Becoming a “Peak Performer”

How Stephen King, Mark Zuckerberg, and Other Industry Leaders Can Improve your Training and Nutrition

The Science of Running by Steve Magness was one of the first books I read on running. The content was so dense it demanded your unwavering concentration and I found myself rereading pages when my attention wandered. However, it was an impressive collection of practical and anecdotal evidence and encouraged me to seek out more of Steve’s work.

Peak Performance, which Steve co-wrote with Brad Stulberg was a different type of read. If I had had an uninterrupted day to dedicate to the book, I could’ve read it in one sitting; it was that good. Filled with stories of “peak performers” across different industries, it was motivating and filled with actionable insights that if assessed and applied personally could be transferred to one’s own life. How can you be a better runner? How can you be a better husband, wife, or child? How can you more effectively adhere to a diet? How can you work less but accomplish more? Steve and Brad interviewed and analyzed accomplished individuals in many fields including athletics, writing, and psychology. I am not in the business of reviewing books, but rather attempting to summarize the authors’ findings in a way that you can apply to your training, nutrition, work, and personal life. 

1.) Stress can be positive. How you interpret and approach stressors has a significant impact on the effects they have on your mind and body

How you perceive something changes how your body responds to it. We are inundated with ways to avoid stress and when impossible, cope with it. Kelly McDonigal, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford dedicated a lot of her work to learning about coping mechanisms. However, her mindset shifted when research came out indicating that those who viewed stress as positive had a significantly lower chance of premature death than those who feared stress. With a shift in her research focus, she wrote The Upside of Stress, describing how those who “learn to assess stressors as challenges rather than threats…With this outlook, negative emotions like fear and anxiety decrease. This response better enables these individuals to manage and even thrive under stress” (71). Knowing that stress is inevitable, how can you shift your mindset to a more favorable response?

Stress can be a potent, yet positive stimulus that causes growth when coupled with appropriate rest
2.) “Out of sight out of mind” – remove distractions and things that will deter you from your goal. Research shows that multitasking is not effective

Work in shorter blocks bookended by active breaks. During these periods of work, your attention should be solely on the singular task at hand. Set yourself up for success by working in an environment and at a time of day when distractions are minimized and you function most optimally cognitively (for some this is first thing in the morning, for others late at night). You have a given capacity to attend to your daily tasks before “performance” begins to suffer. Everything from deciding what to wear to making health choices for breakfast and lunch; all of these conscious efforts begin to exhaust your reserve of energy. This helps explain why at the end of the day people’s diets take a turn for the worst, or why the rate of judges granting parole varies greatly between the beginning and end of a shift, or how the percentage of doctor error rises greatly towards the end of a shift. An entire day of decisions exhausts your ability to process efficiently and continue making the correct judgment. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt and jeans almost every day because he knows that he has a greater responsibility of managing a network that connects billions of people and doesn’t want the trivial decision of picking out his wardrobe to take away any of his mental energy.

 In order to perform most optimally on a given task (work, dieting, etc), minimize the amount of decisions you have to make throughout the day. This is one of the reasons why meal prepping is so important for maintaining a healthy diet.
3.) View sleep and time off as productive

Our world has grown to admire those who sacrifice sleep for more hours on the job and admonish those who sleep more and take days off. Of course the best in the world at a given discipline got to that point because of the hard work they put into their craft, but a sentiment that echoed throughout the pages from intellects to ironmans was that they worked equally as hard to rest and recuperate; one of the interviewed characters went as far as to say that work wasn’t the hard part, rest was. The following suggestions were made:

  • Start with a minute of meditation, sitting in a comfortable position and a quiet space, focusing on your breath in and out through your nose. Gradually increase the duration of these sessions by 30 to 60 seconds
  • Sleep 7-10 hours per night. Exercise, natural sunlight, and cutting off caffeine 5-6 hours prior to bedtime all can contribute to a better circadian rhythm. Don’t engage in hard, stressful work after dinner
  • Take at least one day off every week – disconnect from work and engage in enjoyable and relaxing activities
Work and training is the stimulus needed to initiate growth. Rest and recovery is the period of time when that growth actually occurs. Without it, the stressors accumulate without a positive adaptation
4.) Create the Environment for an Effective Routine

Routine is highly individual so figuring out what works best for you isn’t to be discovered by mimicking the schedules and habits of your favorite celebrity. Consistency is important and the consequence of an effective routine should have your mind and body in the correct state for whatever activity you are preparing for. You are a product of your surroundings. Being surrounded by negativity is draining but fortunately the exact opposite is also true. Positivity is contagious and helping others succeed is a strong motivator that has been shown to reduce the likelihood of burnout. Not only the people surrounding you but the environment and your routine will dictate your level of success in whatever endeavor you are pursuing. Blasting AC/DC while you pen your next novel like Stephen King may not be your ideal environment, but his writing cave was the environment where he created his best work, and he never deviated.
Some keys (p. 197) for successful routines are:

  • Find physical spaces to dedicate to a specific activity
  • Surround yourself with objects that invite desired behaviors
  • Over time, your environment will enhance your productivity on a deep neurological level
  • Execute the same cue/routine every time prior to the behavior to which it is paired
Routine is highly individualized but what holds true in all cases is that in order for a routine to evoke the desired behavior or outcome, the environment must be set up for consistent, distraction-free practice
5.) Find Motivation and Purpose
I am often asked how much faster I could run without the wheelchair. While I have no interest in finding out, I consistently respond that I would be slower, much to the confusion of those inquiring. I never particularly enjoyed running and at times still do not. Time on the stationary bike at 7 pm isn’t how I want to follow up a 13 hour work day; and track intervals during my mid-day break in coaching isn’t more appealing than a nap. But I never skip. It’s not because it is something I necessarily look forward to, but the training in itself has a bigger purpose. By myself at the track, mile repeats at 5k pace sometimes seem impossible. With Jacob at Baystate, we sustained that pace for six and a half miles, and could’ve kept going.

While Magness and Stulberg’s book briefly mentions the works of Tim Noakes and Samuele Marcora, the book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson dove deep into the nature of fatigue through the lens of these two researchers. Noakes’ Central Governor Theory believed that fatigue is the result of your brain shutting down muscular function as a protective mechanism.  Marcora, while agreeing that fatigue is multifaceted, “believes that we constantly weigh our perceptions of effort associated with an activity against our motivation to do that activity. When perception of effort is greater than motivation, we slow down or ease up until the two are balanced. It follows that the more motivated we are, the greater the perception of effort we are willing to tolerate…an athlete can improve her performance by either decreasing her perception of effort or by increasing her motivation” (170). This tangential stream of consciousness circles back to running with the wheelchair. When I ask Jacob what he wants to do tomorrow and he says “race” or when I look down at him rocking back and forth in the chair as I struggle to catch my breath, the perception of effort vs. motivation scale tips in favor of the latter. I’ve had my best solo track workouts when instead of prefacing it with thoughts of all of the more relaxing activities I could be doing, I think to the race we’re preparing for and all of the kids that I work with who are unable to run.

So how can we increase our motivation in order to improve performance? If you read nothing else, pages 157 through 190 of Peak Performance will tell you how. A few of the suggestions (p. 200-201) the authors make are:

  • Ego, self, or the central governor serve as a protective mechanism that holds you back from reaching your true limits. When faced with great challenges, your ego is biologically programmed to shut you down…By focusing on a self-transcending purpose, or a reason for doing something beyond your self, you can override your ego and break through your self-imposed limits
  • Link your activities to a greater purpose – you are more likely to push through a challenge when your reason is “for someone or something greater than myself”
  • Find opportunities to give back in the context of your work. While giving is especially powerful for preventing and reversing burnout, you should still support yourself with appropriate rest
  • Write a purpose statement that reflects on your core values – reflect on it every night
  • Use visual cues to remind yourself of your purpose when you are most likely to need a boost
You are more likely to adhere to a task and perform exceptionally when it the responsibility is linked to a greater purpose and/or helps someone without expecting anything in return. This will increase your motivation, increasing your tolerance for difficulty, and in turn improve your performance.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO NUTRITION?
It may not be apparent in live time but the willpower you use to avoid foods that derail your progress has a cumulative effect over the course of the day. When this is exhausted throughout the day, it presents an overwhelming challenge to stay on course until you head to bed. We can even relate it to the last point mentioned above; through Marcora’s lens, the perception of difficulty in adhering to a diet dwindles throughout the day as fatigue sets in. You can mitigate this by planning ahead and placing yourself in the right environments. A few simple and effective tips could be:
  • Only navigate the perimeter of the grocery store
  • Meal prep on Sunday to set yourself up for success during the week
  • Pack healthy snacks in Ziploc bags
  • Use the drive thru at Dunkins to avoid seeing the unhealthy food menu
  • Have a purpose beyond yourself (improving your health for your family/kids) so that your motivation exceeds the perception of difficulty and in turn improves adherence
The importance of sleep on weight loss would demand an entire post in and of itself. This book more so addressed its importance on performance in work, athletics, and relationships; but the research is unanimous on its positive benefits for weight loss on a physiological level as well. Sleep to recover from stress and you’ll find that it comes full circle to supporting nutritional changes.

A support system is invaluable. Statistics show that when your friends make behavioral changes (for better or for worse), you become significantly more likely to follow suit. Therefore, who you surround yourself with has significant repercussions. If the people you surround yourself with make positive changes and are part of the greater purpose for your nutritional changes, you are in the perfect environment.