Free falling: Thomas Bubendorfer
While ice climbing in 2017, you fell from a height of about 14 metres into a stream bed. What happened?
My friend was already climbing in the Dolomites and I had driven my Porsche over the passes in heavy snowstorms to join him. It was four hours of bad-ass driving. The whole month before, I had been giving it my all. It had been too much, and I was tired. So I made a stupid mistake while abseiling and I fell.
What mistake exactly?
When abseiling, you need to pull the rope through until both ends are hanging down. If you don’t pull it through all the way, you drop like a rock. I probably thought, we’re almost down anyway. I wasn’t paying attention. I started to pull it through, but then I must have stopped. I can’t remember.
You were in a coma for six days.
One of my lungs collapsed. I had been lying in the water, face down and unconscious, for about seven minutes. Until my friend arrived. He couldn’t see me, because I was lying under an overhang – and he had no idea I had fallen, because I hadn’t screamed. The first hospital they brought me to couldn’t help me. They then called up Padua, because they knew they had a team of pulmonary trauma specialists there. The doctors in Padua came and got me with a so-called ECMO device and so saved my life. What they do is put a tube between your ribs and use a machine to oxygenate your blood, because your body is no longer able to do that on its own.
"It was four hours of bad-ass driving. The whole month before, I had been giving it my all. It had been too much, and I was tired."
What was your first thought that you remember?
When I woke up I knew I was in hospital. So I looked at my toes and moved them. And I was wearing an oxygen mask that was itching terribly. I wanted to scratch myself but, try as I might, I couldn’t get my hands to my nose. And I was sure I had been in a car accident.
I was absolutely certain. It was strange. I even saw myself. It was a silver Porsche, even though mine is anthracite-grey. It lay in a river bed and I was in the driver’s seat. Günther, my climbing partner, was standing outside the car, smoking and talking on the phone as if nothing had happened.
Thirteen months after your serious fall, you scaled a new route in the South Face of the Grossglockner. Your personal creed is to never stand still. What can managers learn from extreme sportsmen like yourself?
Something that we learn early on as athletes is that resting is essential for your future performance. And that is a very important thing that managers should also remember. Because they never take any breaks. The second thing is that you need intelligent regeneration measures to avoid burning yourself out.
So what would an ideal break look like?
The key is to get moving. This goes back to our evolution. Our ancestors walked an average of 25 to 30 kilometres a day. Walked, not ran. They were stressed only when they were hunting, but that never lasted long. Over the course of our evolution, the adrenaline molecule developed so we could achieve maximum performance in these short moments, and not feel any pain. Stress as such is not a bad thing, but it can damage your health if you don’t balance it.
"Stress as such is not a bad thing, but it can damage your health if you don’t balance it."
How do I do that?
Go for a stroll in the evening. Drink a glass of wine. Remember to turn off your smartphone and any other devices. Also, you should be asleep before midnight, because our growth hormones are generally active between midnight and 2 a.m. These hormones repair whatever is damaged, but that only works if your cortisol level is low. Which also means an intense workout in the evening is probably not the best idea. If your adrenaline level is high, the message to your body is, “Hey, there’s a sabretooth chasing you. Keep running!” rather than, “Go for a stroll and drink a glass of wine.”
It’s not logical. Wouldn’t it be great if we looked after ourselves like we do cars, lifts and other machinery? All these things we maintain regularly. Yet nobody knows how their vegetative nervous system is doing.
"Wouldn’t it be great if we looked after ourselves like we do cars, lifts and other machinery?"
And how do I find out?
That’s my focus. The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system regulates our mental and physical actions, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for activities that occur when the body is at rest. The autonomic nervous system is linked to the heart and generates electrical impulses – and that's something you can measure. We know that the sympathetic/parasympathetic ratio should be 1:2, at the most. The sympathetic nervous system is always slightly stronger.
But in 70 percent of the people we test, the relation is 1 to 32. If these are people who run marathons, go mountain biking and play tennis, I tell them that all their fitness won’t help them if they are no longer able to relax. They might just as well throw in the towel. What is more, many are working much more than eight hours. My theory is this: either they are unfit and no longer able to relax because their parasympathetic nervous system is impaired, or they are fit and still unable to relax. We have never seen an executive who is fit and able to recover properly.
Never. When I’m in such a state I know I’m not using my full potential, because it is biologically and neurologically impossible. But if I’m only using 60 percent of my potential, it will take me much longer to complete my work. And the quality will suffer as well.
That doesn’t sound too efficient.
Your inner rotational speed is higher – and you burn more fuel. Now I could be mean and say that the only reason why people in this situation work as many hours as they do is because they can only work inefficiently.
And what would an ideal working day look like?
You can increase your mental capacity by 40 to 60 percent if you take a break of six minutes every 55 minutes to get some exercise. You also need to do all the important stuff in the mornings. The cortisol level in a healthy person – cortisol as such being a good thing, because it enhances your performance – rises between 6 and 8 a.m. and peaks at noon. By 4 or 5 p.m. it starts to drop and should reach zero by midnight. So you do anything that’s important in the mornings and take care of routine matters between noon and 3 p.m. But if you’re really clever, you’ll extend your lunch break to one and a half hours – that will at least double your productivity in the afternoon.
"You also need to do all the important stuff in the mornings. The cortisol level in a healthy person – cortisol as such being a good thing, because it enhances your performance – rises between 6 and 8 a.m. and peaks at noon."
And what should we do in that lunch break?
Go for a half-hour walk, eat a light lunch and lie down. This will drastically increase your creativity and productivity. I don’t know why conferences are always held sitting down. We know that our creativity increases by 16 percent when we are walking. Napoleon, for instance, used to walk around while strategising with his generals.
So what about Winston Churchill’s famous quote “No sports”? Allegedly, that’s what he answered when asked how he lived that long despite cigars and whiskey.
That’s not true! First of all, Winston Churchill used to walk a lot. Also, the quote continues with: “It spoils a good walk.”