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How extended breaks in training help elite athletes—and why you should take them too

In an excerpt from the book Peak Performance, learn how long rest periods and breaks in training can help all athletes stay healthy and avoid burnout.

The following is excerpted from Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. Copyright © 2017. Published by permission of Rodale Books. 

At the end of this year, Bernard Lagat, one of the best American runners ever, will take a break. For 5 weeks, he’ll hang up his sneakers and complete little to no exercise. This isn’t something new or brought about by old age for this 43-year-old athlete. If anything, part of the reason Lagat, who has run in five Olympics and won two world championships, remains atop the international running scene is because of this break, which he’s been taking every year since 1999. “Rest,” Lagat says, “is a good thing.”

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Peak Performance

by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

Through the science and stories of great performers, learn how to elevate Your game, avoid burnout, and thrive with the new science of success.

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Lagat credits his annual respite with keeping him physically and psychologically healthy over the years. The extended shutdown period allows his body to recuperate from grinding 80-mile running weeks. Although Lagat’s year-end break might be the longest, nearly all his peers at the top of running take similar ones, ranging from 10 days to 5 weeks. Olympic 1500-meter silver medalist Leo Manzano recently told the Wall Street Journal that he, too, needs at least a month to recover from the season. His reasoning is simple: “It feels like I’ve been going nonstop since November.”

Take a moment and ask yourself: Have you ever felt like Manzano? If so, did you take a month off? Did you even take the weekend off? For the vast majority of Americans the answer to both of those questions is no. We consistently work on weekends and rarely use all our paid time off, let alone take extended vacations. Instead, we get trapped into thinking that if we’re not always working hard, we’ll be surpassed by the competition. Our misguided thinking is the result of years of conditioning. We (i.e., Brad and Steve) both remember growing up to the tune of popular inspirational quotes like, “When you are not practicing, remember somewhere someone else is, and if you meet him, he will win.” Unfortunately, we’ve lost the notion of smart work at the expense of hard work, which somehow almost always gets confused with more work.

But here’s the thing: If we never take “easy” periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the “hard” periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. This vicious cycle is often referred to by a much less vicious name—“going through the motions”—but it’s a huge problem nonetheless. That’s because few people grow when they are going through the motions. In order to give it our all, and do so over a long time horizon without burning out, we’ve got to be more like Bernard Lagat: Every now and then, we’ve got to take it really easy. In addition to his year-end break, Lagat also takes an off-day at the end of every hard training week. On his off-days, Lagat doesn’t even think about running. Instead, he engages only in activities that relax and restore both his body and mind such as massage, light stretching, watching his favorite TV shows, drinking wine, and playing with his kids.

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We are not suggesting that you haphazardly take off-days and extended vacations. Rather, in the same spirit that Lagat does, we are recommending that you strategically insert longer periods of rest to follow longer periods of stress. The modern Monday through Friday workweek was, in essence, founded upon that premise. The concept of a “weekend” was devised in the early 1900s to accommodate both the Christian and Jewish Sabbaths, the religious versions of rest days. Today, however, too few of us observe the Sabbath—either religiously or symbolically. Alternatively, we continue working on the same projects we were working on during the week or add additional stressors in other dimensions of our lives. Few of us rest on the weekends.

There is a high cost of neglecting to rest on the weekends: The quality of the work we do during the week suffers, leaving us feeling pressured to work on Saturday and Sunday just to catch up. We get caught in the vicious cycle: not enough stress to demand rest, not enough rest to support real stress. If you are stuck in this cycle right now, try ending it this coming weekend. Give yourself at least one day off, in which you completely disconnect from your work and other similar stressors. The benefits are significant and scientific. Studies show that vigor and performance increase following a rest day, and the more someone actually rests on the weekend, the more effort they expend during the week. If you feel like the ability to take an off-day is out of your control, show this book to your boss and use it to start a sincere discussion about how you need to rest in order to work your best. Nothing makes us more upset than illogical organizations that demand too much and as a result never get enough.

During the process of writing this book, we held each other to taking at least one off-day a week. On that day we didn’t write or research a word. Without fail, our strongest writing days occurred on either the next day or two days later. (Brad’s off-days were generally on Monday. He wrote best on Tuesday and Wednesday.) That we said two days later is worth noting. Sometimes it can take both the body and the mind a day to get back into the swing of things. This is why prior to a big Sunday race, many athletes rest on Friday and do a light workout on Saturday to “wake their body up.” This is also why some of the savviest professionals schedule big meetings on Tuesdays instead of Mondays. Some people snap right back from a break, but others take a bit more time. It doesn’t take long to figure out which category you fall into, and once you do, a well-timed rest day yields enormous dividends. Rest days allow you to recover from the accumulated stress of the recent past and revitalize you so that you can push harder in the near future.

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While rest days are good bridges from week to week, sometimes the body and mind need a longer break. Much like rest days should be strategically timed to follow accumulated stress, so, too, should vacations, albeit on a larger scale. Lagat doesn’t take his 5-week hiatus in the middle of the season. He waits until after his last race of the year, when his body and mind are admittedly worn down. For musicians, this may mean taking a break after 50 days on tour or working arduously to complete a record. For visual and material artists, this may mean taking a break after a gallery opening or finishing up an especially challenging piece or series of works. And for intellectuals and business professionals, this may mean timing breaks to follow long periods of work, like the publication of a journal article or book, or the completion of a major investment deal.

We would be remiss not to acknowledge that all kinds of situational factors—from family obligations to financial pressures to workplace policies—can make it hard to intentionally time extended vacations. But to the extent that you can, we encourage you to be thoughtful about when you take your breaks. Research shows that breaks lasting 7 to 10 days have positive effects on motivation, well-being, and health that last up to a month. Other studies have shown that a week-long vacation can diminish or even completely eliminate burnout. But here’s the catch: If the conditions that led to burnout in the first place aren’t resolved, the symptoms of burnout inevitably return just a few weeks later.

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This is an important insight. It means that contrary to common belief, extended breaks are not a saving grace that allow people with unsustainable workloads to magically bounce back all chipper. Rather than viewing vacations as a last-ditch tool to save someone on the edge, it’s better to think of extended breaks as part of a broader “rest” strategy that includes mini-breaks, sound sleep, and off-days. In other words, when it comes to a comprehensive “rest” strategy, vacations are not the cake—they are merely the icing on top of it, a chance to more fully regroup after accumulating stress so we can come back stronger and better than before. When Lagat finishes a season, he is fatigued—but he’s not broken. Fatigue is a stimulus for growth. Broken is, well, just broken.