The Importance of Rest

by Mikael Hanson, Enhance Sports

With the early arrival of spring, I have some observations to share. First, this was the earliest I can remember being able to ride outside with shorts on. Second, I logged more bike miles this January and February than ever before. Lastly, all this extra time on the bike so early in the year does take takes it toll to a body just coming off a winter break!

In my twenties recovery came easy and rest days, well those were few and far between and in my opinion for the weak minded. I used to become overcome with guilt for skipping a training day, even when I was sick and lived by the mantra that somewhere someone is training and when you meet them in competition, they will beat you. They say, with age comes wisdom. I no longer feel guilty for missing an occasional workout, and realize that some of my best performances have come after a period of forced rest. The forty-something me is also much more in tune with my body. It may have taken over a decade, but I now look forward to my recovery days and it is not uncommon for me to string together back to back rest days.

Already at this early stage in the season, I am seeing many athletes trying to do TOO MUCH due in part to the seasonable weather. Don’t let this early arrival of spring ruin your season by skipping the building blocks that are part of building your foundation (what I wrote about last month). Make sure all of your workouts have a purpose and avoid piling on those ‘junk miles’ for the sake of adding mileage, as that can lead us down the path of over-training. I preach the practice of HI / LO with my athletes. That is, make sure your easy days are just that – EASY! Make sure your hard days come after some recovery and are HARD! Following a morning 3hr endurance ride with an evening set of intervals is not going to result in a very successful interval workout in my experience. Just as making sure you take a full rest day or at least an easy day after events such as the infamous Battenkill road race! Our body needs rest and recovery to allow us to repair the damaged muscles allowing them to accept the next plateau of work that will lead to that heightened fitness level.

As someone who has battled with the debilitating affects of insomnia I know all to well what a lack of sleep can do to not only one’s performance but also to their mental state to mind. Former professional triathlete and now endurance coach, Wes Hobson, believes one should not train unless they got a minimum of 6hrs of continuous sleep the night before – if that were the case, I would have had to skip the last half decade of training!

Living in New York City, one complaint I constantly hear from many of my athletes is their inability to get enough sleep. Work commitments, quality family time, training, recovery, all take their toll on us amateur athletes. A close look at the training regimen for any professional endurance athlete, invariably it will include at least 8 hours of sleep each night PLUS a nap. Now if we could all do that, I think most of us would be able to elevate our performances! As for how much sleep one needs – that is a very individual thing. Here are some tips to help you sleep or at least find a relaxed state:

  • Caffeine – yes, it’s the lifeblood of endurance athletes, but try to go decaf after 3pm!
  • Sugar – ever see how you kid acts after a post-dinner cup cake? Well, we are the same and some extra sugar in the blood stream will keep you up!
  • Alcohol – no, a glass of wine or beer before bed DOES NOT help you sleep!
  • Dinner – avoid late meals and spicy meals and you will find falling asleep a tad easier!
  • Environment – make sure where you sleep is dark and try to avoid reading or watching TV in bed as you want the bed to represent a place to sleep in your mind.
  • Relaxation – can’t seem to leave work at the office? Try writing down things weighing on your mind on a pad of paper before bed and get into a routine of relaxation before you sleep. A few minutes of stretching and deep breathing from the diaphragm will help!
  • Natural sleep aids – Valerian root and melatonin are both natural sleep aids that do help some (myself not included and be warned that Valerian root has a very distinctive smell!). Also magnesium is said to help open up the capillaries and can help you relax at night. Avoid taking your vitamins at night (better taken in the AM). Also, a nice hot bath before bed works wonders!

Over-training is a word endurance athletes hear a great deal and is something no longer isolated to the ranks of Pro athletes. Even us amateurs can fall victim to over-training, especially when trying to balance training and racing with a family and full time job. Every morning I religiously take my resting heart rate and check my body weight, looking for those early warning signs of not being properly recovered.

Over-training should not be confused with another term thrown out by the endurance work, over-reaching. Signs associated with over-training syndrome include:

  • Extended decreased performance
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Significant change in body weight (either up or down can be a sign)
  • Difficulty sleeping (perhaps a source of recent insomnia?)
  • Prolonged muscle soreness
  • Frequent illness or onset of colds
  • Low energy level and motivation (especially toward training)
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased appetite
  • Several poor workouts in a row

Besides training, several other non-exercise related factors can contribute to the onset of Over-training such as; poor eating and hydration habits (before, during and after exercise), recent illness or injury (and resuming training without being fully recovered), poor sleep habits, travel and jet lag, are among the most common non-exercise contributors to over-training. Add to this list
psychological stresses like death of a loved one, new addition to the family, stress at work or financial problems and you can see jus how quick over-training syndrome can sneak up on an athlete.

Over-reaching is a can be a normal aspect of one’s training regimen. Over-reach is when one ‘overloads’ one’s training volume over a short-term period in hopes of seeing significant results in a shorter period of time. Pushing one’s body to this higher limit of activity (but not going into the over-trained zone), allows for the body to enter a super-compensation mode, where upon recovery your overall fitness level is much higher than before. The key factor for over-reaching to work is pairing it with proper recovery (without, you risk over-training).

While over-reaching may take several days to a week or more to fully feel like your old self again depending on the training load, over-training can take months to fully recover from. What is the remedy for over-training? Simple old fashioned rest. Put the cycling or running shoes in the closet, skip some races and just chill. Let your body recover, so you can come back fresh and strong!

So do enjoy this early arrival of Spring, but lets not get ahead of ourselves in the prep work for a long and fruitful season of racing. I know it is hard to ignore an invitation to a Bear Mtn ride on a balmy 60 degree early April day, but listen to what your body is telling you and more importantly, see where such a ride fits into your own training plan!