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I’ve spent well over a decade focusing on peak performance- both athletically in my quest to become one of the world’s best endurance mountain bikers, but also in business and brainpower.  I used to think the key to peak performance was the focus on mastery: putting in the work to acquire the skills and wisdom to be a top performer in a given area.  While mastery and work ethic are certainly key components to peak performance, I have learned that there are multiple foundations upon which peak performance stands.  So what is the foundation to mastery, work ethic, and ultimately peak performance?

The answer is not as simple as one thing, but it is as broad as one category: health.  Oftentimes, we think health is as simple as sick or healthy, but the category of health goes deep and wide.  Health compasses emotional and mental health, physical health, environmental health, spiritual health, and relational health.  In my training as a health coaching through Vanderbilt’s Integrative Medicine Program and work towards becoming a NBC-HWC, we look at health in our coaching sessions broken down into these specific categories.

What does it mean to be healthy?

Health is multi-dimensional including emotional, mental, physical, environmental, spiritual, financial health and more.  Specifically, we consider these health categories to paint in broad strokes what it means to be healthy

  • Sleep and Rest
  • Mind-Body Connection
  • Compassionate Self-Awareness
  • Daily Rhythm and Balance
  • Food and Nourishment
  • Environment
  • Spirit and Soul
  • Relationships and Community
  • Movement, Exercise, and Play

At the center of health is mindful awareness of your actions, your attitude, your habits, and your thoughts. What do these categories have to do with peak performance?

Think of yourself as a beautiful tree with a large trunk and expansive branches with vibrant leaves. Or if you prefer, a skyscraper with a really cool architectural design.  If your tree has roots that are not nourished properly, or if there are cracks in your building’s foundation, that tree is going to eventually fall over and that building will come crashing down.  The tree can only grow big and healthy if its roots and nourishment are healthy.  A building can only be built tall and sturdily with a well-planned foundation.

That brings me to today’s topic which is taking care of your foundation.  It was the subject of a keynote I did last week to an executive team interested in performance, but also highlighting that peak performance starts with taking care of the person.

The HARDEST thing to do when we get busy, stressed, or super-focused is to take care of our key needs as humans, but they pay the largest amount of gains.  We all want happiness, general well-being, and satisfaction in life, but you have to take care of your foundation before you feel fulfilled and good most or at least some of the time.   Things like achievement, comparison, stress, and overwhelm can crowd out feelings of ease, happiness, and having energy.  Burnout affects over 62% of the workforce.

How do you know if you are getting burnt out?

Symptoms of burnout include apathy for something you generally enjoy, frequent sickness, having trouble sleeping, feeling short-tempered, everything feeler harder than usual, and loss of motivation for everything.   In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as a legitimate medical diagnosis.

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How do you take care of your foundation for peak performance?

There are so many categories when it comes to health. It’s why I went into health coaching.  It starts with assessing your current state with each area of your health and then choosing what you want to focus on.  Personally, I think the most important place to start is with sleep and rest.  Most people do not get enough sleep and we certainly do not get enough rest with the fast-paced hustle culture and constant stimulation from our digital devices.  When you can start looking at your life and your goals from a more rested state, it becomes easier to make better decisions about food, your self-talk, exercising, and other areas of your life that fill your cup.

How Much Rest Do I Need for Peak Performance?

Rest isn’t just about getting enough sleep at night.  And most people do not get nearly enough sleep. Personally, sleep has always been my #1 health priority. Yes, sleep has been a priority over healthy eating (would I rather go to bed early or lose an hour of sleep doing meal prep? I always choose sleep although it shouldn’t be either/or). I generally choose sleep over an extra thirty minutes of training.  Check out Dr. Matther Walker’s book, Why We Sleep for a deep dive into the science of sleep and how to sleep better and more efficiently.  Rest also extends past sleep. You might be sleeping 8 hours a night, the other 16 hours of your life are stressful and hectic. Sleep helps, but taking needed mental and physical rest throughout the day is imperative for performing and avoiding burnout.

Do I Need to Take Rest Days or Periods of Rest?

The easiest way to look at rest cycles is in athletic performance. Most of us know you should take one rest day away from exercise during the week. The rest is part of the work and is how you get stronger. Training breaks your muscles down and the rest is how they rebuild so you can be faster or stronger the next time. Recovery and rest also extends to your brain. Check out this podcast I recorded with PhD Walter Staiano on how mental fatigue affects physical performance.   The Principle of Progression shows that we need to have cycles of build and rest to perform.

A lot of us feel guilty or anxious when we take down-time.  That is partly due to our culture, but also partly due to our own issues of enoughness or self-worth.  It has taken me a lot of personal inside work to finally recognize that resting isn’t lazy and that I shouldn’t be pushing every single second of every single day. I’ve tried that multiple times, and it has always ended badly for me.

You may have heard of Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi in regards to his groundbreaking work with flow and performance.  He also has done work with studying creativity.  One thing that Pulitzer Prize Winners, Nobel Prize Winners and the brightest minds had in common: they practiced the Principle of Progression.  They had periods of focus and intensity followed by periods of restoration and recovery.

An addition- it’s normal to feel stress, but too much stress can lead to feeling fatigued all the time. Here’s a podcast (and article) I wrote on how to rethink stress and make it work for you.

What Are Some Examples of Rest?

  • Mindfulness and meditation practices
  • Things that don’t require striving or added stress: walking, playing with your dog or kid, listening to music, or even task-oriented or creative pursuits like cooking, cleaning, or playing music. The idea is that you aren’t trying to attain something by doing it. You do it because you like it, pure and simple.
  • Exercise can count as rest if you aren’t taking on a lot of physical inputs- exercise counts as mental rest and a way to destress.  Too much exercise and having exercise as the only coping mechanism for stress needs to be monitored so you don’t overtrain
  • Sleep or even just closing your eyes for 10 minutes
  • Social time with friends.  Research out of Harvard showed better exam performances among students who spent time with friends instead of every second preparing for an exam
  • Taking one day a week totally off. No checking email, no working at all
  • Taking several extended vacations because sometimes it takes a couple days to get into the swing of rest or vacation mode.
  • Consider taking a break every 90 minutes (the ultradian performance rhythm is 90 minutes on, 20 minutes of down-time). Even taking a 5-minute break every hour makes a difference.

Key Takeaways on Finding Peak Performance

  • Your work and your craft sit on top of a foundation of self-care, much like a sturdy tree trunk that grows from healthy roots
  • The first thing to get neglected when life gets busy is taking care of our foundation. Or we prioritize our work or craft over basic self-care
  • To perform at the highest level, whether it be physical or intellectual, a strong foundation will lead to peak performance.  It includes focusing sleep/rest, nutrition, movement, social connection, mindful self-awareness and self-compassion.
  • This article and podcast focused on sleep and rest is a great place to start. From a rested state, you can make better decisions and have more energy and motivation for the rest of your self-care practices
  • I listed some great ways to rest if you don’t know how to rest.

If you’re interested in working with me 1:1 to take care of your foundation, I offer health coaching.  Contact me to see if I have space on my client roster!

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