What We Can Learn About Balance and High Performance From Athletes


In this article I wish to build on the article ‘What is Life Balance to you and how does it relate to performance’ and explore a point I made about how athletes approach balance for sport performance, to see what we might learn from this field in relation to how we could approach balance in our own lives, when we are ourselves are striving towards big goals. I made the point that I tend to view balance in my life over a year cycle, with a sub cycle of balance within the months and weeks as seen with athletes and how they train for peak performance. This article expands on that concept.

Many times when I look at a person’s diary, their total stress load, workload, what they do in a week there is a common pattern that is linear in nature. Be that in number of hours worked in a week, week in week out throughout the year. Or a high steady prolonged stress load all year round. Any recovery, or down time (if there at all) also tends to be linear with how much time it has devoted to it week to week. Some of which is lead by things like our work hours that are set in such a fashion.

However this does not match the flow, or natural cycles or rhythms of life and nature. Think of how a tree has seasons of growth, and seasons of restoration, it follows a cyclic rhythm.  For those who work for themselves, the same could be said for a business, you could have a new business product launch in say September, which we then deliver during October and November, a period which required a lot of our time and energy devoted to that task. You might have less on our business plate say during December.

In these cases the flow of is not linear, yet we tend to adopt a linear approach to how we use our time and energy, in this context towards life balance. Where if we are indeed in the middle of a busy period in one area of our lives, and under a lot of time pressure, we still try to commit the same time and energy to the other areas of our life at the same time, trying to fit it all in which can in turn cause us stress, and feelings such as guilt for compromising other responsibilities or important things in our lives.

So how do athletes approach things? Well key objectives for a season would be defined, then in a strategic and reverse engineered manner, key races and outcomes would be targeted. An Athlete tends to operate in an overview yearly cycle (season) mentality, although they may have their bigger goals a few years out, such as Olympics, which come round every four years. So within a year cycle, a season will have what might be termed ‘A’ races, the main targets, with other secondary events along the year, Within this overall plan, or cycle,  there are sub cycles, phases to work on a key part of performance (signified by different colors in picture above), which then have weekly cycles within them (each column in picture above). Pretty much all athletes now days follow is a periodisation approach, which itself is a non- linear approach to performance.

A point to make here is that this article has focused on the balance within sport performance in isolation, please bear in mind that some athletes will have great balance across all areas of their life in addition to their sport performance, others would be focused on their sport performance to the detriment of other areas of their life. The concepts are still sound, there is just variation as to how they are applied by different people. By nature high level athletes will have very high importance/ priority placed on their sports performance, to have risen to elite sport in the first place.

The above image is a basic outline of the concept only, but serves the purpose here, it shows a Jan-July, element of a season, with one 'A' race event (from training peaks performance software). What I wish to highlight this is that 1) there are around eight separate colored areas in the picture above, each representing a different area of focus in their training. 2) that only one area is dominant in focus at any given time 3) within the phases there is a cyclic building and recovery, its not a linear line (in hours of training, or intensity).

To cut a long story short, high performance, in a balanced way is best achieved, in a cyclic fashion compared to a linear approach, be that looking to improve muscular strength, cardiorespiratory fitness, speed etc, all moving towards increasing overall performance, this is achieved by a cyclic building of stress, with a recovery period, so a common approach would be three weeks of progressive stress for a specific outcome, with a week of recovery, to then repeat, the second time from a slightly higher fitness/ stress, start point, this would result in an gradual upward direction in fitness and performance- without over-stressing an athlete to the point they lose performance due to excessive fatigue or injury. These training blocks all having differing primary objectives/ areas of focus.

As seen in many areas including sport, high performance usually goes hand in hand with an intensive focused period of concentration and effort towards a given outcome. The point being if we go along trying to keep everything even and linear in terms of time and energy, holding a point of even balance between all our commitments all the time we tend to see limitations in results and do not experience peak performance at any time during say a year in any important area of our lives.

So my observation being if we know, and have done for years a cyclic targeted approach to performance is superior in sport, would we benefit from a similar view to life balance and how we structure our work/ activity and recovery, in how we operate as individuals? One way to consider is at any given period of time, is having one area or goal in your life a primary focus, say for a few weeks, with other areas being secondary (in terms of time and energy put towards them), with the primary focus changing at different times. So not attempting to have everything equal importance at the same time. This approach if done well can reduce stress and help you get better results at the same time.


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About the author, Shaun Mckeown: could be labeled as a performance strategist, or coach, or a life balance specialist. In essence Shaun is a strategic, creative problem solver, with a holistic view. He has over 15 years professional experience helping people with health, well-being, sport performance, reducing stress and life balance. He has a BSc.(Hons) degree in Sport and Exercise Science, as well as experience coaching and teaching in exercise conditioning, holistic lifestyle and nutrition, sport performance and Reiki. So has both science and holistic perspectives. 


The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Shaun Mckeown, disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.