All thought leadership pieces:
Enduring the Marathon
“This is a marathon”
We have repeatedly heard this statement made in relation to the Covid-19 Pandemic and more specifically in relation to the physical distancing measures that we all, have necessarily, had to undertake.
If we accept the premise that we are likely to be under some form of physical distancing, and upending our professional lives, for many months to come, then what can we learn from the world of endurance sport to help us cope with the brave new working world that we are, urgently building and implementing at the same time?
To illustrate the point, I will draw upon my experience of coaching and competing in triathlons, in particular as an Ironman athlete. If you will bear with the metaphor, I find it to be apt for describing our current experience and future needs. For the uninitiated, the Ironman Triathlon is a gruelling 226 km endurance event that consists of three legs: it starts with a 3.8 km open water swim, followed by a 180 km bicycle ride, and finally a 42.2 km marathon. Successfully training for and completing an Ironman is a test of physical endurance, resilience and mental toughness. In that sense, it is not unlike what we are experiencing right now.
One of the key things I have learned, both as an athlete and a coach is how important pacing is to get through an endurance event. We humans can only absorb so much fuel per hour (when exercising that is about 60 grams of carbohydrates). Consequently, we cannot hope to sprint our way through a 10-15-hour triathlon. We HAVE TO train and race to a pace that we know we can sustain over a long period of time. Too great a surge in speed early in the race will spell disaster, as we burn too much fuel that we can never hope to regain. The Ironman triathlon scene is littered with war stories of people burning their legs on the bike leg, only to find that they are unable to complete the marathon that follows. There is a saying that you don’t win the triathlon on the bike, but you can definitely lose it.
For the sake of the metaphor, we are about 500 metres into the first leg of the race, the swim. Picture if you will, thousands of swimmers all entering the water at the same time. The water is churning and it feels absolutely chaotic as you jostle for position and find your pace and place. This sensation arguably holds true for those working on the front line to provide essential services, or trying to keep a business afloat by radically pivoting their service offering. It probably also holds true for those who are adjusting to the demands of working from home, possibly surrounded by children who need schooling and partners who are also trying to navigate the situation. In short, we have all likely been experiencing a degree of chaos which for some, may have bordered on overwhelm. The good news is, that we are now at the point in the race where we must emerge from the chaos and find our place and our pace. To do so we need to practice a level of conscious and deliberate decision making.
Understand your personal tolerance limits for anxiety and stress. It is perfectly natural to feel anxiety and stress. In fact, a degree of stress is a good thing, as it activates our sympathetic nervous system into an optimal zone of performance.
Take on too much stress however, and we will quickly burn all our fuel and move into a zone of distress. Tune in to the physical sensations that you are experiencing, and label the accompanying emotions. We are sometimes scared of those that we think of as ‘bad emotions’. In reality, these emotions are a necessary part of the human experience and can serve as warnings that something may be out of balance. Rather than ignoring or suppressing them, understanding what they are and what they may be telling us can be vital. In this respect, exercising a degree of self-compassion will be helpful.
The drive to serve, the need to hustle and the absence of physical boundaries between work and home, can easily lull us into patterns of over-responsibility and the potential for ‘sprinting the marathon’. While there is often a need for some short sprints as we navigate the melee of transition, it is imperative that we keep our eye on the longer-term goal: to survive and ultimately thrive in our new state of normal, whatever that turns out to be.
Once you are aware of where the boundaries of your optimal performance zone lie, you are then able to determine your sustainable pace and establish the habits that will help you maintain that pace. By way of an example, I have created a routine that helps to sustain me:
- I wake at 6am and by 6.30am and I am at my desk (with coffee) and I aim to have achieved three quick wins by 8.30am. I know that this is the time of day that my brain is in its best place for finding creative and complex solutions to a particular challenge, so I set myself those challenges the day before.
- I break at 8.30am for a period of exercise and my morning routine of shower, breakfast and make the bed. This is an important step in my day, as the exercise physically and mentally prepares me for the day ahead. Research from the Harvard Medical School shows regular exercise improves memory and cognitive thinking skills.
- Admiral William McRaven, USN a former commander of the US Special Forces Command and author famously stated that if you wanted to change the world, you should start by making your bed. He stated that in order to be able to achieve the big things, you need to start by achieving the little things. If you start by achieving the first task of the day, you will go on to achieve more tasks, each of which will give you another little burst of positivity, productivity and achievement. While I probably formed this habit, in my own career as a naval officer, I do find that it helps me to feel that my day has started productively.
- By 10am, I move into my day in 90-minute focused blocks of effort interspersed with
30-minute breaks where I consciously do things that are totally unrelated to work. These are the periods when I fuel throughout the day. I fuel literally – by using the opportunity for a meal or snack, and figuratively – by taking a break and specifically engaging in activities that will energise me.
- Tony Schwarz, CEO of The Energy Project posts that by working with our ultradian rhythms, which typically occur in 90-minute cycles, we are more likely to achieve sustained high performance. This basic rest-activity cycle has been shown to naturally occur throughout our sleep cycles, and has more recently been observed in our daytime operating rhythm.
- Since implementing this pattern for myself, I have found that I am more productive, focused and creative. I generally work four of these rotations throughout the day and I find that I still have energy for the important people in my life and an evening of enjoying their company. This is a pace that I can sustain.
We are human, and we all have different individual capacities and needs. I acknowledge that my colleagues, stakeholders and partners all have a different sustainable routine and that sometimes I will need to compromise mine to help meet their needs. If my routine is necessarily thrown out due to an external commitment, I am able to accept and flexibly adjust my routine. The very fact that I am aware of my own needs allows me to meet the short-term sprints and climbs, while balancing my fatigue and well-being in order to maintain my pace and continue the long race.
Identifying our sustainable pace quickly and then creating the habits that help us to stick to that pace over full course of this ‘race’ will be crucial to our long-term wellbeing and success. While I have implemented my ’90 mins on – 30 mins off ‘ sustainable rhythm, this particular pattern may not work for everyone. Now is the time to identify your needs, and experiment with your rhythms to find your pace and place as we transition to our new normal. This will be the key to thriving, and who knows, you may just find a new way of working that you carry on long after the effects of COVID-19 have worn off.
Paul Barrie is a Senior Manager and Executive Meta-coach at Bendelta, specialising in the design, and facilitation of leadership and personal development outcomes with groups and individuals. He is also deeply experienced in leading complex discussions to assist organisations in realising their strategic aspirations.
[i] Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908) “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation”, Journal of Comparitive Neurology and Psychology, 18 (5) 459 – 482
[ii] Godman, H (2018) “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills”, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Blog found at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
i] McRaven, WH (2017) “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe The World”, Grand Central Publishing
[ii] Schwarz, T (2010) “For Real Productivity, Less is Truly More”, Harvard Business Review found at: https://hbr.org/2010/05/for-real-productivity-less-is