Cognitive Performance & Athletic Performance - Can you improve the synergies between them?


Optimizing your cognitive performance can help you optimize your athletic performance by reducing your allostatic load. Boom! It’s that simple. Let me explain...

While we all share a passion for running, none of us are professional runners. Rather, most of us are working professionals. And chances are, most of us are engaged in knowledge work that often places us under high cognitive load for extended periods of time.

Operating for extending periods of time at high cognitive load, coupled with other factors in professional work environments, creates high levels of stress. What’s important about that fact is that our body doesn’t differentiate between work stress and training stress. It all contributes to our allostatic load. In other words, training stress isn’t necessarily “good stress”. To be sure, we invite training stress and need it to improve our athletic performance but, in terms of effects on your central nervous system, work stress is no different than high-intensity training stress. So what?

To achieve our athletic ambitions, we want to apply an optimal amount of high-intensity training stress on our bodies to achieve certain physiological adaptations. But what if your allostatic load is too high to reach or sustain your optimal training stress load.? If you press too hard during training, your performance degrades on all fronts, cognitive performance, athletic performance, etc., and you become prone to injury, illness, and emotional disruption among other symptoms.

Under these conditions, you have to relieve stress somewhere, but you don’t want to dial back your training! Where else can you look? Optimizing your cognitive performance can help reduce your allostatic load (by making your job less stressful) which can improve your athletic performance and recovery cycles and potentially prevent you from needing to dial back your training efforts.

Breaking down Cognitive Performance

Cognitive Gears

James Hewitt has a framework for cognitive performance that relates well to endurance sports. In this framework, cognitive performance functions in intensity zones similar to how we think of physiological performance (think aerobic, lactate threshold, and VO2 Max zones for example).

We have a high cognitive gear best suited for working on tasks with the highest cognitive load. Like our VO2 Max zone, we can only function in our high cognitive gear for short periods of time.  We have a middle gear best suited for work characterized by menial tasks and work that has a high demand for switching. We can function in the middle gear for longer than our high gear but, eventually, the lactic acid accumulates and we give in. Finally, we have a low gear best suited for rest, recovery, and reflection. This is our recovery day or easy pace.

Variations in Cognitive Performance

Our cognitive performance can potentially vary as much as 20% throughout the day. Variation follows a three-part cycle in which we experience a peak, a valley, and a rebound. Depending on your chronotype, you will experience these phases of this cycle in a particular order.

Humans are known to have two main chronotypes, morning lark or night owl, although much of the population falls somewhere in between. If you are a morning lark, you will experience the phases of these cycles (from the start of the day) as a peak, a valley, and a rebound. If you are a night owl, you will experience these phases as a valley, a rebound, and a peak. If you fall somewhere in between these chronotypes, you will experience these phases as a rebound, a peak, and a valley.

How Can I Improve my Cognitive Performance?

The top three things you can do to improve your cognitive performance are:

  1. Take control of your daily work rhythm

  2. Reduce task switching

  3. Sleep more

Take control of your daily work rhythm

Just like with your run programming, you want to do the right cognitive work at the right time. Painting in broad brush strokes, think about what your chronotype is and then structure your day to align your variations in cognitive performance with the types of work you do.

For example, if you’re a morning lark, then you likely start your day with a peak in cognitive performance and should thus plan your highest cognitive load work (focus, analysis, creation, etc.) for the early part of the day while you’re in your peak zone. During extended periods of work in our high cognitive gear, it’s still important to rest. Experiment with and practice time management methods such as the Pomodoro Technique or Getting Things Done.

During your valley, take time for rest and reflection. Have a quiet lunch, meditate, go for a walk, and process your thoughts. You could even do some simple exercises to improve mobility and combat another ill of knowledge work: sitting too much.

During your rebound, you're in your middle cognitive gear and should focus on work that is menial and requires a lot of switching like administrative work, clearing your inbox, or loading up on meetings (gasp!).

Reduce Task Switching

Task switching doesn’t necessarily slow down your productivity. Studies show that humans compensate for task switching (think multi-tasking) by working faster. However, while task switching may not undermine your productivity, it is frustrating and the increased time pressure and complexity that come with task switching make your work inherently more stressful.

The ideal time to avoid task switching is when you’re in your peak cognitive performance zone doing work that requires focus and analysis. One way to avoid task switching when you're in your peak cognitive performance zone is to turn off and hide distractions. Turn your cell phone ringer off, flip your phone over or, I dare say, turn your phone off (blasphemy!). Similarly, turn off your desktop notifications for things like email, Slack, the Apple Messages app, or anything else that can pop up on your desktop and distract you.

It’s also a good practice to avoid switching in other areas of your daily life. For example, when you're in the restroom, in line for a cup of coffee, or driving, avoid checking your phone or surfing social media. Instead,  take time to think, reflect, listen to music, or basque in silence. You may have to take drastic measures (like me) and delete all of your social media apps (ahhhhh!!!!!).

Sleep More

Simply put, getting adequate sleep will improve your cognitive performance in numerous ways. Listen to this podcast and/or this podcast to learn why and how to improve your sleep.

Brief Conclusion

Improving your cognitive performance can reduce workplace stress allowing training stress to take on a higher proportion of your allostatic load. You can improve your cognitive performance by taking control of your daily work rhythm, avoiding task switching, and sleeping more.

Change can be tough. Try to find companions to work through change with you. Convince others on your work team or in your family to try a small change with you (or challenge your team to do this if you manage your team). That change could be a sleep challenge (get 30-6- more mins sleep), a challenge to see who can reduce screen time (tracked through your smart phone’s screen time stats app), or an intentional restructuring of work days to better support cognitive variation.

In terms of change, focus on the process, not the goal. Failure is a part of the journey toward the ultimate goal, not an obstacle to achieving your goal.

Finally, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. That applies to all facets of life and especially work. To be sure, I love high standards and I have exceedingly high expectations for myself and others but, like with anything in life, we have to have some sense of moderation.