Sports, Sleep and Startups

June 4, 2017

Back in 2012 we relocated to Beijing, China, triggered by my work. It was a great leadership opportunity to be a “pig”, not a “rooster”. One of the issues with being in China was managing a global team across timezones. Whilst we lived in London, dealing with California meant staying a bit late at work. You would expect the same for California teams, given that I was behind them in China. But no, teams in California don’t stay late, nor they come early. Rather they expect the rest of the world to adapt to the universal Bay Area timezone. Anyway, the issue being in China was lack of overlap with the California team. So, I changed my schedule, and I began waking up by 4:30am to start my meetings with Sunnyvale by 5am (2pm in California). I would carry on for 2 hours, till 7am (4pm), have breakfast with the children, bring them to the school bus, do a swim, and hop in the car by 10am (6pm), when I would do all my one-on-one meetings on my 1 hour ride to the office. This routine mixing work, sleep and sports, which started as a necessity, ended becoming a healthy habit with many benefits.

Go to sleep when tired, wake up early

Waking up by 5am did not come naturally. I now carry on in the evening till I fall asleep naturally, totally dead tired, between 10 and 11pm. This allows me for 6 hours of actual sleep. I wake up with an alarm clock, but I always go to sleep by “dead tired” criteria, never because of the time. I have tried to sleep 7 hours by forcing to be in bed by 10pm, only to find myself more tired in the morning. However, sometimes I come dead around 9.30pm, which gives me 7 ½ hours. This is apparently a known sleep pattern, which goes in cycles of approximately 90 minutes. I have been sleeping 6 hours a night for the past 5 years, and feeling fresher than ever before.

Obsession, Motivation, Addiction

Briefly before heading to China, I got back to doing sports daily. This started initially to lose some weight, but quickly became an addiction of its own, a religion if you wish, a competition with myself, and with the world. I am obsessive about doing sports. I get cranky and grumpy when I don’t do my daily training routing. My wife even plans our vacations so that I can continue training wherever we go, since she knows that otherwise I will be grumpy throughout the day and make everybody else miserable. Being obsessive about sports is a needed trait to succeed in sports. You cannot win if you are not obsessed about winning. And once you are obsessed, you become addicted to it. At the end, it’s that tenacity and ongoing hard work day in, day out, what makes you win. This discipline and motivation is very much what you need in a startup. Doing sports reminds me daily about it.

Intensity Matters

I don’t use my training time to do a light jog or a spin (except if it is a recovery day). I train mainly cardio, not strength, as such is the nature of triathlon, but I train hard following a pre-defined training plan. I have found triathlon to be a sport of its own (not the sum of three sports) which allows me to cycle, run and (some) swim. I also row regularly as I find it to be more time efficient to do hard VO2Max efforts than cycling or running. Now, I still do some long training sessions at endurance pace, but only when and if I have time, and most frequently only on Saturday mornings. The high intensity in the training, which is necessary to be efficient with time and achieve the required chronic training load, teaches you how to suffer, and how to suffer more. It is easy to give up. It is hard to carry on. Most people give up. We are nails, and we take a hammering. Day in, day out. In sports, and startups.

Recovery is Critical

Sleep and sports are closely related. Athletes are made by training. Champions are made by sleeping. Recovery is how you repair the broken muscle fibers to become stronger. Doing sports makes me physically tired, sometimes hurt, so that when I fall asleep, my body and my brain both enter true repair phase. I try to eat 20g of casein as Greek yogurt or cottage cheese just before going to sleep to potentiate muscle repair and help getting into deep sleep faster. Because of this, I sleep deep ()although I unfortunately wake up 2 or 3 times per night, every 90 minutes in fact). Good sleep is critical not to get worn out in a startup, make the best out of the few hours you get of it.

Getting Things Done

I wake up at 5am to do sports; I have a reason to waking up early. It has become very important for me having the time to get the workout done before the rest of the world wakes up. I will drink 500ml of water as I get up, make myself a coffee, answer emails for 30 mins whilst I drink the coffee in the quiet and silence of the house still asleep, and then hit my home gym. By 7am I am done, having breakfast with the family, ready to face the day ahead with the satisfaction of having already conquered the first base, towards the peak.

Look at The Big Picture, Every Day

These two hours, where I am usually alone, are critical to me. This is when I reflect about what, why and how we are doing things. Most of my ideas for change come in these two early morning hours. It happens naturally, some topic will be bothering me and I keep munching on it, a single topic throughout the 60-90 mins of the workout of the day. I don’t force it, it just happens. This is especially true in swimming workouts, but it also happens a lot when I run outdoors (I like running without music to be able to think).

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