Feeling drained? Here are 5 ways to improve your performance
Nobody's at their best all the time, and yet the modern world so often demands us to operate at peak performance. Fortunately, if you're not feeling your best there are some simple things you can do to maximise your productivity.
1. Treat sleep like ‘part 2’ of your training
We've said it before, but we’ll say it again: Sleep is super-important. It’s vital for immune function (handy in a pandemic), muscle recovery and metabolism. It's also neuroprotective—sleep offers your brain the chance to regenerate and reorganise itself (e.g. processing new information for memory), and helps clear out any byproducts that have built up throughout the day. In short, a good night's sleep is essential in allowing your hardware and software to function smoothly.
If you want to perform at a high level, working out regularly is only half the equation—getting plenty of rest is the most important, yet overlooked, factor in keeping your head and body in the game. You should treat sleep as part 2 of your training, and approach it with the same discipline as exercise.
So make sure to practice good sleep hygiene: no screens from 10pm, in bed by 11pm, and get your 7 to 9 hours. Your worst days will be so much better for it.
2. Breathe deeply, often
When emotions run ragged, your breathing tends to as well. Fortunately, it's possible to control the latter, which is great because breathing offers a way to manage stress and think more clearly. Taking charge of your breath puts you in the driver’s seat of managing your state—it can be empowering to know that you’re always just a minute or two of slow breathing away from a reset.
There's no need to wait for stress, anxiety or lethargy to hit before you do some deep breathing; get into the habit of taking a minute or two to breathe for yourself a few times a day. A great way to make this a habit is to pair it with something you always do in a day, like eat food. Before each meal, close your eyes, take 10 deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
If you want to get a little fancier, carve out some time to give meditation a go. The Ritual FIT app has some 5-minute guided meditation sessions that you can even do on your commute home from work.
3. Shift your perspective, literally
It happens to all of us: you’ve been plugging away on your computer for a couple of hours and your ability to focus just starts to fade. You know you have to focus—the document simply has to be finished—but you can't concentrate, and you start to get a little stressed about it, and now you're worried about whether you can get away with yet another cup of coffee without ending up unable to sleep later. And now you realise you're worrying about that instead of the report that simply must be finished, which just adds more stress.
You actually have a better tool than coffee at your disposal: your vision. When you're looking at something stressful, your pupils dilate and your field of vision narrows to focus on a single location. It turns out it's actually possible to turn off this stress response by changing the way that you're viewing your environment. Look out the window at the horizon, allow your gaze to relax, and invite the reset. You may find your brain’s inner dialogue quieting down as you take in a more panoramic view.
4. Spend time in nature
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, first became a thing when Japan added the practice to its national health program in 1982. Since then, it's spread all around the world—such is its popularity in the US, becoming formally certified as a forest bathing guide will set you back around $3,000.
Fortunately, you don't need a guide. The premise is exceedingly simple, with no expectations to worry about meeting—just immerse yourself in the natural world. It doesn't necessarily have to be an actual forest—a quiet park or even the beach can do the trick—just find somewhere outdoors with no concrete in sight and connect with your environment.
Walk slowly, savor nature around you, be present in the moment, and find peace. At the risk of sounding too woo-woo, think to yourself: ‘I’m exactly where I need to be right now’. Spend an hour or two in nature (without your phone!) and you'll emerge with lowered cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and an elevated mood.
5. Move more, generally
Yes, a regular dose of intense exercise helps keep your mind clear and your body healthy. But that’s not what we’re talking about here—when you’re feeling drained, it’s probably not a good idea to add more intensity to the equation.
If you're feeling run down, consider dialing things down on the HIIT in favour of more low-level activity. Go for a walk, do some gardening, or tackle some household chores. Be on the lookout for opportunities to move throughout your day. The smallest of changes—taking the stairs instead of the escalator, getting off the train one stop early and walking the rest of the way, or getting up from your desk and walking around the office multiple times a day—can result in hundreds of additional calories used across a day.
In the research, this is known as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT. If you're too run down to smash a workout like you'd usually do, these little bits of light movement can help bridge the gap, whilst also having a beneficial effect on your cognitive abilities.
Feeling a little drained every now and then is just part of the process when you’re pushing for improvement. It's important to stay consistent and pursue progress, not perfection. Next time you're feeling run down, trying one or two of these easy-to-implement tools might be just what your body and brain need to click back into gear.