This article is an in depth review of an excellent book by the name of Peak Performance. Why do a book review? Simply because the lessons we can all learn from this book can improve the quality of all of our lives, calm our nervous systems and help us feel less pain. The history of the how the book came to be is the embodiment of the ethos of our clinic. The merging of the physical and the emotional. The authors, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness are coaches. One an athletic coach, one more life and goal orientated.
After a chance meeting they realised that they have very similar approaches to getting the best out of people. This is article will summarise the most commonly useful nuggets from the book to help improve your well-being, physical and mental performance and in so doing helping you rid your body of pain.
This article is an introduction to this work and hopefully inspire you to read the whole book. Every one of my clients who as read the book has taken something different from it. Such is the richness of the text. I urge you to do the same.
I’ve broken the takeaway messages into 6 sections. Please read each even if you don’t think they apply to you. You may be surprised!
Physical Peak Performance
As a physiotherapy and sports therapy clinic I felt we could start nowhere else.
Our clientele can be very broadly split into two groups. Those that do too much, and those that don’t do enough – usually out of fear, rarely out of laziness! I urge everyone to read the next few paragraphs even if it may not feel completely relevant to you. All of the physical principles apply to emotional stress too and we’ll be going into more detail on that shortly.
We see a lot of people at the clinic who are simply trying too hard. Trying to be the perfect athlete, parent, partner, employee, entrepreneur etc. On a purely physical level we see this leading to people breaking down with injuries just through sheer overuse.
Peak Performance presents evidence that confirms that if there is too much physical stress on the body over too long a period then the body becomes unable to adapt to training demands and actually deteriorates. Put another way, the body throws it’s toys out of the pram and starts breaking the body down not building it up.
Instead of repair happening inflammation and cortisol (a stress hormone) build. The adrenal system will constantly be on guard making you more sensitive to physical problems and long term exposure to this state can lead to wide range of health problems.
In short don’t do it! Whether that’s the physical stress we talk about here or prolonged emotional stress – granted emotional stress is affected by many external factors!
Solution: Periodise your training.
For those that don’t know this is breaking your training down into chunks. Give yourself one or two big targets in the year. Within these cycles have a few mini cycles where you go through the gears in training i.e. start steady and increase intensity. Then the key thing is to take a rest. Easy training or even no training. We have many clients who simply don’t rest, ever. Which can be a large part of the reason they have ended up in our clinic.
That’s a very brief summary of training periodisation I’ve included a link here if you want more detail.
There are many people out there who know about periodisation yet don’t do it. Pressure to perform from yourself or external factors will mean you always feel you should be doing more. Particularly if you have a predisposition to feel you are never good enough. Have the bravery to rest.
One of our key aims at the clinic is to help people better understand and trust their own bodies. This is another point that is made in the book. The upshot being train (or work) when you know you feel good. If you feel good in the morning, train then. If you feel better in the evening, train then… just not too close to bedtime. More on that in the sleep section below.
Here’s a couple of tips from Peak Performance that instinctively makes sense and now have the research to back that intuition up.
Firstly hang around with people who give you energy! As humans we are wired for empathy. Emotions are contagious – motivation, happiness, sadness. All of them. Even pain is contagious.
The best practical example of this I can think of is in golf. It is so common, even in the professional game, that if the person you are playing with is having a good day that will rub off on you. Sadly the converse is true too! This is true across all sport and extends to work life too.
Secondly, being sociable is the best way to recover from intense training! It’s been shown that the sense of connection we feel from being sociable optimises testosterone and cortisol levels that are so important for our recovery. The effects of which of course will be completely undone if this involves the consumption of alcohol at the same time!
Peak Performance Productivity
Multitasking is bad. If we’re doing more than one thing at a time we’re simply doing them badly. More than that we’re overstimulating our nervous systems which means it’s harder to calm down and switch off. Simply put this means we feel more pain and are more susceptible to a myriad of illness.
This is not a new problem. But is has been made worse in the last 15 years through advent of smart phones. The ultimate distracting and multitasking device. Peak performance quotes some great research from the Journal of Social Psychology which explains just how distracting smart phones are.
The research recommends that to truly concentrate on what you are doing, smartphones should be switched off and in a different room in order for fully concentrate on what we are doing! Give it a try. See how many times you look for you phone even when it’s not there.
So, now you’ve put your phone in a different room how long should you work for before taking a break for optimal productivity. It appears that 50 to 90 minutes is optimal.
The exact amount of time is dependent on you. You know yourself better than anyone else. You’ll know what works best for you. The key thing is to not push yourself through this limit. Take those breaks and you’ll get more done. You just need to be brave enough to rest.
For many of us who have been multitasking for many years getting to 50 minutes of uninterrupted work may be quite challenging. The authors recommend starting with 10-15 minutes and increasing gradually. Just as we would with physical training. Give your body and your mind time to adapt.
The Stress Of Peak Performance
Stress really does have a bad reputation. Just as the Eskimos have 50 words for snow. I feel we should have 50 words for stress. There are so many different kinds. We need some kind of stress otherwise we’d never get out of bed.
Peak performance tells us that we do our best learning when it’s hard. So perhaps we should reframe stress as a more positive thing? Would you believe reframing stress in this way can even mean we live longer?
An American study from 2010 found that the small portion of people who view stress as useful have a 43% lower chance of premature death. Wow! So perhaps if we reframe stress as a growth opportunity we’ll all live longer?!
It’s about stepping far enough outside of our comfort zone to be challenged. But not so far out of our comfort zone that we descend into panic. If we stay in a heightened stress state for too long this increases our stress hormone levels (notably cortisol and adrenaline) which can lead to lingering inflammation and chronic pain. Hence why a physiotherapy and sports therapy clinic is so interested.
Prolonged exposure to panic zone levels of stress can also lead to impaired immune function and depression. This is why it’s important to look after ourselves and be aware of how we’re feeling physically and emotionally at all times. Rather than smashing through everything at all costs!
So how do we manage our stress levels? I’ve written many an article on the subject and my latest ideas can be found in our wellbeing tips article. Mindfulness too has rightly received lots of positive press in recent years and here’s my article on Mindfulness.
As a start point for ourselves and our clients we always recommend breath work. My article on breath work is here. Peak performance recommends the same. The book goes onto explain how regular breath work actually develops our brains to allow us to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting instinctively. Mindfulness allows us to recognise that we are having a stress response rather then being overcome by it.
Rest For Peak Performance
This is the thing we all know we should do but many of us (myself included) are so bad at actually getting round to. It’s also important to note the kind of rest too. Vegging out in front of the TV doesn’t count! More details on what not to do to relax in our avoiding mindfulness article.
The message from Peak Performance is that interval training is the best for everything not just physical. It is best to work in cycles of intense effort followed by short breaks.
The physical evidence is well documented. So let’s think intellectually here. How many times have you had a great idea about work when you’re not at work? When you’re relaxing things come to you.
This is backed up by the research on The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Here it suggests that a mere 6 minute walk outdoors increased creativity by 60%. And even taking a 6 minute walking indoors increased creativity by 40%.
If you can’t walk, perhaps your face needs to be seen on a video call, then research by psychologist Marc Berman suggests spending 6 minutes viewing pictures of nature has a similar positive effect! If you needed any further motivation it’s also been shown that short walks reduce the risk of premature death by 33%.
Have the courage to take breaks during the day. It really is in your interest!
Bigger rests too are important after prolonged periods of work. That’s why we have holidays. But in the modern world how many of us truly disconnect from work and allow ourselves to fully relax? How many of us drink more on holiday or continue to distract ourselves with technology as a way to numb out life stresses? How many of us sit quietly with ourselves and process the emotions we are feeling?
One of the many excellent anecdotes from Peak Performance involves multiple Olympic runner Bernard Lagat who competed at his last Olympics at the age of 41. He was renowned for simply downing tools for 5 weeks at the end of each season to rest. Whilst we may not all have the luxury of being a professional athlete and being able to take that amount of time off there is much to be learned in this tale.
Optimal Sleep For Peak Performance
Many of our clients struggle with their sleep. Either getting off to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night and struggling to get back to sleep again. Without appropriate sleep levels we miss out on all important physiological recovery time.
Not only does this affect our physical and mental performance it also makes us more sensitive to pain.
To grossly simplify this complex problem many cases of sleep deprivation are indicative of a nervous system that is over stimulated. An inability to switch off. All too common in our hectic modern world. I’ve written an article before on our top tips for a good night’s sleep.
One of the points I made in this article was avoiding the blue light emitted by all of the technology that surrounds us. Peak performance highlights research that has shown that using a light emitting e-reader for 5 days of reading for pleasure (not even for work) 4 hours before bed time leads to a 90 minute delay in our bodies release of melatonin – the hormone that regulates our sleep. I’d be interested to see research done on the use of mobile phones right up until the moment we go to sleep!
With our clients we recommend a blue light curfew of at ideally two hours before you go to sleep. If not two hours as long as you can realistically manage. Instead try reading from a good old fashioned book (or non-light emitting e-reader), do some relaxation breathing, or yoga or meditation, or knitting or whatever you fancy that doesn’t involve technology.
We are realists at the clinic and we do understand that some people just can’t do this for whatever reason that may be. As a compromise this link shows you how to reduce the amount of blue light coming from your phone.
Another great idea from Peak Performance for those of us with a busy mind is to sleep next to a piece of paper and pen. Anything that comes into your head simply scribble down so you can forget about it and allow yourself to drift off.
Other sleep tips from Peak Performance include:
- Spend time in natural light during the day i.e. outdoors
- Partake in vigorous exercise, but not too close to bedtime
- Limit Caffeine intake – phase out completely 5-6 hours before bed
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex
- Don’t drink alcohol before bed – it helps you get off to sleep but it disrupts you later in the really important phase of your sleep
- Don’t do hard mental or physical work after your evening meal
- Meditation / Breathing before bed
- Go to bed when you start to feel drowsy
- Keep your bedroom as dark as possible
- Keep your smartphone out of the bedroom!
What Are You Here To Do?
Do you have an overarching purpose in life? You can approach this question in a functional or spiritual way. Whichever way sits better with you.
Simon Sinek has an excellent Ted talk here where he talks about finding the why of a business to help drive it’s marketing and purpose. The same principles can be applied to ourselves as individuals. What is our true motivation for doing things? Or being here if you want to get a bit philosophical about it.
According to a study from the American National Academy of Sciences, reflecting on our core values before facing a challenging task means we perform better. If you’re struggling for motivation there is a great exercise you can do to help from the excellent Non-Violent Communication book.
When you’re struggling with a task (or just life in general) write down all the things you feel you “should do” or feel you “have to” do. The list maybe long! When complete, at the front of each sentence, change the “I have” or “I should” to “I choose to”. Then at the end of each sentence add the reason.
One last rule. The answer can’t be money. If it is money then go the next step beyond. For example, I do this tedious task to earn money to support my family. You then have reminded yourself of the purpose of this tedious task and motivation is more accessible. If you answer money and you remind yourself you enough money you have given yourself permission to discard this tedious task from your life.
Hopefully you can see how this search for why we do things on a functional level naturally takes us into a more spiritual discussion. What is our higher purpose? Peak performance cites unsurprising research which confirms that we perform better when we have greater belief in our jobs and our lives. It also goes onto say that the less we think of ourselves the more motivated we become. Doing something for the greater good is more motivational than money or reputation.
However, it’s worth inserting a cautionary note here from one of my clients who works at a women’s refuge. She made the excellent point that a lot the women who find themselves at a refuge are the ones who have never put themselves first. They always put others first and rarely or never focus on their own needs, which ultimately leads to breaking point.
Variations of this discussion I have had many times over the years with parents who never put their needs forward for what the feel is for the better of the family. We’re no use to our families broken! The lesson applies to everyone, not just parents. I would summarise simply as: it’s great if we are driven by the greater good but let’s make sure it’s not to the detriment of ourselves.
Peak Performance Conclusion
I hope you found my abridged version of Peak Performance of use and you’ve found something useful to try or been reminded of something that has worked for you in the past. I hope it doesn’t come across as too puritanical!
I urge everyone to read the book in full so you can extract the information that is most relevant to your life. You can find out where to buy the book by clicking this link. Further to this the authors have a great website and newsletter you can sign up to. You find the relevant information here.
If you’d like to know more about we use the principles from Peak Performance as part of a wider wellbeing and physical package to help you with your injury or pain then please fill out the form here to arrange a chat.