Preparing to run the race of your life

TO sustain peak performance in today’s corporate environment is no easy feat. Building downtime into your schedule is key to maintaining a leading edge.

Imagine you are an elite athlete (go on, at least give it a try). You’re a runner, and your specialty is the 800 metres – one of the most gruelling races – virtually a sprint in modern competition.

Imagine your training schedule requires you to be at the track at least five days per week, 10 hours per day. All you do during each session is run a series of 800 metres as fast as you can. All day. One after the other. Maybe a break for lunch if you’re lucky.

Sound ridiculous? It’s certainly no way for an elite athlete to generate and sustain peak performance. But come back to the world with which you’re probably more familiar – the corporate fast track – and you’ll quickly see the parallels. Many of us are expected to deliver peak performance at work five days a week, 10 hours a day, without stopping. Maybe a break for lunch if we’re lucky.

We hear it all the time. You need to be tougher. More resilient. More agile. Sharper than even before. It’s a jungle out there. If you want to get to the top, make sure you’re fit, because it’s survival of the fittest.

The reality is, to make it to the top, you do have to have these qualities, assuming that’s where you want to be. You need to develop the mind, body and spirit of a corporate athlete in peak condition.

The challenge in all of this is to put the time and energy into working to achieve this state. With the pressures of work requiring us to deliver more and more, how can we find time to work on ourselves?

One popular answer to helping near-burnout executives recover their energy and wits has been the health retreat. And they work well.

Spending a few days or a week away from the workplace stresses does, without a doubt, make a difference. But, like so many “courses” (read leadership develop-ment, team building, management training), the well-intentioned effect soon wears off once the executive is back in the “real” world of work. The manual they received goes on the shelf with all the others, gathering dust. As do their well-meaning intentions to do things differently.

The problem with these courses and retreats is that they very often don’t address the ingrained behaviours and habits that cause us to work the crazy way we do. To effect real change, stand-alones aren’t the answer. It’s more important to develop simple and effective routines that we can incorporate into our daily lives. To change our habits.

Back to the track. Elite athletes’ training programs consist of a balance of expending and reco-vering energy. Their training pro-grams do not start and end when they are at the track.

It is 24-7. Top athletes go so far as knowing how much sleep they need (and getting it) and assessing and following strict dietary regimes.

The best athletes also build in time for mental and spiritual develop-ment. Quiet time. Reflection. Visualisation. Downtime where they do nothing. Yes, nothing.

While they may not be out there running, everything they do is aimed at helping them perform at their best.

Training programs also can work for those in the business world. Recently, I coached an ambitious guy who had just joined the Perth branch of an investment bank. He had big plans to go far and knew that he would need to put in the hard yards to make his mark early.

Together, we designed a “training schedule” for him that included sleep, diet, exercise, socialising, personal development and down-time, along with strategies for working to maximise his work results. In less than 12 months he was asked to transfer to head office in Melbourne, to work closely with one of the bank’s elite advisers, who had been highly impressed with the results and productivity he had seen.

The trick is not to try to change everything overnight. Start small and work up to bigger things. Some strategies you can try include:

p Get enough sleep

Most people don’t. Start by going to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual.

p Take a break every 90 to 120 minutes

Sugar, hormone and blood pressure drop after this time. Short, focused breaks that include walking or eating something recharge us.

p Schedule downtime

As part of each day, and the weekend, ensure that you make time for you – no commitments or things you “have to” do – just work on being. It may seem tempting to fill the vacuum with doing something. Don’t. Get to know your thoughts better.

The greatest challenge is committing to making these changes stick. Get your partner to hold you accountable, or better still, hire a professional coach.

Anyone can be effective for short bursts. But I suspect you’re in it for the long term.

If you’re in the race and it looks like it’s going to be a long-distance sprint, build a training schedule that will help you make the distance.

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