NWHSU Grad Talks Optimizing Mind and Body for Performance with Authority Magazine

How Andrea Toppin Optimizes Her Mind & Body For Peak Performance
Edward Sylvan for Authority Magazine

The best way to develop great habits for optimal performance involves doing the small things day in and day out. Making a personal to-do list for the day and sticking with it helps ensure we create these habits. Much of it is mind over matter and willingness to work for greatness. Once you set a goal, your lifestyle adjusts to reach it.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Toppin DC.

Andrea Toppin is a board-certified Doctor of Chiropractic specializing in Women’s Health and running gait analysis. She earned her graduate degree with a Sports Medicine Emphasis at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minnesota. Dr. Toppin is a Webster-certified prenatal care chiropractor. This technique is used throughout the entirety of pregnancy to improve fetal position and greatly affects a mother’s comfort with low-back adjustments and pelvis alignment. Dr. Toppin competed in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and has a decorated running career as a long-distance runner. Dr. Toppin also ran Division I Cross Country and Track at Iowa State University, where she contributed to many Big 12 Cross Country team titles as well as NCAA meet berths. She uses her own experience to help those competing, as well as those looking to improve their casual running practice. To this day, Dr. Toppin enjoys running during her free time. She loves exploring routes around Boulder and occasionally takes to the Colorado mountains for some challenging incline training.

Iwas born and raised in Clear Lake, Iowa, went to school at Ventura and loved being active from a young age. Growing up, I was a multi-sport athlete and people began noticing my running talents in fourth grade. Then, in junior high, I went out for the cross-country team and won fifth place in my first race, which was a big deal, especially for a small town. Jenny Shauf, my first cross country coach, inspired me to love running and find my passion for the sport. I then became a multiple all-state high school cross country and track runner and a two-time state champion in track by my senior year.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career working with high level professional athletes? We’d love to hear the story.

In my senior year of college (redshirt junior eligibility-wise), I suffered from what the orthopedic surgeon thought was a career-ending injury. I had a bad proximal tibial stress fracture that started in the middle of my tibia and wrapped around the back. It was closer to my knee, which is rare as tibial stress fractures are usually mid-low shafts of the bone. I began seeing a chiropractor for my injury and it helped decrease my pain, improve my movement and support my recovery. I was applying to physical therapy schools, but I began exploring the option of chiropractic after receiving care. I wanted to become a chiropractor who focuses more so on movement and rehab than just adjusting the patient. The physical therapist I was seeing for my rehab during this time, Dr. Barb Palas was my saving grace, and I wanted to be that for someone else.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Dr. Tim Stark, chiropractor and former director of the Human Performance Center at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU), became a close ally even before I committed to NWHSU. Through in-depth conversations, Dr. Stark truly listened to my experience as an Olympic-level marathon runner and explored how a career in chiropractic would be a rewarding medical path and could support other athletes suffering from injuries like myself. Once learning more about NWHSU’s evidence-based chiropractic program with an emphasis in sports medicine, I committed. Throughout my Olympic marathon qualification trials, Dr. Stark was very involved in my celebrations, recovery and an influential supporter.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

While running the Big 12 Championship steeplechase, I accidentally led the first two laps before settling into the pack. This entirely threw off my momentum and when the first water barrier occurred, I hurdled it instead of jumping. After this race, I realized I needed to control my anxiety and nerves during a race to concentrate and enhance my performance.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Chiropractic school is hard and the career can be challenging but supporting someone’s overall well-being through movement and adjustments and aiding their recovery is the most rewarding career. When times get tough at school, do not give up on what you truly want because you can change the world.

It is also critical to find positive mentors before, during and after school. Luckily, NWHSU educators are highly involved and invested in their students. Through creating these positive relationships with Dr. Stark, and former fellows such as Dr. Melissa McDonald, Dr. Alex Sundin and Dr. Jordan Knowlton-Key, I have become the chiropractor I am today. Throughout school and to this day, my two most prominent mentors are Dr. Jonathan Wilhelm and Dr. Lisa Goodman. In fact, I work closely with Dr. Lisa Goodman at Washington Park Chiropractic in Denver doing prenatal and pediatric care.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Currently, I am taking classes to further my specialty in women’s health, specifically to support women athletes. Many of my Oiselle teammates are getting pregnant and have sought advice to stay strong pre-and post-partum. As high-performing athletes, their bodies are not used to drastic changes, but as a chiropractor, I am offering strength exercises, movements and manipulations to keep their bodies strong.

Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As you know, athletes often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you teach to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

When in high-stress situations, our bodies are in overdrive, making it crucial to refocus energy. I teach my clients three activities to optimize the mind for peak performance.

  1. Focus on breathing. Practice diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, to remind the body it is not in fight or flight mode or sympathetic overdrive. This also helps improve recovery as stress increases inflammation in the body.

Do you teach any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

I regularly teach my clients Wim Hof breathing techniques to optimize performance. This entails getting comfortable in a meditation posture, clearing the mind, and fully inhaling through the belly, chest and exhaling.

Another breathing technique is to inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds. It may seem like a long time, but the benefits are immense. By practicing breathing techniques, athletes can control their breathing during a performance.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

To promote overall wellness, I journal every day and recommend it to other top athletes. By dedicating five minutes to journaling every morning and night, I make goals for the upcoming day, reflect upon the past day and look to the future.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Ignoring the outside world and becoming in tune with oneself is essential before a major race or game. By allotting time for reflection and concentration, you can optimize your body for peak performance.

Another critical component is focusing on nutrition. Eating a well-balanced diet can immensely boost performance because when your body is properly fueled, it can perform at its highest level.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

The old saying is creating a habit takes 21 days, but I believe two weeks is also sufficient. This rings true for my journaling. At first, only working out my body was normal, and then I adjusted to working out my mind. Every night before bed, I write down my goals and journal. Between actively working my mind and seeing a chiropractor and mental health specialist, I can better focus while running. I regularly recommend this as a supplement to my chiropractic patients.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

The best way to develop great habits for optimal performance involves doing the small things day in and day out. Making a personal to-do list for the day and sticking with it helps ensure we create these habits. Much of it is mind over matter and willingness to work for greatness. Once you set a goal, your lifestyle adjusts to reach it.

For example, my everyday habits include getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night, being consistent with my daily training and strength training, taking my daily vitamins/supplements, journaling, meditating, and belly breathing. With every big goal, I develop 10 process goals on how I will get there, creating tiny positive habits to achieve the big goal.

High performance athletes often experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

By working closely with complementary and integrative healthcare (CIH) professionals such as chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists, high-performing athletes can improve movements, ultimately optimizing performance. When your body is aligned for peak performance through a nutritious diet, limited stress and a clear mind, it is easier to reach a state of Flow.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

Meditation plays a prominent role in my performance. Before bed, I meditate for five to ten minutes and repeat this when I wake up. This provides a time to focus on gratitude and when combined with seeing a chiropractor and mental health specialist, I feel centered and prepared for any obstacle.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

Focus on goals. Channel thoughts into your dreams and work to achieve them through creating good habits, seeking out professionals in the field and finding supportive mentors. A sound support system is a key to becoming a high-performing athlete.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

After having an impactful experience with a chiropractor supporting my recovery and enhancing my performance, I wanted to pay it forward and become that support system to other athletes.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

A happy runner is a fast runner. I interpret this quote as your performance is only as good as your attitude, making it critical to go into life with a positive outlook. Once your body and mind are at peak performance, then your natural abilities will follow.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Although I am an elite marathoner, I would love to have a VIP meal with Michael Jordan. He is an icon and a class act and has been my role model since I was about six years old. His drive, attitude, determination, and talents are something I have strived for my entire life. Whenever I doubt myself in life, I look up Michael Jordan quotes.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!