How to work like elite athletes train
How might we apply athletic training principles to train our productivity, do our best work, and reduce burnout?
This was originally published on my company’s blog.
We are knowledge athletes
I first started thinking about similarities between athletes and knowledge workers¹ during my run coaching certification class. For starters, both require focus on building consistent habits, dedication to long-term growth and goals, and knowing the importance of sleep and nutrition. But I started thinking —wow, what would it look like if we devised and followed training plans for our work?
My coach writes often about stimulus in training: training is basically a structured way to intentionally stress our bodies to trigger musculo-skeletal adaptations that make us stronger and faster. But if we introduce too much stimuli without adequate rest and recovery, we’re not only more likely to get injured, but we’re not giving our bodies the chance to adapt. This got me to thinking— if I’m this deliberate about stress and recovery for a hobby passion², why am I not more deliberate about how I approach my work? Would adding more structure and thinking about stimuli, rest, and recovery help me train to perform better on my work?
For running, I can open up my training plan and know exactly what I’ll be running this week. I know that I rest on Mondays, do workouts on Wednesdays, and long runs on Saturdays and I could probably remember the last 10 or so workouts I’ve done on Wednesdays.
But if I open up my work calendar, at least until more recently³, I just see meetings and hopeful empty blank patches of time tied up with my hopes and dreams. The progress and cadence I’ve made with my work, at least at the week-to-week level, is a little less planned out and deliberate. That’s not to say that there isn’t a daily/weekly cadence to our work planned around weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals. But they’re usually focused around the company’s goals or scheduling times that work best for coworkers or customers. They more or less completely ignore your individual energy and fatigue levels, and certainly don’t adjust for unexpected burnout. As an introvert, I know that long days of meetings will usually leave me drained, but I’ll still naively plan to try to get lots of coding done at the end of the day, and then beat myself up for not being productive. I certainly wouldn’t go run 20 miles and then be disappointed I wasn’t able to run a fast 5K right after. I know that if I’m feeling great and in the flow³ coding something, I might get more done in one morning than the previous several days.
Before I started following a training plan, I just ran hard or easy depending on how my body felt. It felt like pulling a slot machine every time out. That’s not that say that I feel great every Wednesday that I have a scheduled workout, but in being deliberate and running easy on Tuesday, I give my body the best chance to feel ready for a workout on Wednesday. But for work, until recently, I would crank away nonstop until I got too tired and crashed, then wake up the next day and try to do it all over again. Could I actually get more done by spending time doing less intense work and then try to crank out higher intensity, focused work?
How might we apply training principles used by elite athletes like periodization and progressive loading to become the best knowledge athletes we can be?
Burnout and injury
First let’s talk about the dreaded words. Injury. Burnout. Just as athletes dread getting sidelined by an injury, we all dread working to the point of burnout. Spoiler alert: no matter what you do, nobody is injury-proof or burnout-proof. There are certainly steps you can take to minimize risk and hopefully frequency. But if you train or work hard for years, you’ll more likely than not eventually experience injury and burnout at some point. What’s fascinating is how we react to these things so differently.
When an athlete gets injured, how do they deal with it? They rest, recover, seek medical treatment if necessary, do strengthening and rehab and slowly build back up training volume. When a runner is first coming back from an injury, they’re not just going to jump right back into a marathon or mile time trail as their first run back. They usually have a several weeks or months-long rehabiliation and slow ramp-up process. We expect athletes to lose some fitness and maybe even be a little rusty when they first come back. But after taking the appropriate steps, depending on the severity and length of the injury and subsequent layoff, they’re often able to come back even stronger than before.
What do we do when we feel burned out? Take time off? Unplug for a few days? Maybe go out with our friends for a night (pre-pandemic), maybe drink our troubles away because we can’t stop thinking about work otherwise, or maybe we book a flight to some place that we’ve seen scrolling through Instagram while trying to force ourselves to work. But then we come right back and try to resume working just as intensely as we were before, or even harder because we have to catch up on all that work and make up for that time off. If a runner coming back from injury tried to immediately go right back to running a marathon the next day, tried to set a personal best, or tried to catch up on all the miles they didn’t run while out injured, we would expect them to probably not stay uninjured for very long. And yet we all do this with work. Just come back from a week on the beach in Hawaii that felt relaxing? Monday morning, let’s try to catch up on 847 emails, take back-to-back-to-back meetings, and catch up on all the work you missed while gone. And let’s work nights and weekends to make up for all that time we missed while away. Gotta catch up! Are we surprised that we just end up burned out again?
To be sure, our bodies have more measurable limits when it comes to repetitive use or performing at a high level than our brains. When we run or lift heavy weights, we know that the science says that we’re causing microtears in our muscle fibers. We understand that there’s a limit to how far we can push them, and we have to let them literally recover in order to grow stronger. Runners understand that after a huge effort, they need to let their bodies rest and recover adequately. Sure, sitting at a desk for 40, 60, or 80+ hours a week arguably impacts our brains less than our legs pounding the pavement. While there aren’t really studies, our brains should be able to handle more training than our bodies can before breaking down.
But why haven’t we done more studies on how to let our minds and bodies recover after pushing and stretching the limits of what they can do focus and energy-wise? What if allowing our minds to rest and recover might actually allow us to perform our best work and actually allow them to grow stronger? For example, rather than just drilling rout memorization, spaced repetition and the spacing effect has actually proven to be more effective for remembering things long term. Why don’t we have more tools in our work toolbox for warming up and getting into a focused flow state as well as for cooling down and allowing ourselves to rest and recover? Elite athletes don’t just run the farthest and hardest they can each day before taking a break when their bodies can’t handle anymore — they follow training plans.
What if we had a plan for how we approached work, with scheduled harder and easier days? Athletes use a concept called periodization in training and conditioning programs to achieve peak performance during competitions and to minimize injury, fatigue and burnout.
How might periodization help knowledge athletes perform better?
The core of periodized programs is generally a structured microcycle, usually a week, that consists of higher intensity and more difficult days balanced by lower intensity days and rest days. This usually means that you’ll have days where you’re running at what feels like a much easier pace and intensity than you otherwise would have with an unstructured program. Sounds counterintuitive right? Run slower to run faster? What about working less to get more done? Or at least work fewer hours or fewer, but more intense hours to get more done?
One of my favorite bloggers, Tim Urban of WaitButWhy, tweeted earlier this year that he wanted his time to be more black and white than just gray. Intentionally varying intensely is an important part of training— what if instead of working 8 or 10 “gray” hours a day where we’re constantly task-switching between emails (which themselves can vary in intensity), administrative work, and focused work, we intentionally planned out the day? It feels like intentionally scheduling in 2 hours of “easy work” feels less productive overall. But as a runner, I don’t think of my warmups or easy runs as wasteful— they’re just as important to my performance as the hard workouts that proceed them. If we have a most important task for the day, what if we warmed up into it, and then tackled it during our most productive hour or two of the day? And what if when we have really intense day or string of days of user interviews, design iterations, or building out the first iteration of the product, we knew that and scheduled an “easier” day the next day to allow ourselves to recover and give ourselves the best chance to succeed for the important product sprint and customer meeting the day after?
In running, there’s a concept of relative perceived exertion (RPE). Rather than focusing or obsessing over speed just in terms of miles per hour, we recognize that your easy or hard effort one day may not look the same from day to day, week to month, and year to year. The first implication here is that as you get fitter, you’ll naturally get faster for the same more effort. But the more nuanced observation is that your body and legs might be not as fresh from one day to the next, or maybe you didn’t sleep as well, hydrate as well, or eat as well. It’s easy to expect our bodies to be a little tired and slow down the day after a hard workout, but why do we expect to be able to just jump right back into productivity immediately after a long day of intense meetings and hard work?
When we translate this to knowledge work, what is a difficult stimulus for one person might actually be a recovery day for another, and vice versa. One such delineation might be that back-to-back-to-back meetings actually energizes you and even be considered “recovery” or “easy”, whereas for me, I’ve come to understand that it’d likely completely DRAIN ME. Going forward, I’ll know to be cognizant of that, and try to avoid stacking two days of non-stop back-to-back-to-back meetings and calls since I wouldn’t run two hard workouts on consecutive days.
Long-term growth and potential
Periodized programs aim to achieve peak performance on goal race day—the culmination of a single macrocycle, and usually as part of that goal, athletes will begin tapering and reducing training volume and intensity. Working up to that goal, programs use mesocycles—usually three weeks to a month, with specific focuses around building up endurance, improving running economy and top end speed with higher intensity, or focused improvement for the competition.
While there aren’t races per se in most of our jobs, with more continuous iteration, shorter product release cycles, and shorter feedback loops, shouldn’t we think of milestone product releases as more race days than finished products? Shouldn’t we want to perform our best not just on the day we release our big product or feature to customers, but also in the short period thereafter? That’s certainly the most valuable time — we’ll get their strongest feedback during that time, have important bugs to fix, and have the attention of important stakeholders. Rather than thinking of bug-fixing as just a small task after the big “product launch”, what if we think of those iterations after the milestone release as “the race”? How might we think about building in tapering to achieve peak performance for a big sprint or big release?
For work, it’s usually accepted to celebrate and relax after a big deal gets closed, a big event goes off without a hitch, or a product finally gets released. But what about tapering so that we can put our best foot forward for those moments? So that we can stretch the limits of our engineering, people, design, and problem-solving abilities, perform better at our jobs when it matters most, and grow in stronger and fitter knowledge athletes? What if instead of just doing long hours trying to get as many reps in as possible, we focused on pushing our focus or concentration slightly farther each time, so that when the important release comes, we feel ready to tackle the challenges that come with it?
The goal of applying training to your work life is NOT to be able to do 20-hour all-day/all-night work sessions—just like for most people, the goal of running isn’t to be able to run 20 miles every day. It’s to figure out what meaningful, happy and productive work looks like for YOU and what long term goals you are training towards. For me, this means making progress talking to users, testing, and writing software, but at a cadence that allows me to be effective and creatively solve problems. We need to finally let go of the idea of 8-hour days or 40-hour work weeks or 80-hour work weeks or the crazy people out there who claim to work 120 hours a week. Will there be days that I WANT to and have the energy to run 20 miles or 100 miles or work long hours because I’m working on something and just in a flow state? YES ABSOLUTELY. But certainly not everyday, day after day. And ideally, I’d be adequately trained for it. And will I make sure to give myself body and brain the chance to rest and recovery later? If I’m thinking long-term, YES ABSOLUTELY.
How might we apply this to teams? Startups are a marathon, not a sprint, and you generally wouldn’t try to run a marathon without properly training for one, so why do we try to sprint to product-market fit and scale? To be continued…
Thanks to Ricky Yean and Amanda Ables for reading drafts of this.
 I’m not a HUGE fan of this term, but I also didn’t want to go through this whole post referring to engineers/designers/salespeople/founders, etc. We’ll just refer to all knowledge/creative workers as “knowledge workers.”
 Don’t get me wrong— I LOVE running and it adds a ton of meaning to my life. I believe that running makes me a better friend, founder, family member, and human. It feels wrong to call it “just a hobby,” so we’ll go with hobby passion.
 Now when I open my calendar, I see lots of scheduled Flow Club sessions, which is a project we started working on about a month ago to introduce some of the structure that I felt was sorely missing.
 The term flow gets tossed around a lot and has many different definitions. I prefer this definition from “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who first coined the term: “‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” For a good intro, watch his short TED talk on flow!