Magazines, bookstore shelves and the blogosphere are flooded with hints, tips and hacks that promise fantastic benefits across all areas of human performance. The trouble is that many of these are merely recycled, misinterpret the latest scientific research or simply piggyback on the latest short-lived fads and trends. What we need are more curators who can combine evidence-based insight with on-the-ground insights from coaches in an easily accessible and highly applicable package. That’s exactly what running coach Steve Magness and respected health and fitness writer Brad Stulberg provide in their new bestselling book, Peak Performance. We caught up with Magness to give us the lowdown on a few topics that don’t just benefit the elite, but can help you up whatever your game is, too.
What can weekend warriors learn from the routines of the best athletes, creatives and entrepreneurs?
I think the concept of priming is overlooked but can give you a big advantage. If you look at the most successful people in any field, they have some kind of warm-up routine that gets their mind and body ready to go. This might be obvious for athletes, but we also found it’s true of people like Matt Billingslea, the drummer for Taylor Swift. His pre-show routine involves mobility, calisthenics and other movements that rev him up so when he gets on stage he’s raring to go.
If you’re going to surf or snowboard, don’t just go straight into the waves or onto the mountain. Find a few exercises that prep your body and then visualize what you’re going to do to get your mind ready. Even 10 or 15 minutes will make a big difference. Another way top performers prime themselves is by manipulating their environment. They go to the same coffee shop and get the same drink at the same time of day, every day. They’ll also do things that block out distractions and set up their workspace so that it only has what’s essential to get the most out of their time.
How important is compartmentalizing your day?
When I was still running competitively, I liked knowing exactly when I was going to be training or competing and blocking these times off completely to dedicate to that. You couldn’t do anything else. Now with a phone or tablet within reach 24/7, we have a potential intrusion at all times. And when you’re out of high school and college sports and have work and family commitments it gets harder to focus. In the book we share how some very high performing people work hard to be fully present. Just like me when I was in track practice, they protect each block of time and don’t do anything else except what they have scheduled. That’s the same in their training, work and home life. Dr. Bob Kocher, who’s a partner for Venrock Capital, consulting professor for Stanford School of Medicine and former special assistant to the President of the United States on health care, has the motto, “Do only one thing at a time.” That allows high achievers like him to get a lot done and still be home for dinner with their family, as well as avoiding the kind of long hours that we mistakenly assume all high achievers work. You’ve got to set aside blocks of time for everything and then safeguard those.
What role does your sleep/wake time play in performance?
If you’re at your best in the morning but are staying up too late and getting up too late, you’re leaving performance on the table. The same goes for someone whose chronotype means they’re on their game at night but has their schedule set up wrong, gets up too early and tries to get their best work done first thing. We’re starting to realize that while it is important what time you go to bed and wake up and whether that makes you a late night owl, an early morning lark like me or anywhere in between, you also need to understand when you’re most productive and focused. Then try to make sure you’re doing the things that are most important to you in those time slots, while saving other less critical tasks for when you’re in a lull. The best of the best order their day like this. They know when they need to go to bed, get up, how much sleep they need to recover and how they’re going to structure their life to make them deliver at optimum times. Start experimenting and becoming more aware so you can do this, too. This applies to your training, your work and other areas of your life too. If you start to know yourself better and improve how you order your time, you’ll be able to access your best effort more often.