lesson 3: stress, recovery, and the taper

Stress in the workplace is a bad thing, right?  Well, not so fast.  Ask an elite athlete or soldier, and you may get some refreshing perspective that will help you elevate your game.

For an athlete, the fundamental activity of exercise is nothing more than a balanced diet of stress on the body.  The athlete needs stress to make the body stronger and to hone skills. The enemy, therefore, isn’t stress.  It is prolonged stress, over-stress, or under-stress.

The same is true for the rest of us.  We don’t burn out, quit our jobs, or tank our performance after a single stressful experience.  The performance collapse only happens when we let the stress accumulate to our threshold.

Burn Out

The concept of a stress threshold isn’t a theory, it’s a principle.  Each and every one of us is only capable of handling so much stress…and at that point, by definition, we quit.  What happens next may depend on the individual.  Some may collapse in a sudden breakdown while others begin a slow burn.  Either way, performance plummets and the threshold falls.  Once bitten, twice shy.


The alternative for some people is to pursue “balance”.  Whether they have experienced a break or a burn or know someone who has, they carefully construct a work or life environment with rules to avoid stress.  They won’t stay late at work, they won’t miss their kids’ soccer games, they won’t work with people they don’t like, they won’t…they won’t…they won’t…


The problem with this scenario is that they aren’t routinely pushing themselves.  They aren’t leaving their comfort zones.  They aren’t growing.  The allure of the stress-free lifestyle rewards them with mediocrity and boredom.  They aren’t the best at anything.  They are no one’s hero…neither in the workplace, at home, nor in the shelter of their own thoughts.

Contrast these scenarios to the rhythmic performance of an elite athlete or soldier.  He routinely leaves his comfort zone, pushing his body and mind to its limits.  And, he routinely recovers fully back to his rest state.  He grows confident in his ability to adapt to stresses that come with new situations, and he leans into challenges, fully aware of the fact that the peak performance will be rewarded with recovery.  Over time, his threshold elevates and his capacity grows.  His results follow.

The point being that peak performers develop a rhythm to their work and know that growth and development come from routinely leaving their comfort zones (physically, mentally, and emotionally).  They systematically train the body, mind, and spirit to better handle stress because they know that any time they push themselves beyond their current abilities, then adequately rest, their bodies respond by growing stronger.

In his book, Stress for Success, performance expert Dr. Jim Loehr explains this phenomenon and shares that underperformance can generally be traced back to two simple mistakes in harnessing the power of stress: over-training (too much stress without adequate recovery) or under-training (too much rest without sufficient stress).

The subjects in our study of elite athletes and soldiers reflected this notion.  They routinely worked their bodies and minds with rigor, stressing themselves through drills, practice routines, skill development exercises, and ‘game time’ experiences.  And, they systematically recharged their batteries by getting sufficient rest and recovery.

This is precisely where most business teams fall down.  They tend to measure and applaud stressor activities tied directly to revenue, production quality, and satisfaction scores and give mere lip service to recovery activities like life balance, family time, and fitness.

As the saying goes, “What gets rewarded gets done”, so there is no surprise that people tend to stress their way through each day without developing their stress-recovery rhythm.  They work progressively harder and longer in pursuit of rewards and recognition, eventually discovering their threshold.   Burned or broken, they become disengaged as their energy fades and results falter.

So the question is, what would it take for you to train and perform more like a peak performer?  Here is a gameplan.

1. Identify your stressors. What are the high impact, challenging aspects of your job that drive results?  How much could you do each day or each week to push yourself to your limits?

2. Identify your recovery actions. What activities refill your tank and recharge your batteries?  If you job is very mentally intensive, consider physical activity for recovery.  If your work is very physical, consider emotional recovery through important relationships.

Now, are you doing these activities weekly?  Are you tracking them?  (Consider this, our power for self-deception knows no limits.  If you aren’t tracking something you know is vital to your performance, you aren’t doing that activity as often as you think you are.  Period.)

Finally, let’s discuss the ‘taper’.

Periodically, even great athletes need to back off.  Athletes have an off-season.  Soldiers go on leave.  For at least three to five days, they tend to completely disengage and back away from their normal routine.  We need this, too.

For irunurun users, we recommend scheduling your taper quarterly.  Consider treating it just like vacation and put it in your calendar.  During your taper week, change your routine, change your focus, disengage, and reflect.  As you come back from your taper, consider what you accomplished in the previous quarter, what is holding you back, and what adjustments you need to move ahead in your pursuit of greatness.

If you want to get the greatest impact from IRUNURUN, take this lesson about rhythm from peak performers.  Integrate a few high-impact stressor activities with some rejuvenating recovery behaviors.  Do them together, and watch as your capacity grows.