When I was coaching and consulting riders on the Pro Cycling Tour, l liked giving athletes impossible workouts – days on the bike that weren’t necessarily meant to be finished, but were rather designed to do the finishing. Often, the athletes and many peering into our world from the outside would feel uneasy or critical because they felt such hard days of training might lead to overtraining syndrome – a scenario where the mind and body are so pummeled that instead of adapting, athletes fall into a downward spiral of fatigue, injury, and illness. While overtraining is a real concern, my response to those fearful critics was simply this – there is no such thing as overtraining, just under-resting.
Training is controlled damage. In fact, anything physically or mentally novel has the potential of stressing our cells to the point where they become acutely disturbed or actually break. Like little paper cuts across the skin or an actual knife stabbing flesh, pushing ourselves can damage and hurt us. Even the simple act of walking can destroy valuable red blood cells as the weight of our bodies on top of our feet physically crush those cells as they move through a collapsing capillary bed. But, damage isn’t a bad thing. It’s this culling that initiates adaptation and that makes us stronger. The fallacy, however, is that we don’t actually get strong when we train, we become stronger when we heal from training. Outside of going so hard that one becomes injured much of the fatigue induced by a hard day can make us better if we allow ourselves to recover from that work. As true of an adage as pushing to the limit is in athletics, there’s a polar idea that is just as true – one must rest to heal and adapt.
The amount of time we need to properly recover depends on many factors, the most important of which is how accustomed we are to the stress we face at any given moment in our lives. The greater and more unique the load is, the more we need to rest. In a prior life, I was a research assistant helping to understand the demands of carrying loads in porters moving 200-250 pound loads on the backs of their 100-125 pound bodies in Eastern Nepal. While a seemingly impossible physical feat, one of the tricks to carrying such massive loads was rest. For every 30 seconds or minute that the porters moved, they rested for at least a full minute or two, by unweighting their load on a t-shaped walking stick called a tokma.
When I later found myself in the world of pro cycling, this past experienced made me a proponent of the seemingly impossible training day, but it also made me a bigger advocate of rest as we discovered that athletes became stronger when they had at least one relatively easy day for every extraordinary day of training. At most, we wouldn’t try to do more than two or three days of hard training in a row without a complete day off or a very easy ride. Even in the Tour de France that lasts for 21 stages there are built in rest days and strategies employed to work only some riders on the team hard on certain days to create a cycle of rest even within the race.
Ultimately, no matter what your goal or ability, we make strides only when we balance the work with the rest. As cliché as it may sound it’s a simple and singular physiological and human truth. So slap yourself in the face, then pat yourself on the back. Because as much as we need to push, it never pays off until we rest.