Why You Need Recovery, Not Just Rest
For athletes, rest and recovery are very different things — a distinction that can help you avoid burnout in your own life
It’s been a long day. Billy just got home from a hectic day at work, and the first thing he wants to do is flop down on the couch, turn on some mindless sitcom on Netflix, and stare straight ahead without moving for a few hours.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Rest is important, and plenty of people relax by watching TV, taking a nap, or playing video games. But those choices are a temporary reprieve. While they may be enjoyable, they don’t contribute to effective recovery.
I was a competitive long-distance runner for 15 years, and if there is one lesson I learned, it’s that there is a huge difference between rest and recovery. The average weekly training load for any competitive collegiate distance runner is around 60 to 70 miles, and it can get exhausting. But ask any runner how they recover, and their answer may surprise you: “I recover by going for an early morning run.”
Yes, after exhausting themselves by running 60 miles a week, runners recover by running more. This is a standard practice among top runners, and as crazy as it sounds, it works.
Too much time spent resting can actually make us more tired than before we started.
In a 2009 study, exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler, PhD, concluded that the best way to develop endurance is to combine high-intensity training with lots of low-intensity training. Runners need to do slow runs because it allows them to recover faster and gives them a better chance at developing endurance.
In the same way, we can recover from working by strategically practicing active recovery, which looks a lot different from doing nothing.
Rest is passive
Back to Billy. Certainly his muscles will relax while he watches TV, and his mind will find temporary distraction from its problems.
But just because Billy isn’t expending energy doesn’t mean he’ll regain the energy he already lost. In fact, the opposite can happen: Too much time spent resting can actually make us more tired than before we started. No one’s raring to go after a long TV binge.
Recovery is active
Unlike rest, recovery is an active and deliberate practice and can only be fully utilized through an accurate sense of self-understanding: What is your source of motivation? Where does your sense of meaning come from? What is at the center of your being and decisions?
Effective recovery means recovering the energy source that drives you, and that can only be done deliberately. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey devotes an entire chapter to the importance of recovery. He insists that the most important thing someone can do is take time to “sharpen their saw,” which is apparently a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s famous adage, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
To work effectively, you must deliberately take time to renew your sense of purpose, which is the foundation upon which day-to-day work is built.
Recovery is imperative to effective work because it is a form of preparation that allows us to focus on what matters to us. It can be done at the end of the day, but also at the beginning.
Effective recovery means recovering the energy source that drives you, and that can only be done deliberately.
How I recover
I still occasionally watch TV and play video games, but I understand that they are only temporary distractions rather than effective methods of rejuvenation. There are four main ways I practice active recovery:
Journaling: Tons of research is out there about how journaling can have a positive effect on your emotional well-being. It’s also a valuable tool for recovery — journaling is a re-cover of the day, a reflection on where I’ve been, and it helps me analyze whether my day-to-day actions align with my deeper motivations and intentions. Journaling is a deliberate practice of honesty with myself.
Morning solitude: Every morning, I wake up and give myself about 30 to 45 minutes to study sacred texts and relate them to my life. It might seem backwards to recover by getting less sleep, but the time I spend in silent study is more impactful on my recovery than anything else. When I journal, I’m comparing my actions to my internal drives; my morning solitude is time spent discovering what my internal drives are in the first place.
Daily long-distance running: I’ve found that running makes me happier and aids my mental recovery by releasing stress, helping me think, and giving me another chance for solitude toward the end of my day. Most important, it nurtures my confidence. When I run, I’m showing myself that I can do what I set my mind to.
Calling old friends: I don’t use my friends as therapists. I’ve learned that if I call a friend with the sole purpose of making myself feel better, I just end up feeling disingenuous. But if I call a friend because I genuinely want to talk with them, then a side effect of that conversation is recovery. Speaking to someone I’ve known for a long time gives me a chance to recover my roots, to recall the version of myself that existed before all the stress that’s currently plaguing me. It allows me to recover an important part of myself that I sometimes lose sight of. Calling friends makes life fun. It turns the difficulties into adventures and allows me to laugh off the fatigue.
Maintain your life’s house
I am most effective when I know why I am doing what I do. That’s what distance runners are doing with their recovery runs: They’re shaking out their muscles but also thinking about what compels them to run in the first place. They are re-covering the basics of running and renewing their sense of purpose.
The work of life is like home maintenance. Resting maintains the outward appearance of the house, like the paint job and the front lawn. But recovery is the act of maintaining the house’s most essential structures — the foundation and the walls that hold it together.
If you only rest, the exterior may look attractive, but the interior won’t be very nice, and it may even collapse. Rest and recovery are different, but both are essential to building your best life.