12 September 2008

Principles of Breakthrough Performance

This week I am going to shift back to a discussion of athletic performance. However, this article is also a summary of what's worked for me in academics, marriage and business.

Our photo this week is my buddy, Chris McDonald. Much of this article has come from considering his approach, as well as observing myself. I think he'd admit that he's taken himself far, far beyond what he thought possible even a few years ago.

Simplicity -- Whether you are considering an investment portfolio, new project development, sales strategy, or how to complete a stretch week of triathlon training. Increased simplicity improves your probability for success. Remove as much as possible from your life.

Specifically, to achieve top success requires the capacity to outperform your competition, daily, for a very long time. Some of the competition are more talented, more experienced, better funded, smarter... simplicity is an edge that you can give yourself.

Dilution of effort -- every item, thought and obligation added to your life dilutes your ability to fully commit to what is required for success. Single minded obsession is often a recipe for a future crisis -- still... if we are having a discussion about performance... then alternating obsession with recovery can be an effective strategy.

For any task requiring high quality, focused output (creative, technical, athletic) the periods when you are doing nothing are equally important to the periods where you are following your vocation. In athletics, periods of unstructured training (easy days, transition periods) can fulfill this role but you will still need some time where you are free to sit in a chair and chill out.

So when you are laying out your plan for breakthrough performance, I would encourage you to plan, and protect, your rejuvenation periods. I have watched some truly great athletes destroy themselves by trying to hold their athletic "high" a few months too long.

Stability -- there are a lot of areas where we dilute performance with instability:

Financial -- assuming that you have shown aptitude for your passion, you should allow at least five years to see what's possible in terms of performance. Being able to stay the course is very important -- you are looking at 10,000 hours worth of effort to see what's possible. Consider your out-goings and in-comings, the athletes that get this "right" follow a clear written plan.

If you are following a high-pay vocation then be wary of spending "because you can". A high burn-rate limits flexibility, personal freedom and can leave you beholden to the company, or person, that signs your pay check. I also believe that it makes ethical purity much more challenging.

If you are forced to ratchet down an expensive lifestyle that never generated incremental happiness then you will feel _real_ pain and loss.

Alan wrote a recent article on athletic periodization -- as I read it, I realized that it is a parable of my approach to life -- moving between business, investing, marriage, spirituality, triathlon and coaching. For each "run" I take at Ironman excellence, there are months, sometimes years, of careful preparation -- Base training for life!

So... I will offer some specifics that are proven for triathlon success.

Finances -- a minimum of three years living expenses, in cash, in the bank and a plan for maintaining your financial security. Financial stress drains performance. Figure out your personal financial weak link and create a simple plan to improve it.

Geography -- no more than two training bases, one VERY low cost, the other in an environment that makes it easy to address your key personal limiter, whatever that might be. Access to at least eight months of pleasant outdoor riding; and access to at least four months of long course swimming. Altitude isn't important. Watch what you spend on airfares.

Approach -- early in your athletic career, your #1 focus should be building your capacity to absorb steady-state training load. If you aspire to be a top Ironman athlete then progress gradually until an average training volume of 25 hours per week can be achieved within a five month span. Just focus on the training, you'll learn a lot. Once you can handle that load then increasing the average speed will offer a lot more gains than cranking the volume even further.

Note, the time requirements for athletic success imply very flexible part-time employment, or unemployment! With meaningful work obligations (that require analytic capacity), it simply isn't possible for me to move much past 12-18 hours per week. Even then, I need to be HIGHLY organized.

Timelines -- Five years of dedicated endurance training would be a fast progression to where you need to worry about your specific protocol. In the early days, any reasonable protocol will show progress. Train every day and avoid doing anything too silly.

Be very wary of seeking an intensity-driven short cut. You will make gains but you will limit your ultimate development. Running is a great example where "run easy every day" can result in fantastic gains, for years, for all new runners. It is also my preferred protocol for elite swimmers/cyclists that must give their connective tissues years to catch up to their aerobic engines.

Competitive Exposure -- Maintaining a challenging, but not overwhelming, competitive environment is important for motivation and progression.

I recommend that you podium at agegroup World Champs before racing elite. If you can't podium then the best decision may be to develop as a fast amateur. This will free you to consider options, and opportunities, that present themselves outside of athletics. Realistically, until you can podium at agegroup World's then you are unlikely to be able to survive as an elite athlete. Even then, the road is a fun, but tough, one.


Pulling all of that together. The big things that I have observed over the years:
  • Maintain simplicity in weekly routine.
  • Follow a low cost annual plan that limits travel, yet makes it mentally easy to train.
  • Good training partners are golden -- they get you through the inevitable down periods and help you stay the course.
  • Focus on building your capacity to train. Stop doing anything that results in missing tomorrow's training.
  • Sleep lots.
  • Until you can beat everyone within a two hour drive from home, there is no need to spend money traveling to races.
  • Focus on executing your weekly training plan, not achieving weekly results. Progress can lay hidden for months. I've had plateaus that lasted years.

Next week, I am going to shift back to investing, specifically the process that I go through when deciding how to allocate capital.

All my best,

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At 12:41 AM, Blogger Bruce Stewart (施樸樂) (ブルース・スチュワート) said...

An excellent thought-provoking article, like many previous ones. Reading these things has inspired me to adopt a holistic approach where I see training goals within the context of other life goals. I can identify with a lot of things written (I'm a Brit with an economics/finance background, living overseas, etc.). I'm starting to work on these things a lot later in life, which makes them all the more challenging, but also increases the chances of making possible what appears to be less possible.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Christiaan said...

Yet another excellent blog entry. I'm always intrigued by what it takes to achieve real success and the fact is that most of us do not have what it takes to achieve it. Fundamentally, whatever it is we're trying to succeed in requires the discipline to put together a number of actions, routinely over time. Most of us don't have the discipline to do this, for as long as it takes and look for short cuts or quick fixes.

At 4:39 AM, Blogger BRFOOT said...

3 years cash in the bank....wow! Do you mean any kind liqufiable asset(stock,bonds etc) or just good old fashioned green backs??
Which you actually be losing money on in a savings account.

At 7:08 AM, Blogger Gordo Byrn said...

With the cash return point -- to inflation proof my savings, I prefer to continue to save, rather than increase the risk profile on core capital.

As for amounts, I don't believe that we achieve financial stability until we are closer to ten years cash flow saved (in low risk investments) than three. However, that benchmark seems far away when we are starting out. So we start with one... then three... then five... financial security, like training, benefits from establishing habits that serve our goals.


At 7:50 AM, Blogger BRFOOT said...

BTW, Glad to see to comments turned on.
I aggree with the savings plan I was just curious if you were counting (401k,403b,roth)or if that is in addition to those.


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