That’s right. You’re going over your season in your mind, reviewing all those spots where if you’d just been a little stronger, a little faster…if you’d had just a tiny bit more endurance it would have made all the difference. And you can’t wait to get started, build up, kick your training into hyper-drive.
So why rest? Because as endurance athletes we get burned out; fatigue sets in. Our sports demand a massive training volume, and we can forget what it feels like to be truly, fully recovered. It may not seem like it because resting is a do-nothing activity, but resting – doing nothing – is just as important, in the right amounts at the right times, as pushing it.
Rest for Physiology and More
There are the well-known physiological reasons for resting: the need for the body’s structure – muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints – to recover fully, rebuild, get back to basic function. But what is less well known is that your neurological system also needs to recover: your brain, spinal cord and nerves. It’s hard to feel neurological fatigue as easily as a sore muscle, but it’s there. And since the structural and neurological systems partner in optimizing athletic performance, when one isn’t working the other one can’t.
Our neurological system – or Central Nervous System (CNS) – controls muscle movement much like a battery powers an electric automobile. If that CNS battery becomes drained, it won’t even start, let alone power you down the road at your best. In the absence of a recovered and rested CNS, muscle performance fades. This situation can be periodic – such as between training sessions- or chronic – like at the end of a racing season. Repairing your CNS requires the same thing as repairing your muscles: rest.
The Drained Human Battery
CNS fatigue is accelerated by stressors commonly associated with endurance training and racing:
- Intense timed efforts such as time trials or triathlons
- Max effort speed work such as track work or sprints, even with “full recovery” rest intervals
- Emotionally intense activities, such as pack racing or narrowly avoiding a crash
- (Legal!) stimulant use such as caffeine to power through training or racing
These things stress our neurotransmitters and also affect hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and cortisol in the brain. The interaction between neurotransmitters and hormones – specifically dopamine and serotonin during prolonged exercise – may play a role in the development of fatigue. During intense or prolonged exercise, the body releases inflammatory cytokines – chemical messengers released in the presence of nerve injury – which latch onto nerve receptors, causing pain and fatigue. We can end up hurting all over, and nowhere in particular.
Add to the list above life events like the family, personal, financial or work-related worries we can all carry at times. All neurological stressors affect performance.
Our bodies send out warnings to rest, both neurologically and structurally. Within the season this usually means putting a hole in your training and filling it with – nothing, for just a little while. In the off-season, though, you have the chance to give your body what it really needs, an extended period of full-on rest.
Thorough recovery during the off-season will optimize performance the following season by ensuring the CNS and muscular systems are healthy enough to interact effectively, decreasing fatigue and the risk of injury, while energy and performance get boosted.
So what can an athlete do during the off season to rest and recover?
Well if you simply can’t stomach the idea of doing nothing, try some of these ideas:
- Meditate – we’re not talking shaved heads and saffron robes here. The simple practice of sitting quietly and breathing slowly and steadily has been shown to have a powerful healing effect on the CNS. In particular, Transcendental Meditation (TM) as a non-spiritual activity has been shown to promote healing significantly. Need an easy way to start (or keep at) meditation? Try the on-the-go app, Headspace. First 10 sessions are free!
- Spend quiet time in nature and/or alone – this doesn’t mean killing yourself on a hike instead of on a bike. This is your chance actually to appreciate nature’s beauty instead of hurtling past it as fast as you can make yourself go.
- Spend time connecting with family, friends, kids & pets – we demand a lot of patience from our loved ones while we train and race, and the off-season is the perfect time to give that love back through more attention; it’s helps them and it will help you in more ways than you’ll be able to count!
- Perform low intensity training – this is a tough one, because most of us think of training in zones. However, many of the physiological benefits of training in our zones will return to us at a lower intensity. This is a chance to remember that riding, swimming and (light) running are really fun even at slower speeds.
- Get massages, acupuncture and/or stretch – find practitioners who really get endurance exercise and work with them closely. Follow their advice for recovery. Most of the time, you’ll find that you could do even less and get even more out of it.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, gluten free, lean meats low in saturated fat, almonds) – this is a great practice all year-round, but it’s important to keep it up during the off-season when you’re body finally gets to do some housekeeping. Don’t hamstring the effort by indulging too much; you’ll feel worse and recovery won’t be as effective.
- Drink plenty of clear non-caffeinated fluids (e.g. water, caffeine-free tea) – now is the time NOT to be stimulated. Let yourself take a sleepy approach to life, just for a while.
Pushing ourselves to our limits and beyond is part of competing, we all know that. And many of us are ready to do everything we need to do to improve, get faster, succeed more. Along with doing everything, are you willing to do nothing?
Coach Jami Min has raced at the highest levels of triathlon and has structured over 22 competitive seasons for herself in addition to those structured for her athletes. She has a BS of Kinesiology and a Minor in Nutrition and enjoys working with clients of all ages and abilities.
Contributions to this article by Andrew Osborn.