Zero to hero: how to find your inner athlete

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by Sarah Sekula, published in FirstMonday magazine 

It’s 8 o’clock on a Monday morning as I trot into the Human Performance Institute, a stone’s throw from Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf & Country Club. As quickly as I say hello, I’m whisked away — outfitted in a pastel purple swimsuit and black Speedo cap, and wrapped in a plush terry cloth robe.

But I’m not alone. About 20 others — from companies like Kimberly-Clark, Intel Corp. and Diageo — are milling around waiting for their turn at the BOD POD (think 6-foot-tall egg-shaped machine), which measures lean body mass.

Perhaps their bosses sent them here. Maybe they’ve heard Oprah rave about the program, saying, “It has the ability to change the way you live every moment of every day.” Or maybe they’ve been searching for a peaceful two and a half days far removed from the rigmarole of daily life. (We soon find out that peaceful isn’t quite the right word.)

The Big Idea

Whatever our true motivation, we are all guinea pigs today, stirring with anticipatory chatter as we delve into the Corporate Athlete program —  brainchild of HPI president and renowned sports psychologist Jim Loehr. Over the past 30 years, the dapper 65-year-old has helped athletic phenoms like basketball pro Grant Hill and tennis player Monica Seles to superstardom. So it’s fitting that the program parallels those elite icons with the likes of the corporate crowd.

Think of it this way: Demands on executives today are overwhelming. The challenges they face daily and yearly outshadow those of pro athletes by far. Take Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser. He spends five days a week in full-fledged training mode and only a few hours each week actually competing. Most executives, however, spend a minimal amount of time training and must perform on demand for 10 or more hours a day every day.

“For years, the body has been viewed as business irrelevant,” Loehr explains. “What businesses want is the software between employees’ ears. But to disconnect the software from its power supply is stupid. Now, CEOs are beginning to recognize training programs have to involve understanding how the body works so people can maintain the system.”

Your Life, More Energy

Back at the BOD POD, we’ve all taken our turn, and we’re now bonding over yogurt, fruit and bagels on the patio. Then, the real work begins. Nutritionist Raquel Malo, tanned and toned, welcomes us with a warning. “Don’t think this is going to be just a relaxing time in Orlando to go to Cirque du Soleil,” she says, only half joking.

As she introduces Bill McAlpine, former competitive cyclist and our performance coach, she finishes the disclaimer: “He is here to push you, to the point of discomfort at times.” Last, she points to Jennifer Lee, who will let us in on a secret: “how to work out for the shortest amount of time and get the most benefit.”

I’m all about that.

As I look around, it seems that several others are intrigued, too. The room is filled with exotic accents coming from a smorgasbord of professionals, including medical directors, IT gurus and research executives, all at the top of their career game. However, there is one thing they lack — enough energy.

One woman admits that by 2 p.m. each day she’s ready for a snooze. Most of the room nods in agreement. McAlpine is quick to respond: “We want to expand your capacity to perform at the highest level without compromising your health or your happiness.”

Strategic Eating

By now, Malo hops back into the room, with her over-the-top enthusiasm in tow. She leads with a comforting statement, “There is nothing out there you can’t have. But 80 percent of food each day should be need foods like fruits, veggies, grains, dairy and protein, and 20 percent can be want foods like doughnuts, chips, fries or alcohol.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said all day,” jokes an executive from Diageo, a global maker of premium alcohol brands.

After the giggling subsides, she reminds us of a simple, basic concept: Eat light and eat often. Since we’ve all heard that before, it’s not until the why part that people start scribbling in their notepads.

By eating this way, you sustain a steady level of energy, says Malo. Conversely, if you chow down on only one or two meals a day with long periods between, your body is forced into MUST-HAVE-FOOD mode, and it’s more likely you will scarf down whatever’s in sight.

The fast-talking nutritional guru reminds us: “You must eat every two to four hours except when sleeping.” By going too long without eating — or munching on too many high-glycemic foods (candy, soda, certain sports drinks, rice cakes) — you end up spiking your glucose/insulin level and completely zapping your energy.

“I’ve totally changed the way I eat,” says Kim Lopdrup, 50, president of Red Lobster, who has attended the program twice, this time bringing 16 senior directors along. For breakfast, he used to have a heaping bowl of Cheerios with milk, 8 ounces of yogurt with fruit on the bottom, a banana and a large glass of orange juice. Now, he has a smaller portion of Fiber One cereal with soy milk, about 5 ounces of plain yogurt, a banana and a half glass of orange juice. And he incorporates low-glycemic snacks — like homemade granola, nuts and fruits — to fend off the afternoon window of sleepiness.

When it comes to portion sizes, Malo says: “You don’t need as much food as you think.” Revelation of all revelations: She recommends a serving of meat, fish or chicken no larger or thicker than your palm. And at each meal you need no more than five handfuls of food. When we test this out at lunch, the seemingly small portions — tuna on a bed of lettuce, a scoop of potato salad and a side of veggies — are surprisingly filling.

Made to Move

With newfound gusto and knowledge, we head to the gym for a pulse-quickening workout. Hopping onto treadmills, Stairmasters or rowing machines, we push ourselves to high intensity for three minutes and then recover at a normal pace for the next three. Oscillating between the two speeds, we work out for 30 minutes.

It’s that fluctuation between full engagement and recovery breaks (in workouts and daily life) that is so crucial to energy management. Plus, you’re getting a tremendous training effect in a short period. Lopdrup, a lifelong runner, says this prompted him to switch up his routine, opting for sprints coupled with jogs rather than running at a constant pace. And to squeeze in more family time, he brings the kids along too.

The second component of high performance is rituals. For Michael Phelps, it’s tuning in to his iPod before hitting the pool. For Serena Williams, it’s glancing at her tennis racket between points to avoid distraction. For John Gross, president of Maitland-based Gross Communications, it’s helping his son with homework, calling old friends to break up the workday and adding more face time with direct reports.

By putting some of these strategies into place, Loehr says, “You’ll come to love high-stress arenas. People think stress is killing them,” he says. “It’s not stress that’s killing them. It’s chronic stress unabated by recovery.

“That’s what we’re trying to teach the executives, whether they are FBI agents or antiterrorism units. We help them understand how the body is engineered and how you get the most out of it under extreme conditions.”

The strategies must be working. HPI tests its energy-based performance model on nearly 15,000 people each year and boasts a client list that includes GlaxoSmithKline, PepsiCo, Smith Barney Citigroup and The Estee Lauder Cos. Another client, Procter & Gamble, plans to roll out the Corporate Athlete program to 140,000 of its employees worldwide.

For Gross, the value he received for the cost of the Corporate Athlete program ($4,000 to $5,500 per person) was priceless. “It’s transformative,” he says. “By the time you add up the increased productivity, employee retention and throw in the fact that people’s creative genius rockets forward, the return on investment is off the scale.”

What I learned: It’s not about managing your time (as the Stephen Coveys of the world say). It’s about managing your energy. And now, I’ve got a lot more of it. Though the Corporate Athlete program may surface some unsettling realities, in the end it will have armed you with ways to tackle life from several new angles. And in that sense, it’s the James Brown of training programs: It just makes you feel good.