth. Broken is, well, just broken.
Warm Up Your Mind
You can improve performance by priming yourself into a positive mood prior to important work that involves problem solving and creative thinking. As crazy as it sounds, research shows that something as simple as watching funny cat videos on YouTube can enhance subsequent performance on cognitively-demanding tasks.
Equally as important as conjuring a positive mood is avoiding a negative one. In the interest of upping your performance, try to avoid people, places, and things that may put you in a negative mood. While there are instances when these factors may be out of your control, it is important to realize the impact mood plays on performance. How and with whom you spend your time, especially preceding meaningful work, really matters.
It’s not just intellectual or creative work that is influenced by mood; athletic performance is affected by it, too. Consider Tiger Woods, whose golf career took a nosedive at the same time as his personal life did.
We are not as separate from our surroundings as we may think. Instead, our brains are engaged in an intricate conversation with the objects that surround us, and the more they converse, the tighter the back and forth becomes. The first time a baby sees a chair, for example, the motor programs in her brain do not automatically begin to fire in a sitting pattern. But by the time that baby is an adult and she has seen and sat in thousands of chairs, the sight of a chair invites a sitting response deep inside her brain
This concept may seem a bit esoteric, but the practical implications are simple. When we create a space in which to practice our craft, it is beneficial to surround ourselves with objects that invite desired actions and eliminate ones that do not. By working in the same environment consistently and repeatedly, the bond between us and our surroundings tightens.
To illustrate further, when an object, like a computer, is isolated for a specific task, like writing, the link between subject (writer) and object (computer) strengthens. Over time, the mere sight of that specific computer invites writing, literally nudging the writer’s brain to think about the paper he is working on.
Show Up Consistently
The best performers design their days strategically: They are minimalists in order to be maximalists; they ensure their work is in harmony with their chronotype; and they surround themselves with supportive, like-minded people. But designing the perfect day means nothing if you don’t show up for it.
The best performers are not consistently great, but they are great at being consistent. They show up every day and they do the work. Perhaps the real secret of world-class performers is not the daily routines that they develop, but that they stick to them. That they show up, even when they don’t feel like it. Call it drive, call it passion, or call it grit; whatever you call it, it must come from deep within.
Develop Your Purpose
Before we dive into discovering our purpose, let’s dispel a few common misconceptions:
- You need not be religious, or even spiritual, to have a purpose.
- Purpose isn’t a mystical endeavor. The process of creating a purpose is based upon rational reflection.
- It’s okay to have more than one purpose.
- It’s also okay to have only one purpose.
- No one is stopping you from having a self-centered purpose. But as you read in the previous chapter, self-transcending.
- Your purpose can change over time.
Harnessing The Power of Your Purpose
Write down your purpose and strategically stick it in places where you are likely to need a boost. This way, when the going gets tough, your purpose is right there to remind you why you are working so hard.
A professional bike racer may put his purpose on the handlebars of his bike. Whenever the pace, and associated pain, picks up, his natural inclination is to drop his head and look down. Every time he does that, he’ll be looking at his purpose: To inspire other people to get out of their comfort zones and live life to its fullest. And then, he’ll proceed to push a bit harder and endure a bit more suffering.
There is widespread evidence that self-talk boosts performance. In particular, studies show that self-talk increases motivation and willingness to endure uncomfortable situations. Self-talk is most effective when what we tell ourselves is short, specific, and, most important, consistent.
By letting the words that reflect our deepest values and emotions pour out onto the page, we release tension and in doing so improve our health. Standing back every now and then to reflect on our purpose in an effort to determine how far we’ve come and how closely we’ve lived in accordance with it really matters.