To Be Resilient, Rest Like An Athlete

To be at the top of our professional game, we have to start treating rest and recovery seriously. Yes, as seriously as a professional athlete.

In your team check-ins, are your peers saying things like:

  • I’m nowhere near my best
  • It’s a struggle just to put myself in front of the webcam
  • I took time off, but I’m still so exhausted
  • I’m getting really bad sleep
  • I lost my temper (or fell to pieces) over nothing this morning

These are, of course, tell-tale signs of extreme stress and exhaustion. Many of us just took time off, but it was likely spent still stuck at home, or navigating the challenge of leaving home and staying safe. Most of us are grappling with the fact that while the calendar changed, little else did.

If a professional athlete reported similar feelings, their coach would recognize these as signs of overexertion and order immediate rest and recovery. Not just time off, but—paradoxically—active rest. Athletes and their coaches know that concerted rest is a core component of an overall training regiment. In fact, according to sports science, you won’t see any improvements from training and practice—what’s known as supercompensation—until you take rest.

For too many of us, last year sucked the marrow from our bones in terms of effort and resilience. We have little left to give. As a result, we have to start treating rest and recovery seriously. Yes, as seriously as a professional athlete. Call it a resolution (or don’t), but as Nike would remind us: just do it.

Rest is an area of science all to itself, but top coaches and researchers recommend starting with the following tips:

  • Listen to your body. It knows when it needs rest, it tells us when it’s fatigued, and it relies on us to take notice and take action. Christie Aschwanden, the author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery, says, “Really, the most important skill and most important thing that an athlete can develop is (an understanding of) what their body is telling them and a sense of “how do I feel when I’m not recovered and when I am?” If you spent much of 2020 overriding what your body was telling you, you’re paying that cost now.
  • Your rest is your own, so do what feels right for you. There’s a litany of advice, a nonstop march of fads, and even conflicting science about what makes for optimum rest. The truth is, recovery is a feeling. Do what feels good for you over the long term. Some professional athletes swear by ice baths, for example, while there’s very little evidence to support its marketed benefits. But if it helps you feel rested and recovered, keep jumping in that ice bath.
  • While there is debate on other interventions, good sleep is considered the cornerstone of recovery. But you have to sleep like a pro to get its full benefits. This includes:
    • Sleeping enough, from 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep
    • Keeping to a sleep schedule, going to bed and waking at roughly the same time every day
    • Developing a wind-down routine that avoids stress and worry by embracing relaxation and positive visualization techniques
    • Avoiding substances that interfere with sleep, particularly caffeine and alcohol
    • Taking 30-minute naps during the day when your body tells you to
  • Build rest into your schedule. Athletes distinguish between short- and long-term recoveries, and so should you. Short-term recoveries might include ensuring you find 10 minutes between meetings to sit in a comfortable chair or stare at the clouds while listening to music you love. Long-term recoveries do include vacation time, but athletes don’t just take long weekends: they take whole seasons off. You might not be able to do that, but you can start to plan your long breaks throughout the year now to ensure you don’t let the “urgent” crowd out your personal health and safety.
  • Lastly, if you lead or manage a team, then manage their rest like a coach would.
    • Enforce, not just insist on, time off. Many companies are switching from unlimited vacation days to mandatory minimum vacation days (i.e. “You must take at least 15 days off this year”). Everyone needs rest, even—especially—your A-players who swear they prefer to keep working. Ultimately, you’ll also pay the cost for their stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to their bodies.
    • Be a mirror for their energy. Notice, in a caring and non-punitive way, when they are fatigued. Encourage them to listen to their body. Coach them on ways to approach rest like an athlete.
    • Balance not just their workload, but their roles. Exhaustion isn’t just about the number of hours worked in a day, but also the type and intensity of the work, too. One small example: let your natural leaders play a support role on a project or two, instead of always naming them the quarterback.
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