I’ve just returned from several weeks of travel — not all vacation by a long shot, but there was a break at the end to celebrate Thanksgiving with family in the US. I was surprised to feel how refreshed I was when I returned home and got back to my usual schedule of clients, classes, and family business. I was even more surprised to notice that things I’d been struggling to get on top of — logistics that were tricky to figure out about my work, being properly able to anticipate things — suddenly started taking care of themselves without any apparent effort on my part, even though I hadn’t even thought about them for three weeks.
This is the cognitive value of rest. Rest doesn’t mean curling up in bed, though a certain amount of that is nice. It can just mean a break, a change of activity. We do a certain kind of very important work when we take a break from struggle; in fact, it’s the crucial step in any learning process.
Runners are famous for not taking rest seriously enough, not letting their bodies recover between workouts. As the saying goes, it’s not the workout that makes you stronger, it’s the rebuilding process that takes place when you rest after your workout that makes you stronger!
But this other aspect to rest, the things that happen in your brain when you shift your focus, are also important to us and it’s important to remember them too, especially when you’re trying to learn better running form. There comes a point in any learning process where focusing on something stops getting you improvements and starts making things worse. When you reach this point, you’ve gone on too long without a rest. Your brain digests in rests, connects the things you’ve been focusing on to other things you know and filters out the noise. Without that step, there is no possibility of mastery.
As a runner and a person, you need to build rests of all kinds into your life. It’s not laziness, it’s a requirement of excellence and also of satisfaction and happiness. In your running, this means resting between workouts to allow you to recover (including but not limited to adequate sleep), resting from repetitious demands by giving your body variety (terrain, speed, duration, footwear, cross-training, play), resting from repetitious habits of attention by varying what you pay attention to, and even resting from trying to accomplish anything at all.