Training cannot be effective in the absence of adequate restoration to provide the body time, resources and assistance to adapt to the imposed training stress. The foundation of training is the notion that by delivering the proper stimuli to the body, suitable adaptations can be achieved to improve the athlete’s performance in the task in question. Such adaptation is neither immediate nor guaranteed—the body requires certain elements to allow the necessary physiological processes to occur.
Too many coaches and athletes invest inordinate amounts of time and energy planning and executing training programs while neglecting the issue of restoration and consequently make little progress. Interestingly enough, the recent increase in focus on recovery and restorative modalities has pushed some coaches and athletes too far in the other direction. Recovery is a critical element in any training program, but an athlete needs work from which to recover; no lifter is going to rest his or her way to success.
I’ll discuss restorative modalities like cold plunging in another article. For now, let’s talk about the even more boring things that too often go neglected.
Rest Day Activity
Days without training are intended primarily to provide the athlete time to rest and recover, both physically and mentally. This does not mean, however, that athletes should remain perfectly sedentary on their days off; sedentarism is not ideal, in fact, for restoration, even during a day of rest.
The goal is to allow the body to recover as much as possible by eliminating systemically and locally demanding activity, particularly of similar movement patterns to the athlete’s training. Light movement, however, is helpful for promoting recovery by maintaining mobility physically and neurologically and improving blood flow and nutrient turnover to fatigued tissues.
Movement with resistance limited to the concentric phase such as rowing, cycling or swimming—at a low level of effort—can be helpful if a lifter is particularly sore or stiff. Otherwise, dynamic range of motion exercises such as are used in the lifter’s warm-up can be used once or twice throughout the day to keep the lifter moving and loose. Static stretching and SMR should also be performed, preferably when the lifter is somewhat warm, such as after some light activity or DROMs. Very lightweight barbell work (typically an empty barbell) can also be performed.
Mentally, it’s important for lifters to take a break from their concerns regarding training and competition, and in fact to eliminate concern and stress over as much as possible. The mind needs time to relax, recover and reset as much, and possibly more at some times, than the body. Distractions like reading, television and socializing (in non-self-destructive ways, of course—reserve the cocaine for after your retirement) will help the lifter’s mind steer clear of the normal stresses of training. In this day and age of social media saturation, lifters should avoid viewing lifting photos and videos, especially of their competitors.
Finally, rest days should contain the largest volume and highest intensity of restorative modalities.
Sleep is the absolute first priority with regard to maximizing the ability of a lifter to train harder, train more, recover better and perform at a higher level. For baseline health and wellbeing, sleep is extremely important; add extremely demanding physical training with a serious psychological demand as well, and it becomes critical. As a period of genuine physical and mental recuperation, sleep has a profound effect on both individual training sessions and progress over the long term, as well as the athlete’s general psychological state with regard to motivation, focus and discipline. The more physical and mental work performed, the more sleep is needed.
Both quantity and quality are important. Unfortunately, neither can be achieved by a given athlete automatically. To improve quantity, the first step is structuring the day in such a way that a certain number of hours of sleep are possible. This scheduling should be of the same priority as the training schedule.
Possibly the most effective behavior for encouraging better sleep is maintaining a consistent schedule. If the body sleeps and rises at the same time every day, it will be more inclined to continue doing so. This of course can be very difficult with the obligations of work, family and friends, but some reasonable attempt should be made to at least minimize the variation.
The lifter’s schedule should provide for a significant period of time prior to actual sleep in which he or she can wind down. Training should end more than 2 hours prior to bedtime. Light stretching and reading or other non-stressful, relaxing activities should always fill this period of time. Athletes should avoid television, computers, tablets or phones immediately before bed as well.
Developing a routine is key for consistent, high-quality sleep. For example, a lifter comes home after training, prepares and eats dinner, spends some time in the hot tub or contrasting, stretches and foam rolls, showers, brushes teeth and whatever other pre-bed hygienic activities are required, then gets in bed and reads until the pre-determined time to start sleeping. Such a routine will train the body and mind to be prepared for sleeping, and will gradually relax the body and mind.
Athletes require different amounts of sleep, but it’s important to always err on the higher quantity side. Many individuals through years of habit have acclimated to reduced sleeping hours and may believe this short sleeping period is all they need. Invariably those who claim a need for extraordinarily little sleep have simply conditioned themselves over long periods of time to function adequately (or what appears to be adequately) on their limited hours. This is not necessarily indicative of a legitimate need for little sleep, but simply a demonstration of the remarkable ability of the body to adapt to the demands of life.
With a period of behavior modification, these individuals can successfully increase the duration of their nightly sleep, and with little exception will find they operate much better on more hours. If the lifter creates a regular bedtime and allows for an adequate number of hours of sleep, but he or she consistently wakes earlier than planned and sees excellent performance and recovery, there is no problem. However, if an athlete is forced to wake by an alarm each day, it’s an indication that he or she is getting inadequate sleep. If a lifter blocks out more time for sleep than is needed, there will never be an issue.
There will always be, however, the occasional athlete who sincerely functions better with less sleep than seems necessary. In these cases it will be counterproductive to force unnatural patterns.
As much as possible, it’s best to avoid sleep-inducing drugs, as they actually reduce the quality of sleep despite often making the athlete feel like he or she has slept longer or more deeply. That said, if a lifter has a genuine sleep disorder, this may be the only legitimate option at least temporarily—lower quality sleep is far better than no sleep. Supplements like holy basil that reduce cortisol or have systemic calming effects can be helpful.
The bedroom should be cool and dark as possible—this means blackout shades and covering or getting rid of any electronics with LEDs or similar lights that remain on all night. Blue light should be avoided within the last hour or so before trying to sleep—this includes television and computers. This light spectrum encourages the hormonal process of waking up and can make falling asleep more difficult. Electronics, including cell phones, should be kept as far away as possible during sleep—ideally in another room.
A notepad or journal can be kept alongside the bed in order to collect notes prior to sleep. Often this can help relieve the stress of a mind racing with necessary tasks and ideas and promote greater relaxation in less time.
Finally, it can be helpful to make notes on sleep in the training journal—over time this will likely demonstrate a clear association of the quality and quantity of sleep with subsequent training.
Youths require even more sleep than their adult counterparts—a minimum of 9.5 hours per night. Sleeping only 7.5-8 hours per night has been shown to result in a 30% reduction in work capacity.
The importance of nutrition’s role in supporting recovery cannot be overstated. As direct support of physical activities and the processes in response, as well as indirect support through the maintenance of basic health and body function, nutrition is a critical component of all athletic training. Details are beyond the scope of this article, but get with an expert coach or do some homework to dial yourself in.
Exposure to the outdoors can be very restorative for multiple reasons, ranging from exposure to sunlight, fresh air, reduced noise levels, and even simply pleasing views. This is particularly true for athletes who spend very little time outside in the course of daily life.
Caution should be exercised with the timing and dosage of sun exposure, however. Long durations of sun exposure can be physically draining, and consequently should not be allowed in the week prior to a competition or immediately before demanding training.
All stress is essentially equivalent systemically in terms of how the body must cope with it, irrespective of its nature or additional local symptoms. That is, stress from work, relationships, traffic, or any other source is not substantially different from training stress, other than its potential to eventually result in positive functional adaptation. Interestingly, such non-training stressors can in fact result in physical adaptations, but not ones that will benefit the athlete.
In order to tolerate increased training stress (due to increased frequency of training, volume, frequency of intensity and average intensity), non-training stress needs to be reduced. Minimizing activities or approaches or mindsets that produce unnecessary stress will allow for greater recovery and training capacity.
Methods of stress reduction include better time management—such as creating a consistent, regular schedule that allows enough time for all necessary tasks—batching of tedious, small tasks into chunks of time rather than doing a lot of little things frequently throughout the day—and minimizing daily decision-making by planning ahead (meal-planning, scheduling, to-do lists with specific dates and times, etc.).
Reducing stressors is the ultimate goal, but the athlete will also need to find ways to minimize the damage from stressors that cannot be eliminated. Sleep is the primary method for this, but secondary is napping, meditating or some hybrid of the two. In practical terms, this can be something as simple as taking 15 minutes each afternoon to lie with the eyes closed in a dark, quiet room and not think about work, training, or any other source of concern or stress. This extremely minimal investment of time will go a long way in keeping systemic stress levels as low as possible.