Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success

by Brad Stulberg, Steve Magness

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"A transfixing book on how to sustain peak performance and avoid burnout" —Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Option B, Originals, and Give and Take

"An essential playbook for success, happiness, and getting the most out of ourselves." Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive and The Sleep Revolution

"I doubt anyone can read Peak Performance without itching to apply something to their own lives." —David Epstein, New York Times bestselling author of The Sports Gene

A few common principles drive performance, regardless of the field or the task at hand. Whether someone is trying to qualify for the Olympics, break ground in mathematical theory or craft an artistic masterpiece, many of the practices that lead to great success are the same. In Peak Performance, Brad Stulberg, a former McKinsey and Company consultant and writer who covers health and the science of human performance, and Steve Magness, a performance scientist and coach of Olympic athletes, team up to demystify these practices and demonstrate how you can achieve your best.

The first book of its kind, Peak Performance combines the inspiring stories of top performers across a range of capabilities—from athletic to intellectual and artistic—with the latest scientific insights into the cognitive and neurochemical factors that drive performance in all domains. In doing so, Peak Performance uncovers new linkages that hold promise as performance enhancers but have been overlooked in our traditionally-siloed ways of thinking. The result is a life-changing book in which you can learn how to enhance your performance via myriad ways including: optimally alternating between periods of intense work and rest; priming the body and mind for enhanced productivity; and developing and harnessing the power of a self-transcending purpose.

In revealing the science of great performance and the stories of great performers across a wide range of capabilities, Peak Performance uncovers the secrets of success, and coaches you on how to use them. If you want to take your game to the next level, whatever "your game" may be, Peak Performance will teach you how.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623367947
Publisher: Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 262,808
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist with Outside Magazine and New York Magazine and has also written for Forbes, NPR, The Los Angeles Times, Runner's World, and The Huffington Post. Brad is widely known for his ability to merge the latest science with compelling personal stories, offering readers practical insights that they can apply in their own lives. Previously, Brad worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, where he counseled some of the world's top executives on a broad range of issues. He is an avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast. Brad lives in Northern California with his wife, Caitlin, and their two cats.

Steve Magness is a coach to some of the top distance runners in the world, having coached numerous athletes to top 15 at the World Championships and Olympic Games. He currently coaches at the University of Houston. Known widely for his integration of science and practice, Magness has been on the forefront of innovation in sport. He serves as an adjunct professor of Strength and Conditioning at St. Mary's University and has been a featured expert in Runner's World, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The BBC, The Wall Street Journal, and ESPN The Magazine. In addition, his first book, The Science of Running, was published in 2014. In his own running, Magness ran a 4:01 mile in High School. He lives in Houston, TX.

Read an Excerpt




Think for a moment about what it takes to make muscles, such as your biceps, stronger. If you try lifting weights that are too heavy, you probably won't make it past one repetition. And even if you do, you're liable to hurt yourself along the way. Lift too light a weight, on the other hand, and you won't see much, if any, result; your biceps simply won't grow. You've got to find the Goldilocks weight: an amount you can barely manage, that will leave you exhausted and fatigued-but not injured- by the time you've finished your workout. Yet discovering such an ideal weight is only half the battle. If you lift every day, multiple times a day, without much rest in between, you're almost certainly going to burn out. But if you hardly ever make it to the gym and fail to regularly push your limits, you're not going to get much stronger, either. The key to strengthening your biceps-and, as we'll learn, any muscle, be it physical, cognitive, or emotional-is balancing the right amount of stress with the right amount of rest. Stress + rest = growth. This equation holds true regardless of what it is that you are trying to grow.


In the world of exercise science, this cycle of stress and rest is often referred to as periodization. Stress-and by this we don't mean fighting with your partner or your boss, but rather, some sort of stimulus, such as lifting a heavy weight-challenges the body, in some cases pushing it close to failure. This process is usually followed by a slight dip in function; just think about how useless your arms are after a hard weight-lifting session. But if after the stressful period you give your body time to rest and recover, it adapts and becomes stronger, allowing you to push a little harder in the future. Over time, the cycle looks like this: 1.Isolate the muscle or capability you want to grow 2.Stress it 3.Rest and recover, allowing for adaptation to occur 4.Repeat-this time stressing the muscle or capability a bit more than you did the last time World-class athletes are masters at this cycle. On a micro level, their training alternates between hard days (e.g., intervals until the brink of muscle failure and total exhaustion) and easy days (e.g., jogging at a pedestrian pace). The best athletes also prioritize recovery, time on the couch and in bed, just as much as they prioritize time on the track or in the gym. On a more macro level, great athletes often follow a hard month of training with an easy week. They intentionally design their seasons to include only a few peak events that are followed by periods of physical and psychological restoration. The days, weeks, months, years, and entire careers of master athletes represent a continual ebb and flow between stress and rest. Those who can't figure out the right balance either get hurt or burn out (too much stress, not enough rest) or become complacent and plateau (not enough stress, too much rest). Those who can figure out the right balance, however, become life-long champions.


When Deena Kastor graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1996, she was a good collegiate runner who had never quite pulled off a major victory. She received multiple All-American awards and stood atop many podiums, but the collegiate national championship was always just a touch-a few seconds, to be precise-out of reach. This didn't deter Kastor from going all-in on running. Upon graduation, she connected with the legendary coach Joe Vigil and followed him to the oxygen-deprived air of Alamosa, Colorado, and ultimately to Mammoth Lakes, California. There, training at 9,000 feet above sea level, Kastor went to work on reaching a level far beyond what her collegiate success could have predicted. Glimpse into Kastor's training diary during her prime and one word comes to mind: extraordinary. A 24-mile-long run at 7,000 feet altitude; mile repeats at speeds that for most people would be equivalent to an all-out 100-yard dash; and her favorite, 4 by 2 miles at a lung-searing 5-minute- mile pace, all on the highest path in Mammoth Lakes. These heroic workouts make up only a small portion of Kastor's total running. At the end of each week, in the bottom right corner of her training journal, she circled "total miles run." This number almost always read between 110 and 140. While this may seem extraordinary, to Kastor it was all very ordinary. As a result, she reached the highest levels of athletic success. Deena Kastor is hands-down the name most associated with American women's running, and for good reason. She's won an Olympic bronze medal in the marathon, and has earned distinction in many major national races. She holds the American marathon record, having covered the 26.2 miles in just 2 hours and 19 minutes, or at a pace of 5 minutes and 20 seconds per mile. Just think about running one mile that fast, and then imagine doing it 26 times in a row. Perhaps even harder to comprehend is the 2 hour and 27 minute marathon (5 minute and 40 second mile pace) she ran at age 42. That's right, Kastor is still running insanely fast well into what should be the twilight of her endurance sports career. And although she may lose an occasional race to someone 10 to 20 years her junior, she's consistently at the front of the pack, racing against, and often beating, women young enough to be her daughters. Ask Kastor how she's been able to sustain this level of performance and you'll get a lesson in periodization. While Kastor's quick to mention the hard work she puts in, she's equally as quick to mention the rest that follows. "The leaps and bounds I've made over the last several years have come from outside the training environment and how I choose to recover," she told Competitor magazine in 2009. "During a workout you're breaking down soft tissue and really stressing your body. How you treat yourself in between workouts is where you make gains and acquire the strength to attack the next one." Kastor says she realized early on that simply working hard wouldn't do. She's even called her workouts the easy part. What sets her apart, the magic that has allowed her to run so fast and so far for the past 25 years, is how she recovers: the 10 to 12 hours of sleep she gets each night; her meticulous approach to diet; her weekly massage and stretching sessions. In other words, it's all the things she does when she isn't training that allows her to do what she does when she is. Stress demands rest, and rest supports stress. Kastor has mastered the inputs, and understands how much stress she can tolerate and how much rest she requires. Thus, the output-a lifetime of growth and excellence-isn't all that surprising.


Kastor is certainly unique, but her story is echoed by the research of Stephen Seiler. In 1996, shortly after earning his PhD in physiology in the United States, Seiler relocated to Norway. When he first arrived, he noticed something that befuddled him: During cross-training runs, world- class cross-country skiers were stopping before hills and then slowly walking up. Seiler didn't understand. Why were some of the best endurance athletes on the planet training so easily? Seiler tracked down Norway's national cross-country ski coach, Inge Bråten, the man behind the training of legends such as eight-time Gold medalist Bjørn Dæhlie. He asked Bråten if he was imagining athletes slowly walking up hills in their training, and if not, could Bråten please explain what was going on. Bråten simply told Seiler that the skiers he saw walking had recently trained hard, so now they must train easy. Upon hearing this, Seiler's mind flashed back to a paper he'd read that claimed Kenyan runners spent a majority of their training time running at a snail's pace. When he revisited the research, Seiler also saw it mentioned that the Kenyans alternated between very hard days and very easy days. At that moment, it struck Seiler that the best summer athletes in the world and the best winter athletes in the world appeared to be training quite similarly. As any good scientist would, he set out to test his hypothesis. Seiler tracked the training of elite athletes across a variety of endurance sports including running, skiing, swimming, and cycling. He found that, irrespective of sport or nationality, their training followed roughly the same distribution. The best athletes in the world weren't adhering to a "no pain, no gain" model, nor were they doing fitness-magazine popularized high- intensity interval training (HIIT) or random "workouts of the day." Rather, they were systematically alternating between bouts of very intense work and periods of easy training and recovery, even if that meant walking up hills. The ongoing progression and development of elite competitors, Seiler found, was an exercise in stress and rest.


Around the same time that Seiler was exploring commonalities among the top endurance athletes in the world, another researcher was exploring commonalities among the top creative and intellectual performers in the world. This researcher was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent- mi-hi), PhD, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology known for his ideas on happiness, meaning, and optimal performance. If you've ever heard of the term "flow"-or a state of being fully absorbed in an activity with laserlike focus, completely in the zone-that's Csikszentmihalyi's work. Less known than his work on flow, but equally insightful, is Csikszentmihalyi's study of creativity. Over the course of 50 years, he conducted hundreds of interviews with field-altering geniuses from diverse domains. He spoke with groundbreaking inventors, innovative artists, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. Just as Seiler found that world-class endurance athletes migrate toward a similar style of work, Csikszentmihalyi found that the same held true for creative geniuses: the brightest minds spend their time either pursuing an activity with ferocious intensity, or engaging in complete restoration and recovery. This approach, Csikszentmihalyi discovered, not only prevents creative burnout and cognitive fatigue, but it also fosters breakthrough ideas and discoveries (we'll explore why this happens in more detail in Chapter 4). Csikszentmihalyi documented a common process across almost all great intellectual and creative performers, regardless of their field: 1.Immersion: total engagement in their work with deep, unremitting focus 2.Incubation: a period of rest and recovery when they are not at all thinking about their work 3.Insight: the occurrence of "aha" or "eureka" moments-the emergence of new ideas and growth in their thinking


.Alternate between cycles of stress and rest in your most important pursuits. .Insert short breaks throughout your work over the course of a day. .Strategically time your "off-days," long weekends, and vacations to follow periods of heavy stress. .Determine when your work regularly starts to suffer. When you find that point, insert a recovery break just prior to it. Look familiar? The manner in which great intellectual and creative performers continually grow their minds mirrors the manner in which great physical performers continually grow their bodies. Perhaps this is because our muscles and minds are more alike than we might think. Just as our muscles deplete and run out of energy, as we're about to see, our minds do, too.


In the mid-1990s, Roy Baumeister, PhD, a social psychologist who at the time was teaching at Case Western Reserve University, revolutionized how we think about the mind and its capacity. Baumeister wanted to get to the bottom of common-day struggles such as why we feel mentally "tired" after toiling away at a complex problem. Or when we are on a diet, why we are more likely to crack at night after diligently resisting unhealthy food all day. In other words, Baumeister was interested in understanding how and why our intellectual power and our willpower run out of gas. When Baumeister set out to solve this problem, he didn't need the latest and greatest brain-imaging technology. All he needed were some cookies and radishes. In an elegantly designed experiment, Baumeister and his colleagues had 67 adults file into a room that smelled like chocolate chip cookies. After the participants had taken their seats, freshly baked cookies were brought into the room. No sooner than everyone's salivary glands began working, things got interesting. While half the study participants were allowed to eat the cookies, the other half were prohibited from doing so. Adding insult to injury, the non-cookie-eaters were given radishes and told they could eat them instead. As you might imagine, the cookie-eaters had no problem with the first part of the experiment. Like most people in their situation, they enjoyed indulging. The radish-eaters, on the other hand, struggled mightily. "The [radish-eaters] exhibited clear interest in the cookies, to the point of looking lovingly at the display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff them," writes Baumeister. Resisting the cookies was no easy task. This doesn't seem groundbreaking. Who wouldn't struggle to resist delicious desserts? But things got even more interesting in the second part of the experiment, during which the radish-eaters' struggles continued. After both groups finished eating, all participants were asked to solve a seemingly solvable, but actually unsolvable, problem. (Yes, this was a cruel experiment, especially for those stuck with the radishes.) The radish- eaters lasted a little over 8 minutes and gave the problem 19 attempts. The cookie-eaters, on the other hand, persisted for over 20 minutes and attempted to solve the problem 33 times. Why the stark difference? Because the radish-eaters had depleted their mental muscle by resisting the cookies, whereas the cookie-eaters had a full tank of psychological gas and thus exerted far more effort in trying to solve the problem. Baumeister went on to repeat several variations of this study, and he observed the same result every time. Participants who were forced to flex their mental muscle-be it to resist temptation, solve a hard puzzle, or make tough decisions-performed worse on a subsequent task that also required mental energy as compared to participants in a control group who had an easy first task, like eating fresh cookies.

Table of Contents

Foreword: Is Healthy, Sustainable Peak Performance Possible? 1

Introduction: Great Expectations 9

Section 1 The Growth Equation

1 The Secret to Sustainable Success 27

2 Rethinking Stress 41

3 Stress Yourself 53

4 The Paradox of Rest 75

5 Rest Like the Best 95

Section 2 Priming

6 Optimize Your Routine 123

7 Minimalist to Be a Maximalist 139

Section 3 Purpose

8 Transcend Your"self" 157

9 Develop Your Purpose 181

Conclusion 191

Bibliography and Source Notes 203

Acknowledgments 217

About the Authors 221

Index 223

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