Psychology Recovery Rest

Benefits of Recovery

Welcome to Daylight Savings 2016, and the loss of another hour of sleep!

Woman (and author of post) laying in bed sleeping under white covers, with two Siamese cats seeping on a pillow and on her foot.
Zzzz! Learn about the benefits of rest, recovery, and naps! Photo courtesy of Imei Hsu. Use only with permission.

A few seasons ago, an experienced athlete shared with me a piece of sage wisdom:

“You can only race as well as you can recover.”

It’s the occasional freak of nature — and perhaps our belief that we may be that one percent or less of the overall population — that drives us to behave in ways that are contradictory to the well-understood and time-tested fact that athletes perform better when they get consistent rest and recovery times along with their training, nutrition, body work, and other medical care.

Many people were stunned when marathoner Ryan Hall announced his retirement at age 33. Hall, cited as one of the greatest American marathoners in history, had been struggling with fatigue and low testosterone. The rigors of training for one marathon and half marathon after another had taken its toll on his body and particularly his hormone balance.

As a therapist, I see very few clients who perform at these high rigor levels of demand in their work lives and private lives. What I do see are people who have extremely busy and productive schedules at work, at home, and even at play. To find time to “have it all and do it all”, many of them cite sleep as the activity they give up most often.

To get all the items checked off the list, the kids shuttled to soccer practice and ballet dance lessons, projects at work finished and home renovations projects completed, to care for an aging parent, and make sure the pet gets its surgery and regular teeth cleaning — well, sleep gets whittled down to the bare minimum to get by.

But at what cost?

How Much Rest and Recovery Is Enough?

While each person’s activity level, diet, and stress levels are going to be different, you’ve probably heard that eight hours of rest per night is a good amount to shoot for.

Factors that affect the actual number of hours you need include: injury and healing processes, stress (one-time, or ongoing and compounded), intensity of activity and work (such as a job that requires a lot of physical activity and effort), and something I call “on” hours of your day, such as giving presentations, leading meetings, or activities requiring concerted amounts of mental focus.

While eight hours is a good rule of thumb, your own activities determine how many really make you feel rested. After a big race, I usually need a nap as well as a full night’s sleep. The following day, I may need a repeat of that amount of sleep for my body to begin recovering from what it was just subjected to.

The most important thing you can do is to listen to your body, and note its changing need for sleep. Sleep banking doesn’t really work; that is, you can’t really save up sleep by banking it for a future day, unless that future day is within 48 hours of the time you banked it. Professional endurance athletes will often follow the rule that the sleep a night before a race is not nearly as important as the rest one gets the two nights before the night before. Experientially, I have found this to be true.

But that’s physical activity. What about when it’s emotional activity?

Why Am I So Exhausted After Feeling Emotional?

Remember the last time you cried? If you don’t cry, do you remember the last time you felt overwhelming feelings of sadness, loss, or anger? When that stormy emotion passes, why is it that we feel so physically tired?

The notion of crying oneself to sleep is a frequent image in novels. It’s likely that after crying, a hormone called prolactin is released from your pituitary gland. Prolactin is higher when we are sleeping; it’s also present in women to stimulate milk production after childbirth. The release of prolactin is very relaxing; it is that hormone that makes us feel relieved and a little sleepy after stress is released.

An example is when you and your team at work finishes a particularly lengthy time of stress to get a product launched. After putting in long days and even a few evenings of extra work, you’re excited to get this thing out the door! You go home, tell your spouse or partner about it, eat dinner, and the next thing you know, you are snoring on the couch!

If a loved one dies, it’s not uncommon for the body to respond to loss by needing more sleep and rest. During rest, the mind can “unplug” from all its other responsibilities, giving it time and space to heal. However, if you experience an extended period of time of excessive sleep, sleepiness, or a dependency on sleep medication to get to sleep, it’s time to call your medical professional and get some help with getting your body feeling better.

Is There Any Benefit to a Nap?

While napping is not for everyone, a nap for some people have multiple benefits, including reducing fatigue, increasing mental alertness, and improving mood. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the benefits of napping to see if you can use these to your advantage.

What if you’d like to get the benefits of rest but you actually don’t feel sleepy? Resting doesn’t have to be equated with napping! You can rest in a variety of ways that allow you to put your feet up, let your mind relax, and put your body at ease.

Examples of resting and recovery activities are:

  • swinging in a hammock outside on a warm day
  • coloring or drawing in a book while resting in bed
  • floating in a warm tank of water (floating tank) or a warm indoor pool
  • reading a book on a reclined couch (a change from sitting)
  • cuddling a pet in bed (Fido and Kitty could use the extra attention)
  • meditate on a floor mat (Shivasana Pose, in Yoga)<– a personal fav

Whatever you choose, make sure the activity does not simply simulate your work activities, and does not activate the same cognitive processes of other stress-filled actions. If you find cooking relaxing, it can be recovery activity, yet it’s not truly rest activity (something that gets you off your feet).

When a Rest Day Becomes a Rest Week (or more)

I once teased my friends on Facebook that I didn’t know what to do with myself on a Rest Day. Actually, I know very well what to do with myself on a Rest Day — I completely rest! Yet I feigned that I might have to bench press my chubby cat Loomi a hundred times in order to sneak a workout into my day and not have it “count.” The problem: my Coach is also a friend on Facebook, and he has never let me forget what I said!

About three weeks ago, I was in riding in a bus on the way to work after an hour-long swim workout. There were no seats available, and I was crowded into a section that only had overhead straps to hold. With my arm full extended, and my backpack on, my body lurched violently forward and backward when the bus needed to come to a sudden stop to avoid a collision. The next day, I couldn’t turn my neck, and my back, chest, and shoulders began to ache. I also had a mild headache and nausea by the end of the evening.

Within a few days, it became clear that I was experiencing the signs and symptoms of whiplash.  What I didn’t know is how long it can take to completely heal. As I type, I am still experiencing pain, stiffness, and some limitation of mobility, although overall, I am much improved.

Everything in my brain was saying that I needed to return to my normal activities, but everything in the pain department simply screamed, “No!” No lifting, pushing, pulling, weight bearing through the shoulders, extending the arms forward, lying on the shoulders during sleep, or turning the head (and therefore, no driving for the first week). Whereas I am a stellar sleeper, I couldn’t sleep well, or if I could fall asleep, I did not stay asleep.

One of the greatest treatments for injury is rest. Rest becomes the supportive therapy to all other therapies; in fact, rest enhances the positive effects of every therapy I employed to get me back up and walking (and eventually running again): chiropractic adjustment and manual manipulation, therapeutic exercises and stretches, massage therapy, ointment (arnica, Tiger Balm), and a Compex electric stimulation unit.

Understanding that recovery from whiplash can last weeks or even months, I came to embrace rest as a necessary component of healing. When the pain finally eased enough to begin sleeping without pain medication, I embraced the concept of rest even more fully, catching an additional nap on the weekend afternoons, and using hydrotherapy to rest and relax.

I’d like to say that I’ve become the Queen of Rest Day, yet my go-go-go personality says I’ve made progress but have not mastered it! However, I hope you’ll be inspired to think about the benefits of rest and recovery, and to give rest the respectful place in every day life and health you deserve.

Note: Speaking of rest, I’ll be out of the office March 18 – 26, 2016 for an annual triathlon camp in Maui. In the following week leading in April, it’s a great time to get started in your counseling journey. Feel free to contact me via the Contact page to learn more about selecting a counselor and getting started.




By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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