Why Athletes Should Rest
By Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S
For all athletes, rest is important. Athletes looking to get better may falsely think that adding a second training session in the same day will advance their training. According to Renee Urban, PT, Board Certified in Orthopedics “Many people feel that if they are not reaching their training goals the answer is to train harder. In actuality, they may just need more recovery time.” Over-training, may put them more at risk for injury, an energy imbalance (where energy out doesn’t match energy in), fatigue and potentially serious medical complications such as a low heart rate, low blood pressure or dizziness. If an energy imbalance exists, whether it’s due to intentional reasons (dieting) or unintentional reasons (overtraining), every area of the body will be affected. Insufficient fueling has the power to affect cardiac, gastrointestinal, menstrual, hematological, immunological and psychological functioning.
Athletes who are not properly fueling or just simply can’t keep up with their energy demands may find that though they are train hard, they fail to improve, or worse, their performance declines. Sometimes their coach or parent may notice first. They may see playing time reduced, or may get benched altogether. In this state, they might be slower, weaker, have less endurance, be more prone to injury, have a reduced training response (failure to progress despite training hard), be more irritable, and feel more depressed. This is ironic, given their initial goal of achieving health and excelling at their sport. In 2014, researchers gave a new name to this energy imbalance as it pertained to athletes, “RED-S,” which stands for Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (1). “For an athlete to make desired training adaptations, one must include adequate rest and consistent, strategic nutrition to maximize energy balance,” says Rebecca McConville MS, RD, LD, CSSD, CEDRD, author of Finding Your Sweet Spot: How to Avoid RED-S. Working with a sports dietitian, someone who is a Registered Dietitian and also a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, can help assess an athlete’s diet and training load, and tease out whether an energy deficit exists help get them back on track.
Days offs from exercise can help keep a person’s energy balance in check. Many athletes say, “rest is unnecessary” or “a waste of time.” But according to Urban, during exercise the body and muscles undergo stress and strain. “It is essential to allow for adequate recovery in order to allow the body to return to its optimal state (homeostasis). It is during this time that tissues can heal, energy can be restored and the body can adapt to be able to handle the stress of exercise next time.” Rest helps the muscular, nervous, and immune systems recover, strengthen and rebuild, while allowing athletes to minimize soreness, inflammation, and illness. On days off, the body may not technically engage in exercise but it is very active while healing and repairing itself. These days will help to recharge your batteries and increase your enthusiasm for the sport; after all, doing the same training day after day can be monotonous. Between the physical and emotional benefits, rest days clearly offer a performance advantage. Have you ever seen Steph Curry, of the Golden State Warriors, come back after a day of sitting on the bench? On fire, even more than usual.
Including meditation, massage, hot baths, acupuncture, gentle stretching or yoga can help improve the body’s recovery and healing time. Taking naps, resting muscles that are activated during your training is recommended. It will be amazing to see how much power and energy the athlete gets from simply resting. Cross training, active hot yoga, cycling etc. – does not count as a “rest day.” They idea is to stretch out the muscle and literally let the body heal.
For any person who is recovering from an eating disorder, rest days should be non-negotiable and exercise should be contingent upon not only being medically cleared, but also meeting their nutritional needs. Athletes with eating disorders must be able to adjust their meal plan to account for their activity, and also must be able to sit out when told to do so. They also must be able to meet their treatment medical and behavioral expectations. The scope of the exercise plan and the number of rest days can be determined by the treatment team and might change over the course of treatment.
Some people absolutely cannot take a rest day and may ultimately struggle with compulsive exercise. For more about characteristics of what constitutes “balanced” vs. “unbalanced” exercise, you may which to check out an article entitled, “When Exercise Turns Compulsive.” You can also take this self-assessment quiz “Compulsive Exercise Test.” Compulsive exercise can lead to depression, anxiety, injury, worsening performance, social withdrawal, among other negative complications. If you find that several of these warning signs apply to you, it is recommended that you seek professional help to better understand your relationship with exercise.
1. M. Mountjoy, J. Sundgot-Borgen, L. Burke, et al., “The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S).” British Journal of Sports Medicine 48, no. 7 (April 2014): 491–97, doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-093502.
Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S is the Team Nutritionist of the Oakland Athletics. She is also a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Approved Supervisor through the International Eating Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in the Bay Area in California. She is the co-author of “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder” and “No Weigh! A Teens Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.” For more information, check out her website at http://sterlingnutrition.com/