Most of us really don’t know how to rest properly. First of all, we have to remember to actually take it before we can begin to refine it. Many of us operate on less than eight hours of sleep, and a large percentage of that group wear that fact as a badge of honor. For most of us, not sleeping doesn’t build toughness. It imposes a hard limit on our physical and mental potential. There are millions of reasons why we can’t or why we won’t sleep, but if we are masters of our 1440, we can carve out time to rest a hard-working body and a curiously creative mind.
Proper sleep is not a gentle suggestion to optimize performance, it is a baseline qualification to begin the journey.
Only after committing to proper sleep can we begin to discover and apply methods to make the most of our time awake. Our ability to physically move, navigate obstacles in our environment, and put our minds to creative challenges is often taken for granted. Think about how it all works the next time you stand up and walk across a room. You make a conscious decision to move. Your brain fires electrical signals to the muscles in your body while acting as a catch basin for millions of stimuli from the environment bombarding you all at once. This is real life magic. Processing these signals in near-real time, you make nanosecond decisions and your body strides gracefully across the room. It’s pretty incredible. Energy can’t be created or destroyed, but it can be improperly allocated and applied carelessly.
The rhythm of intervals like the crest and trough of a sound wave is a foundational aspect of the science attempting to understand the world around us. We exist between states of chaos and order. Within all chaos there is the presence of order, and within all order exists the potential for chaos. Peace exists in between these states. In every aspect of our lives, we witness the ebb and flow of stress and recovery. The problem exists when we emphasize the stress and discount the idea of rest and recovery. This is an underdog story dedicated to the overlooked and underrated character of rest.
A Coach’s Perspective
Over the last few years as a CrossFit athlete and coach, I found a unique observational platform into the world of the physical and mental components of training. The act of coaching is merely astute observation and thoughtful guidance, right? Watching our athletes navigate weightlifting challenges and metabolic conditioning programming provides tremendous insight into how the human mind and body can deal with obstacles. While I learn about myself every time I train, focusing completely on another athlete gives me a fresh perspective. Our programming at CrossFit Alpharetta is varied, and we incorporate interval training, which specifies time intervals for both work and rest. Work is the focused intent of the physical effort, which relies on muscular strength, myofascial mobility, cardiovascular endurance, mental fortitude and a positive mindset. Rest is often reduced to that sixty-second period that is a time warp to an alternate universe that feels like ten seconds. We lie flat on our backs in a pool of sweat gasping for air locked in a battle of the dwindling expectations of our own minds. We are hyperfocused on the work, and we rarely consider resting mindfully. We strategize on how to attack the physical challenge by talking to other athletes who recently completed it, and if we had a large whiteboard on the wall we’d try to diagram it. Whether it’s a target for unbroken reps (completing a cluster of repetitions without stopping), a pace on the rower, or a movement efficiency nugget, we pour over these critical details for workouts that don’t even last ten minutes.
When was the last time you created a detailed plan for your rest intervals?
Here is an example:
5 Rounds For Time:
400 Meter Run
30 Kettlebell Swings
Rest 1 minute
Most athletes will immediately seek a strategy for a workout like the one mentioned above. How fast should I run? Should I break up the kettlebells into two sets to save myself for the jump rope? Many will gravitate toward the single movement that they tend to struggle with the most and spend precious energy worrying about it. Rarely do we develop a rest strategy or even try to be mindful of our rest intervals. We are too occupied with the work, and battling the mental demons of the work we like the least. This mindset can follow us outside the doors of the gym into other activities. A proper rest interval during an interval-based training session can be very similar to meditation. I’ve been trying to be present during the rest intervals to stay in touch with my body during the recovery process. I really try to shut down all activity including the mental stress of anticipating the challenge of the next round. The mental aspects of rest are captivating. Lately, I’ve been resisting the urge to double over in my struggle to regain my breath. Mentally, if I’m doubled over, my condition and situation are controlling me. The mere act of standing straight up provides a boost that takes me into the next round. There are feedback loops between our cells and our consciousness that are real. I just started Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I’m loving what I am reading so far. The first rule is “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back”, and Peterson presents the details through a study on the dominance hierarchy of lobsters. The simple structure of lobster brains have allowed scientists to map neural activity and track the release of hormones like serotonin. These 350 million year old crustaceans (yep, these guys were around more than 200 million years before the dinosaurs) can illustrate the self-fulfilling prophecy of succumbing to failure through drooping posture and skittish demeanor, which can lead to instances of low serotonin.
If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself.
Jordan Peterson – 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote To Chaos
The On/Off Switch
Successful athletes across all domains find their on/off switch and develop triggers to transition between states of intense physical activity and rest. In complex electrical systems, there is a device called an EPO (Emergency Power Off) that when activated immediately kills the electrical connection to the system. This is the mechanical equivalent of the internal device that I am trying to develop within myself and the athletes that I train. While I haven’t completely cultivated an immediately accessible on/off switch, I am making progress. By learning to live comfortably between the states of chaos and order and tactically switching between work and rest, we can all realize our true potential.
Chess champion, Tai Chi champion and meta-learner Josh Waitzken emphasizes the importance of rest and interval training. He believes the best athletes in the world can turn their switch on and off in an instant. The power to go from 350 MPH to quiet stillness and back to 350 MPH can be coaxed into existence with dedicated commitment.
Relaxation is a blink away from full awareness. Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game was on the line.
– Josh Waitzken (from The Art of Learning)
How Well Do You Use Your Energy?
In physical training, we stress our muscles creating microtears that the body repairs building a stronger muscle, which is why dedication to the best squat programs usually result in personal records. Stress is an important component to building strength, but it is counter-productive when it’s deployed holistically. At any given time, our body is capable of producing a certain amount of physical force based on our fuel and preparation. When under extreme duress though, all bets are off. The best laid plans turn into frantic movement, unproductive tensing of muscles and mental stress. We can perform the equivalent function of an airplane pilot pushing a button to dump the fuel tanks, when a more focused allocation of the energy source will propel the plane from origin to destination.
Consider the motion of a pull-up.
Calloused hands wrap around a cold, metal bar in preparation for raising the body from a dead hang position to where the chin rises above the bar. If you squeeze the bar too tightly, tension streaks from your fingertips to your forearms, elbows, biceps, shoulders, and all of the connective tissue in between. While this sequence of events will most likely result in your chin finding its way over the bar, it will do so rather unproductively. With a more loosened grip on the metal bar, stronger muscle groups are able to absorb the physical load of pulling your body off the ground. The latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscle groups are stronger than the muscles in your hands and forearms. These muscle groups are more appropriately engaged redirecting precious energy down a more productive path less likely to harm joints and connective tissue.
What about the muscles in your face during a kettlebell swing?
This movement can have two instances of unproductive deployment of energy. Similar to the pull-up, gripping the kettlebell too tightly can result in engaging weaker muscle groups. After twenty repetitions, we can begin to feel the effects of swinging 53 pounds from hip height over our heads. As we move to thirty repetitions, our mind begins to convince our body that the fun is over and it is time to return the kettlebell to the ground. At this threshold, we unknowingly begin to recruit the muscles in our face to form contorted expressions of pain or exhaustion that would be more appropriately applied to the instant before a collision with a locomotive. Recruiting the muscles of your face will not produce an extra ten swings of the kettlebell. It is an unproductive allocation of energy in the form of stress. Isn’t it pulling from the same energy reserve that the larger, more focused muscle groups need to fuel their effort? I’ve found that there are also mental repercussions of the pain face. When present, it acknowledges the obstacle’s assertion of power over the individual. Obviously, there is a point of true exhaustion, but the mindful restraint of its external manifestation can push you further than you thought you could ever go.
Can We Train How To Rest?
Training rest begins with awareness.
I’ve found myself in my car, in a meeting, or on a phone call unintentionally tense from my jawbone through my neck and shoulders. Why? I’m not facing a wild boar in a field of overgrown brush. I’m not bracing for impact with a race car. I’m just driving down the road, or writing at my desk. If I’m feeling stressed or tense, I immediately check by jawbone by fostering awareness and relaxing that joint. Surprisingly, it translates from the source and continues through the system. Another way to train rest is to incorporate it into your routine. Taking twenty minutes to stretch in the evenings can be a brilliant way to wind down and heal your body. An afternoon walk can be the perfect mental escape from your work day, while leaving behind tangible benefits to your productivity. Brain FM is an app that provides background music and audio for different purposes like Focus, Meditate, Sleep, Recharge and Relax. I’ve been using the app for about six months and have enjoyed the benefits both for rest and in times requiring extreme focus. For example, my Tuesday mornings start at 4:30AM, so I find that I plateau around 2PM. I’ve been using the Recharge and Relax cues from the app in 15 minute increments, and it’s been a fantastic reset for the second part of my day.
Create The Space In Between
What is training but mindful repetition? If we pick up a lacrosse stick and throw with our non-dominant hand for one hundred repetitions every day, after a month we will likely improve our ability to cradle and pass with both hands. If we merely think about wanting to improve our performance, our success will remain a thought. Results require attention and intention. How powerful could we be if we were able to train the master switch between stress and recovery? Could that switch foster our ability to live comfortably between chaos and order? What if we could carefully signal packets of energy and direct them to the most productive use for a particular task? How much potential are we losing by creating unbeneficial stress or tension? These questions and their critical answers extend far beyond the confines of a CrossFit gym. These are immediately transferrable to how we work, how we learn, and how we interact with others and our environment. It is our nature to live in between chaos and order, and it is ultimately up to us how comfortable we are in that space. With mindful rest, we can build something that welcomes both order and chaos as we learn to appreciate the flow between the two in every aspect of our lives.
Work hard and rest well.
He that can take rest is greater than he that can take cities.
– Benjamin Franklin