Lee Chambers | 20th Mar
In my role as a Functional Performance Coach, it is my job to connect the dots on how sleep, nutrition and movement are interconnected, and how important mindset and habits are in creating consistent optimisation for peak performance.
Sleep is the cornerstone of high performance, as it has a direct knock-on effect to every other area we focus on. Sleep is where our brains and bodies recover from the stressors we face every day. Compromised sleep quality or quantity leaves us without the optimal level of recovery we need to perform at our highest level. There is a large body of evidence about how we refresh and rebuild through our sleep cycles, and there are hundreds of case studies on elite performers who sleep between 11 and 12 hours daily. To train at an elite level, they utilise the power of naps and optimising sleep cycles. We may not be able to nap in our daily lives, but as humans, we are designed to be polyphasic, sleeping twice each circadian rhythm. This is why we have an afternoon slump, and even the Romans realised this, calling it ‘Sexta’, otherwise known as the sixth hour. And this directly translates to the Southern European siesta. If we can get a solid 8 hours between 10 and 6, we will hit the sweet spot that gives us the highest level of recovery, giving our bodies and minds a chance to rebuild. But if we want to perform at an elite level, we will need more.
“Ten hours of sleep is operationally defined as our need because that’s what is often required for optimal performance.” – Dr. James B. Maas
The average western world adult sleep duration is falling and now sits at 6.7 hours per night. This is way below where we need to be for optimal performance, or even for a good level of wellbeing. This level of aggregating sleep debt is becoming more of a concern than our national financial debt as nations. It directly affects our nutrition, causing fluctuations in our ghrelin and leptin levels, which adversely affects our food and drink intake and choices. It affects our movement and training as we become less inclined to push out of our comfort zone when we are under slept. It also affects our mindset, as we become less receptive to praise, and more susceptible to criticism, both from others and our self-narrative. It affects our attention and focus, and our ability to focus deeply on the task at hand, lowering our performance and productivity. Gone are the days when leaders proudly announced that they got by on 5 hours sleep and that sleep was for the lazy and unmotivated. Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.
“If I don’t sleep eleven to twelve hours a day, it’s not right. If I don’t have that amount of sleep, I hurt myself.” – Roger Federer
Nutrition is another driver of peak performance which I work on optimising with clients regularly. As a science, it is something that is still very young and very bespoke to each individual. I don’t prescribe any meal plans, specific diets or impart reams of advice. Nutrition has only been studied in any detail for the past 100 years. If you compare surgery, which has been practised for thousands of years, today’s nutrition on a timeline is equivalent to surgery in 1600. Given this situation, not only is there a lot of misinformation being published, but there are studies to back up almost any eating style or belief. This allows people and the media to cherry-pick the studies that suit their viewpoint, and then use them as ‘scientific evidence’ that backs their point. Add to this the strong belief systems that are present and well publicised, and you have a nutritional minefield.
“We’re omnivores by nature and, as such, we rely on a complex set of nutrients from minerals, plants, and animals for optimal health.” – Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey, MD
Step back for a second and consider this. The traditional Mexicans eat a high carbohydrate diet, made up of ancient grains. The Masai of Africa eat a high protein diet, consisting of lots of animal meat and blood. And the Inuits eat a high-fat diet, consisting of blubber and fats from sealife. They have massively diverse diets, and despite this, they have a minimal incidence of chronic disease. Let us replicate this for you. We, as humans, are all biodiverse. You have your own epigenetic expression, your own enzyme makeup and your own microbiome design. So what works for me might not work for you. It might be terrible for you. To ensure you can access a high level of performance, we need to find the foods that energise us, that don’t spike our blood sugar significantly, and that we can tolerate and digest easily.
Digestion as a bodily process is very energy-intensive. We can’t clean our brains with glymphatic fluid while we sleep if we are still digesting food late in the day, as our body doesn’t have enough power to do both simultaneously. Once you’ve found the foods that energise you, the ones you can tolerate, and the ones that drain you, you can take the experiment a step further and start to look at how these food make you feel mentally. Think of it as running little tests on connecting your mind and body. We have a second brain in our gut, containing more than 100 million nerve cells. Ninety per cent of our serotonin is produced in our gut. Mastering what optimal nutrition looks like for you is fundamental to not only your optimal performance but to how happy you feel!
“Choose quality over quantity, food experience over mere calories. Or as grandmothers used to say, ‘Better to pay the grocer than the doctor.'” – Michael Pollan
Movement is also incredibly important when it comes to both performance and wellbeing. As John Ratey says, “exercise is the equivalent of taking a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac”. It protects you from depressive feelings and gives you a 12-hour mood boost! The most significant factor in movement for performance is to have a clear, concrete goal, and a tailored approach to move towards it. Move too much, or ineffectively, and you won’t be able to recover, rebuild and therefore will not see the benefits. Working on having a base level of endurance, strength and flexibility gives you a solid base to personalise a plan to move towards your target incrementally over time. It also gives you the foundation to build technical or functional skills at a higher level. If we wish to develop high-level skills to perform at our peak, we have to make sure that we partake in deliberate practise of those skills. As the famous basketball coach John Wooden once said: “Good players practise till they can score, and elite players practise until they can’t miss”. If you want to train at a high level, you need to be ready to push yourself out of that comfort zone, grow, rest, and go again.
With me now spending more time in the boardroom than the training room, I am actively tackling the challenge of many clients who are active, but sedentary. They wake up, drive to the gym, workout for an hour, sit down at work all day, then go home and chill. Because exercise is only one part of the overall movement picture, we must make sure we build in additional movements to maintain positive health outcomes. And a lack of movement causes both performance and wellbeing to decrease. One big thing we promote in our work is to implement dinnertime walks, walking meetings and walking networking. We access where we can get the most benefit by trying to incorporate green spaces. The productivity and creativity of employees after the walks is noticeably higher. When combined with a nutritious dinner and a good night’s sleep, this creates a highly motivated and morale-boosting workplace culture. As a final note, recent research by Kelly McGonigal shows that taking less than 5649 steps daily will increase feelings of anxiety and depression and reduce life satisfaction. With the average UK adult taking just over 4000 steps, how can we even begin to look at your performance if you’re not moving enough to keep your mind in a positive place?
“If you’re looking to improve your mind-body connection, walking off the beaten track is where it’s at.” – Katy Bowman
The final piece of the puzzle of integrating performance as a system that can be improved is the mindset. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, your right”. We need to believe we have the power to improve our performance. Otherwise, we won’t implement change and strive for more. We need to have a growth mindset, believing we can get a little bit better every day, and that we have a level of potential that we can access. We need to be realistic, planning small changes that we can consistently commit too. They also need to be easy to do, fit with our real-life challenges, and feel rewarding. We also need to understand ourselves and be willing to learn about why we behave, have the thoughts and feelings that we do daily. By understanding ourselves, it gives us an element of control, and we can start to design our lives with that in mind. And by getting more understanding of why we are the way we are, we can have that at the forefront of our mind when we try to make changes.
“The other thing exceptional people seem to have is a special talent for converting life’s setbacks into future successes.” – Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
To perform at our peak, we need to be open to practising deliberately to get better at our craft. Doing
the same thing repeatedly, sat in our comfort zone does not improve us physically or mentally. There is a reason so many high performers meditate. Meditation is excellent mental training, which helps us get better at deeply connecting to tasks, and better at disconnecting from our stress once we have finished pushing ourselves. Having an experimenter’s mindset is vital for exploring innovative ideas and finding lessons from failure in the pursuit of performance. I literally tell my clients to imagine wearing a lab coat when they are trying to solve problems, and treating the outcome as data, without attaching emotion to it if it doesn’t go as expected.
In my work with clients, we work together to implement small, actionable steps in all these areas gradually. This starts a process of incrementally spiralling upwards, sparks the feeling of making progress, and starts to increase both performance and productivity. The key is to not look at performance in isolation, but as an integrated process that gives the most substantial returns when it engages several improvement areas. And this is how you compound marginal gains into massive improvements.