Guest post by ex-Team GB track cyclist Denise Hampson, now a successful health behaviour economist, based in Colwyn Bay, Wales.
Think of an elite athlete for a moment and what is it you visualise? It will depend on the sport of course, but if it’s a rower you might have imagined a lung-burtsing final few strokes to the finish line, a cyclist burning their way up an Alp in the Tour de France, a marathon runner shedding their arch rival with 5km to go or a 400m hurdles runner in full stretch down the back straight.
When we think of elite sports men and women we tend to imagine them in full flow, world class gladiators performing at levels most of us can only dream of.
If you could have an insight into the real life of an athlete, you’ll find that they spend most of their time, not training, but sitting down with their feet up, or sleeping. I used to be a track cycling sprinter for Team GB, and due to the high intensity nature of the training that sprinters do, if anyone happened to walk into the track centre during a squad training session they would probably have been surprised to see us all sitting around chatting. In a typical training session we would do a warm up followed by a total of no more than 4 or 5 big sprint efforts of about 30 seconds each, and we’d have a good 20-30 minutes sit down in between.
Not every day involved 100% effort either; some days we just went for recovery rides, gentle slow pootles on the road to a nearby cafe for a coffee, and back.
The most important aspect of any athlete’s training programme is the part where they give their body time to recover and regenerate. Sprinting in particular does a lot of muscle damage due to its extreme intensity, and we would lift a lot of heavy weights in the gym, so recovery rides were an essential part of the training cycle.
About 18 months after retiring from competitive sport I was working in a public health role for NHS Wales and I was having a bad day. Nothing was going wrong, I just couldn’t get my brain into gear and I was struggling to concentrate. I had a mountain of work to get through, an endless list of people to call or email and deadlines to meet. Yet for some reason all I could do was sit by my computer with my head down, staring blankly into the screen, resisting the compulsion to waste a few more minutes going to make yet another cup of coffee and wondering why I couldn’t motivate myself more to crack on with it.
On reflection I’d had a brilliant week and the previous couple of days I’d soared through my work and got a lot done. We all have days where we are productive and other days when we are less so. As an athlete I’d completely understood the need for recovery training; you simply can’t perform at your best every day, and after every couple of days of high demand, your body needs time to recover. However, as a working professional I had felt the need to justify every minute of my day with useful productive work. I felt as though I should arrive at 9, work flat out all day and go home at 5pm having achieved everything set before me. To me it was unacceptable to be paid to sit there unproductively doing nothing.
Recognising the need to accept that I won’t always be productive was a valuable learning moment in my working life. Now that I am my own boss, if I feel unproductive or tired I can choose to pop into town for a coffee or take a walk along the prom, but while I was still an employee I needed another solution. This was to create a list of tasks and then split them into two columns; those that required a lot of mental effort and those that didn’t. The latter column became my “recovery work”, just like recovery training. This list of tasks tended to consist of things that were less urgent, such as filing, or printing documents, cleaning up my files on my computer, deleting unnecessary emails, sorting out the notice board, tidying my desk.
Any time I felt the need to switch my brain off for a bit to recover, I’d get out my recovery work list and do a task or two from it.
What is your strategy for dealing with low productivity days? And if you were to create a recovery work list, what would it include?
Denise’s company Hampson Solutions aims to help people live happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives.
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