Podcast, Psychology, Recovery, Science

Peak Performance – The Science of Success with Brad Stulberg | EP#28

 June 4, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Peak Performance - The Science of Success with Brad Stulberg | EP#28

A few common principles drive performance, regardless of the field or the task at hand. Whether someone is trying to qualify for the Olympics, set a new personal best or win their age group, or break ground in mathematical theory, 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 make them accessible to everyone.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The science of success and peak performance, whatever success means to you.
  • Rest and stress and its role in performance.
  • The importance of developing a purpose.
  • Routines and their role in priming the body and mind for performance and productivity.
  • Action steps you can start taking today to work towards peak performance in triathlon and in life.


Why is your new book, "Peak Performance", relevant to triathletes?

04:29 -​

The book is relevant for two reasons:

  1. The findings in the book apply to the development of an athlete.​
  2. Many of the findings in this book are focused outside of sports which triathletes can apply in their work or personal life. And many of the same practices that are applied in sports are beneficial if applied outside of sports as well.

About Brad Stulberg

06:01 -

  • From age 22 he worked at a management consulting firm - McKinsey - for two years. But he became burnt out in the job because of his inability at that time to pause and check out from the job.​
  • Started studying public health at graduate school and became interested in the science of health and wellness and what it takes to thrive, coupled with the science of performance.
  • Started writing about health, wellness and performance.
  • Find out more on his website

About the book: "Peak Performance" 

09:17 -

  • ​Learn more and pre-order/order on the books website
  • The book will be released this coming June 6, 2017 but is available for pre-order online.

Three main themes:

  • Rest and Stress
  • Developing and Harnessing a Purpose
  • Priming the Body and Mind for enhanced Productivity.​

Rest and stress

10:07 -

  • In the book we coined the growth equation: Stress + Rest = Growth​
  • A simple analogy is how you make biceps muscle stronger. Lifting way too heavy weights will injure the biceps. Picking up a very light weight will not get the muscle stronger because not enough stimulus or stress is applied to it.
  • It’s been long known in basic exercise physiology science that the way to make a muscle bigger is to find the right level of stress. Something that challenges the muscle or even pushes it to the brink of failure but not so stressful that it harms the muscle.
  • Then follow up that stressor with rest and recovery. It’s during this period of rest that the body can absorb and adapt to the stressor to become stronger and eventually take on more stress.
  • The research Brad did for the book shows that this basic rhythm/cycle applies to so much more than just growing a muscle. In the sporting world this also applies to endurance development through periodization: 
"You have periods of training where you are really pushing yourself and doing hard workouts, but if you don’t follow them up with easy workouts or rest, odds are you will overcook yourself, overtrain, get injured, stagnate and not get better."
  • What’s fascinating is that creative thinking and intellectual development follows the same pattern.
  • People that are mathematicians, scientists and researchers, entrepreneurs or artists work in a very similar structure where they have periods where they dive deeply into their work and focus with utmost intensity. But then they step away from their work for short periods of breaks throughout the day, week, month, year or longer periods of rest.
  • In the book, Brad and Steve call this the universal growth equation. Regardless of what capability you want to grow, following this pattern of stress and rest, tends to elicit the best result.

The Growth Equation

Stress + Rest = Growth

How did Brad and Steve find that people from different disciplines use the stress and rest formula, and not just endurance athletes?

12:45 -

  • The growth equation is based on both Brad's and Steve's reporting, with speaking with world-class performers in these different domains.​ But there's also a ton of research on the subject. 

How to have moments of creativity, insights, or “A-ha!” moments

  • Research shows that moments of creativity, insights, or “A-ha!” moments tend to occur or follow a standard pattern which is:
    • A period of immersion - deep focus, full immersion.
    • Incubation period - stepping away from the craft.
    • Breakthrough moment - insights tend to occur, figure out how to solve the problem.
  • It is commonly thought that it’s when we are sitting at the whiteboard, easel or in a meeting where we are intently focusing on something that this is the time where we improve. But this is like training - a preparation to improve, but it's not until you step away intellectually or creatively that a breakthrough is likely, according to the book.

An example showing that the stress and rest formula applies to cognitive as well as endurance performance

14:35 -

  • The most common example is the power of taking a short walk. Individuals who use their mind more to perform, when they reach a point where they are stuck, rather than sit there and force through it, if they get up and take a 5-15 minute walk it almost always brings them clarity on whatever it is they were working on.
  • A study from Stanford University called, "Give Your Ideas Some Legs" actually tested this. They had 2 groups of people, both engaged in mentally fatiguing tasks. One group took a break where they just sat and stared at the wall. The other group took a short 6-15 minute walk. After the break, both groups were tested for their creative insight, and the group who that the walk had a 40% increase in creative insight over the other group that didn’t.
  • Brad as an endurance athlete as well, almost always gets his ideas for the kind of articles that he wants to write or the people that he wants to interview when he is out on a run.

Key takeaway

Step away from your desk and take a short walk when you get stuck.

Tips on how to capture ideas when they come (on a run, ride or otherwise)

17:24 -

  • If you run with a phone, record the idea using your phone.
  • Focus on the thought or idea, keep thinking about it if it is really important.
  • Keep a notebook and pen nearby or an iPad or tablet where you record ideas in everyday life outside of running and riding. 

Developing and harnessing a purpose

19:54 -

  • Purpose – statements or a set of core values that often represents your deepest belief. It has to do less with self-interests but more with a greater cause or a greater good.​
  • The power of developing a purpose can act as enormous performance enhancer. Just by simply having a purpose and reminding yourself of it, you can get more out of yourself than if you don’t have such a statement that you reflect on.
  • There is a growing and emerging body of research particularly in neuroscience and psychology pertaining as to the why and how these mechanisms might work.
  • Most people are willing to push harder and take on more discomfort if what they are doing is benefiting a greater cause and not just for themselves.

Examples of developing and harnessing a purpose

21:46 -

  • ​After Craig Alexander won the Ironman World Championships at the age of 38, he was asked what he was thinking about towards the late stages of the marathon when the pain came on. He said he was in a meditative state where he was transfixed on thoughts about his family and on what they had sacrificed in order for him to train for Ironman racing. (Watch: Craig Alexander documentary)
  • When Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon at an age and pedigree where many people thought it was impossible, he said that throughout the whole race he was thinking about the victims of the Boston bombings and how he could honour them by winning this race for his country.
  • When Ashton Eaton set the world record he had to run a very fast 1500 meter run. He had already locked up the gold medal. There’s just a very little incentive to this because the record that he was crushing was his own. But he said he was thinking about all the kids and coaches that might be watching and how when he was growing he watched his role models and this inspired him to him inspire them as well.

Key takeaway

There’s a common theme from individuals drawing motivation to breakthrough in sports by devoting their efforts to things beyond themselves.

Models of fatigue and psychological factors

24:33 -

  1. Tim Noakes, an exercise scientist, in the early 90s came up with the first model of fatigue – The Central Governor of Fatigue Model. He said that the brain shuts down the body when the body has more to give. This is a protective mechanism to prevent the body to go into overdrive. An extreme example is organ failure.​
  2. Recently, Samuele Marcora proposed the psychobiological model of fatigue (as discussed in our interview on episode 17 of this podcast). He says that an any given point the brain is evaluating the perception of effort – how hard something feels, against motivation.
  • In both models we can see how the power of purpose is effective.
    • In The Central Governor Model, if the brain shuts down the body to protect itself, but if you are in this meditative state and you’re focusing on something beyond yourself, the brain will no longer be concerned of protecting the self because it’s doing something that is greater than the self.
    • In professor Marcora’s model, he would say that as the perception of effort goes up, if you can harness this power of motivation, this will ultimately outweigh the perception of effort or allow to take on more perception of effort.

Brad and Steve’s purpose for writing Peak Performance

 27:11 -

  • To enhance their creativity and relationships with smart individuals but more importantly, sharing what they have learned from others in order for them to avoid the episodes of burnout that Brad and Steve had faced.​
  • To help individuals avoid the pitfalls of burnout and sustain their performance in a more healthy way.

How can triathlon age-groupers develop a purpose in order to advance to the next level

28:35 -

  • Reflect on the reason why you do triathlon. And then develop mechanisms and reasons why you do triathlon that go beyond yourself.
  • Make triathlon from a self-serving pursuit into something more selfless.
  • A simple example is a having a moment of gratitude before a race by smiling and thanking all the volunteers that are at the course. Chrissie Wellington, one of the greatest Ironman triathletes, is known for smiling and thanking volunteers at her races.

Priming the body and mind for enhanced productivity

30:25 -

  • Priming is how to get the body and mind to perform.​
  • Findings indicate that while there is no one right routine that works for everyone, there is a right routine for every individual.
  • A lot of lifehackers, biohackers, and routine hackers often say that, “if you just follow this routine, you’ll break through.” This might be true for a certain individual, but there is no science that any single routine works for everyone.
  • The best way to figure out a routine that works for you is to do self-experimentation.
  • Dave Hamilton who coaches olympic field hockey and is also an exercise scientist researcher, wanted to know what really primes his players to compete well. So throughout the season, he took their salivary samples and looked for cortisol which is a stress hormone to see what kinds of routines would minimize it, and give their bodies the biochemical profile to perform well. He found out that there is an enormous variation across his athletes. Some athletes would have a great biochemical profile after they get really stoked up from doing push-ups or short high intensity intervals. Whereas other athletes have better biochemical profiles after relaxation techniques like meditation or reflection.

Routine applications

33:03 -

  • ​This depends on the person and what you are trying to accomplish
  • Individuals who have creative or intellectual pursuits have routines like working at the same desk, at the same computer, write with the same coffee by their side, and at the same time of day.
  • When Brad wrote his book he used a specific computer that he used just for writing the book. He did not even open the internet. He only opened the word processor. As there is some science that shows that if you have a device that you only use for a specific task, it helps get the brain ready to do that specific task.
  • For triathletes, it's important to have routines before engaging in key workouts and routines to predictably engage in before races.
  • Benefits of having a routine is having a sense of predictability and comfort to an otherwise unpredictable and uncomfortable situation.

​Channeling anxiety to excitement

35:38 -

  • ​There is this new body of research over the last two years that has to do with reappraising anxiety as excitement.
  • For example, you’re at the starting line of a race and you start to feel physiological sensations that is commonly labeled as anxiety (rising heart rate, rising body temperature, rising blood pressure).
  • Research shows that for a lot of individuals who try to calm themselves down, they end up becoming more anxious because when you tell yourself, “I need to take a deep breath and I need to calm down,” it is almost reiterating that something is wrong. But is something really wrong?
  • What the researchers did was that they had a second group of people that were feeling the same emotions before an event, rather than telling themselves to calm down, they said tell yourself that you’re excited!
  • The physiological sensations that we experience are neutral. It’s only when we label them as anxiety and try to tell ourselves that something is wrong and we need to calm down, that they come bad.
  • Findings show that when people just say that this is my body getting ready to go – the reason that my temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure is rising is because I’m about to perform and nail it, so I’m not anxious, I’m excited – rather than trying to force ourselves to calm down, they tend to go on and outperform everyone.
  • Interestingly, we expected that athletes in adventure sports would be very calm, cool, collected and maybe trained in meditation. But they feel fairly extreme emotions and even fear like Dane Jackson before taking on a huge rapid or Nic Lamb before surfing four story waves. He said that he is extremely on the edge before surfing. But what they all said is that they channel this emotions and heightened perception into their task.

Other interesting topics and takeaways from Peak Performance

39:58 -

  • The formula Stress + Rest = Growth can be related to anything in life.
  • For example, it can be applied to how an organization grows using the same framework. If an organization takes on too much stress at once, they will struggle. A typical tale of a small start-up that grows too fast and ultimately going bust. On the other hand, if an organization does not take on any new challenge and does not stress themselves, they eventually will get beat out by new entrants to the market. The best organizations actively push themselves just a little bit beyond the comfort zone and what they are doing but then they reflect and recover by creating some space before taking io a new challenge.​
  • Long term sustainable relationships also follow a similar pattern where couples incrementally take more and more together, reflect on it, then absorb it before growing capacity as a couple to take on more.
  • There are no hacks. Like taking these supplements, wearing this weird electrical headband, or intermittently fasting and sleeping, these things should not be your primary focus when trying to improve performance in life or triathlon.

Rapid fire questions

42:54 -

  • Favorite book, blog or resource: The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The book is about how to develop a craft, and a relationship to a craft, and to care deeply about a craft.​
  • Personal habit that helped you achieve success: Being very mindful about how to use technology, especially the smartphone, and not being distracted by it.
  • What do you wish you had known or wish you had done differently at some point in your career: It goes back to the stress + rest = growth. Early on in my career, I was really good on the stress side of the equation and constantly challenging myself and taking on more stimulus but I didn’t support it with the appropriate rest.

Final words about the book

  • The book is available on June 6 but if you enjoyed this interview and want to learn more, pre-orders are available.​
  • For comments and thoughts on the interview, the topics we discussed and your experiences, you can reach Brad on Twitter: @bstulberg

Links and resources

Related episode: Interview with professor Samuele Marcora on the psychobiological model of endurance performance

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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