Rest and Recovery – The Path to Vitality

Rest and Recovery – The Path to Vitality

June 19, 2013 0 Comments

Burning the candle at both ends, working into the wee hours of the morning and sacrifices of the body and mind are common in our ever-demanding lives. The rather unique Western mindset of striving for maximum output from every aspect of life, has a tendency to push individuals to overlook the life-work-body-mind balance needed to successfully manage what we demand of ourselves on a daily basis.  The body’s need for rest too often goes ignored, yet research continues to show that rest, (and the king of rest, sleep) is an absolute requirement for maintaining a lean, strong body. You read that correctly, failing to attain adequate sleep makes you weak and fat. This is all because sleep regulates our hormonal cycles, which regulates when we feel hungry and what kind of foods we crave.

Learning the importance of recovery and incorporating as much as possible of its most productive form, Sleep, is key to progressively losing unwanted fat while maintaining a strong, injury-free body.

Rebuild Yourself From Training

Being attentive to nutrition while training smart and hard are some of the basic tenets of building a lean, strong body. At the same time, rest plays an incredibly important role in restoring physical performance yet it rarely receives the press it deserves, going overlooked as a mainstay of one’s training regimen. Indeed, most newcomers to strength training or sports often have a higher rate of injury as a result of overtraining or attempting too much too soon and not allowing for proper recovery.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, we actually get stronger when we allow muscles to heal and adapt to the physiological and chemical stresses that occur during training. The muscoskeletal system compensates for the stress put on it by training by building itself up during the post-training recovery period. This means the body reaches higher levels of performance only as a result of proper rest periods. Pushing fatigued muscles too far only compounds fatigue, promotes inflammation and compromises the overall quality of training. For example, combining heavy leg work with sprint training on the same day can easily overload muscles. In order to progress it is necessary to strike a balance with stimulating muscles without exceeding their capacity to recover.

Sleep and Training

One of the pillars of any serious athlete’s training that is hardly ever reported on is the importance of sleep. Increased sleep times of up to 10 hours per night have been shown to improve tolerance to training.  A study done on Stanford University mens’ varsity basketball team found that when players extended their sleep periods to achieve as much sleep as possible, players made significant improvements in athletic performance including timed sprints, weight training, conditioning and lower injury rates. Players significantly improved their accuracy in free-throw tests after adopting longer sleeping periods at night. The study’s findings also suggested that extra sleep had an overall positive effect on mental well-being, reduced daytime drowsiness and mood. This and other similar studies have led many scientists to conclude that optimal sleep is incredibly beneficial to achieving peak physical performance. 

A lack of sleep on the other hand hinders the body from adapting to the stresses of training by negatively affecting the physiological mechanisms that promote healing. College athletes observed while restricting sleep were found to unsurprisingly under-perform in their sport, while also exhibiting signs of overtraining as well as negative immune, metabolic, hypothalamic and neuro-chemical functions.

The hormones our bodies secrete during sleep are some of the most important factors affecting recovery. The concentration and activity of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones increase dramatically while we sleep, while the catabolic (muscle-wasting) hormone concentrations decrease. During sleep, Growth Hormone (GH) levels are at their highest, which increases protein synthesis for building and repairing muscle. If we limit sleep, interrupt it or lower its quality by keeping small lights and electronics on, this essential hormone production is seriously limited. For example, a study out of the Cornell University observed that even a tiny fibre-optic light aimed at the back of a sleeping person’s knee stopped the production of prolactin, one of the hormones necessary for maintaining a functioning immune system and proper T-cell function.

The Pinnacle of Recovery: Glorious Sleep

Sleep is not only beneficial to those who train regularly, it is also essential to the mental and physical well-being of anyone even remotely concerned about their health. Previous research on sleep has established that this is a state where critical cognitive, metabolic and immunologic processes happen. When we deprive our bodies of sleep, we directly and negatively affect glucose metabolism, appetite and fat storage, along with cognitive performance.

In a nutshell, sleep controls appetite, so it is key for weight maintenance. Going into more depth, our light and dark cycles control our hormonal cycles, which affect a huge number of bodily functions, most importantly, our immune system. The hormones melatonin and prolactin, which should be produced at night are essential in preventing fat gain by regulating appetite. When we haven’t slept long enough and prolactin is produced during the day, it suppresses the work of another hormone, leptin, which leaves our appetite for sugar and carbohydrates turned on all day and often into the night. To be blunt, our hormonal hard-wiring means we will store fat when exposed to long days.

On the other hand, with proper sleep and consumption of high quality dietary fat (“smart fats”), the leptin produced will turn off the appetite for sugar. Melatonin and prolactin production at night play a large role in governing the health of our immune system. With short nights, we produce less melatonin, one of the most potent antioxidants known. This means we compromise our immune system, leave our cells open to more free radical damage, inflammation, and ultimately faster ageing. 

Wondering how much sleep this means you need? Teresa S. Wiley, author of Sugar, Sleep, and Survival contends that since it takes at least three hours of melatonin production before prolactin shows up, and we need at least six hours of prolactin secretion to maintain proper immune function. Doing the math, this means at least NINE hours are needed to achieve optimal results. Of course this sounds absurd to the large number of (tired) people who get away with five or six hours a night, but making small changes, such as turning all the lights off and attempting to sleep half an hour earlier can set one on the path toward a stronger, leaner body.


T. S. Wiley. Sleep, Sugar and Survival. Simon and Schuster. New York: 2002

Anthony Barnett, “Using Recovery Modalities between Training Sessions in Elite Athletes.” Sports Medicine. September 2006, Vol, 36:9.781-796

Cheri D. Mah, MS1; Kenneth E. Mah, MD, MS1; Eric J. Kezirian, MD, MPH2; William C. Dement, “ The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players.” SLEEP, Vol. 34, No. 7, 2011

Charles Samuels, “Sleep, Recovery, and Performance:The New Frontier in High-Performance Athletics.” Neurologic Clinics. Vol 26. 2008. 169–180

Ben Edwards, Thomas Reilly.“Altered sleep–wake cycles and physical performance in athletes.”Physiology & Behavior. Vol 90. 2007. 274–284

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