Take a hint from the NBA – if you want to improve your sports performance, you need to know how and when to rest. One major reason – rest improves a critical part of physical memory you can’t even name.
It’s called procedural memory. Ever try to teach a kid to ride a bike over the phone? To learn procedural memory takes it is much better to show than to tell. Procedural memory is what you use to ride a bicycle, hit a tennis serve, or shoot a basketball three pointer. One reason rest is critical to procedural memory is because the very specialized form of rest we call sleep is necessary to encode it.
Try thinking of what you do in your daily activities – walking, talking with your workmates, eating lunch – as biological information going to the brain. That truly enormous amount of information includes events you never consciously feel, like the reaction of your immune system to the chemicals in the air, or the tiny, tiny injuries to joint and muscle cells that takes place with a simple stroll. All that information must get processed. Once processed, it needs to be remembered – or forgotten.
That’s where sleep comes in. Sleep has a critical part to play in sifting, summarizing, and eliminating that information. And the memories stored in the brain don’t sit there like a CD or DVD – they are constantly updated andchanged by daily experience. That’s right – for years and years your memories will be changed every time you recall them, perhaps to make the information more usable. Much of that information encoding occurs in sleep, though other memory changes occur during active forms of rest. To become a better athlete, you want to get the right kind of rest.
The results can be pretty amazing. At Stanford, at the suggestions of Dr. Bill Dement, Cheri Mah has worked with several different teams (see note in Huffington Post about how rest works) . She asked the swim team to sleep at least 10 hours a night for six to seven weeks. Ten hours is not that much, as adolescents need a lot of sleep to grow their brains. Her report
at the 2009 Sleep Research meetings demonstrated fifteen meter sprints took team members half a second less. Any competitor knows that’s a huge advantage. Several Stanford and American records were set under the new rest regime.
The Portland Trail Blazers recently brought in Dr. Charles Czeisler, Harvard professor and one of the world’s best known sleep researchers, to consult. He knew basketball players are shift workers, whose evening-nighttime shift work turns them into involuntary owls, or night people.
Out went morning practices. Dr. Czeisler told the players they needed on average about 8 and a third hours to hone and improve their skills, which could improve twenty percent with proper sleep.
Sports and the Brain
To improve the brain you need proper rest and proper activity. Aerobic physical activity causes more blood brain flow, plus the growth of new brain cells. The cell growth occurs at night, during sleep. The new cells appear in memory areas, effectively used as new memory storage. At the same time other brain cells gain abilities to make more and stronger connections with each other.
This is a place where active rest can really help. Rest is not just passive, like sleep, but can be active, helping reform and renew body cells and tissues. Active rest includes activities you normally do, like walking to lunch with a work colleague. That simple walk will change the way your immune cells function, increase vitamin D production, improve mood and alertness, and provide social rest, the kind of social support that markedly improves survival.
You’ll also grow new brain cells at night.
Rest Between Reps
When it comes to creativity and productivity, sleep alone is not enough. You want to rest while you’re doing exercise.
There are two good reasons – weight control and increased performance. Tantalizing data from Japanese studies in the 2007 showed that athletes who took 20 or 30 minute rests in the middle of workout, rather than going full blast for sixty minutes, developed greater muscle mass. Other research studies claim better weight control when people rest during exercise.
And resting in-between workout routines may improve performance. Some, though not all, marathon runners report markedly improved competitive times from regularly resting during training runs. Weight lifters will tell you that increasing the rest period between reps often makes it possible for them to lift heavier weights and avoid injury. Rest is restoration and renewal.
And active rest techniques can be used to get athletes “in the groove,” calming them during competition. Longed used active rest techniques like paradoxical relaxation or self-hypnosis improve concentration, endurance, and self-confidence.
So rest may be just the help you need to perfect your jump shot or tennis game. When someone asks you about why you work out, tell them that besides looking better, feeling better, and getting healthier you’re growing new brain cells.
And they grow while you rest.