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Interval training for business performance

Discover the parallels between how an athlete trains and how you run and grow your business

By Aaron Marston

As I sat down to critically evaluate our company’s performance at the end of thefirst quarter of 2011, I reflected for a few minutes on the goals we had established going into the year.

Like many small companies, we set financial and profitability goals, both overall and by product and service. We set customer service and product quality goals and developed initiatives to help reach these goals. We started employee programs to improve their performance, education, and skill sets, as well as programs to improve their experience and satisfaction with us as their employer.

Financial reports needed to be completed, quarterly evaluations had to be done on all staff, and staffing requirements had to be considered going into our busy summer months.

The dreaded ‘to-do’ list

As I sat and looked at the laundry list I just created, I feel my palms begin to sweat. “Marketing materials, website, upcoming promotional events…” I  feel my neck and jaw begin to tighten. “Back office software issues, end of the year tax preparation, 50 e-mails in my inbox…” My heartbeat begins to quicken and my blood pressure rises.

My “to do” list is quickly turning into an “I don’t know how I am going to do” list and I am having a primal “fight or flight” response. I take a deep breath, turn my computer off, and put on my workout gear. For the time being, I choose “flight.”

I warm up, get a light sweat going, and stretch out a few problem spots before getting started. “The list” is still on my mind, but it won’t be for long. I begin my cardiovascular intervals, working hard for a minute or two, before allowing myself a minute to recover. A few stray thoughts of “the list” enter my mind, but I quickly push them away and increase the speed and incline on the treadmill. This is my hour.

New thoughts

In between intervals, my only thoughts center on my breathing and my racing heart rate. The minute of rest allows me to recover, catch my breath, and compose myself so I can do it again. Treadmill, rest, recover, repeat, weights, rest, recover, repeat, medicine ball, rest, recover, repeat.

Each training day is set up this way, with periods of intense activity followed by periods of relative rest and recovery. The short periods of intense activity allow me to push beyond my comfort zone, to do more than I would be capable of achieving for a sustained period of time.

The variety keeps me from getting bored with the monotony of steady state work. The short periods of relative rest allow me to recover, give me the strength I need to perform these intervals again, and keep me from burning myself out.

Bike, rest, recover, repeat, cool down, rest, recover, stretch, recover. I sit back down at my desk, prioritize my list, and begin. I am ready to fight.

Performing new feats

Interval based training has allowed athletes to perform feats that were once thought impossible. The legendary wrestler and strongman Milo, a six time Olympic champion, was said to have carried a 4 year old bull on his shoulders. According to legend, he did so by lifting the animal daily from the time it was a calf until it matured.

Legend or not, the principle stands that pushing the body beyond its comfort zone and forcing it to adapt to increased stresses allows it to continually improve and accomplish things that were unthinkable in the past. This only works if the body is allowed adequate rest, recovery, and nutrition.

If the body does not get this rest and recovery, and you continue to push past your comfort zone, you will only succeed in accomplishing the exact opposite of your desired outcome. You will grow wearier, the benefits will begin to diminish and eventually reverse course, and you will ultimately burn yourself out.

Discovering similarities

The parallels between the approaches an athlete takes to training and a small business owner takes to running and growing their business deserves a closer look. Both require planning and organization, drive and discipline, goal setting and goal attainment. Both require appropriate rest and recovery, intensity and variety, vision and execution.

As small business owners, you all have your lists, your priorities, and your e-mails. Those will always be there and will never be complete. You could literally work around the clock and there would still be work to do.

However, instead of falling prey to the law of diminished returns, take a page from the athletes’ playbook. Work hard, rest, recover, repeat. Plan vacations and schedule downtime for planning, thinking and preparing. Make time for family, friends, and for yourself—and yes, make time for exercise (intervals of course).

Your family, your friends, and your business will thank you. Like Milo, you can accomplish goals that others might have thought impossible.

Aaron Marston is the executive director of The HIT Center of Jacksonville, LLC and Healthletix Management, LLC. He is an expert in the fields of exercise science and athletic training and has over 15 years of experience in these fields. He can be reached at 904-475-9600 or through www.thehitcenters.com.


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