We all need rest. It’s a fact of life. When referring to rest we’re talking primarily about sleep and other times when the body is using the parasympathetic branch (rest and digest) of the nervous system more dominantly than the sympathetic branch (fight or flight). So how do we know when our bodies are really resting? Going on a trip to Vegas for a couple of nights out on the town might seem like rest to some, but is probably far from it! Same goes for many people’s nights at home staying up late watching Netflix.
To know whether we’re really resting, we need to be aware of a couple of metrics. Sleep tracking and heart rate variability (HRV) tracking are two of the most convenient places to start. There is also much valuable information to be gained from considering our subjective everyday experience in order to quickly determine whether there is too much, or sometimes even too little, stress in our lives. Stress, which becomes manifested in our physiology, is centrally important to the picture of overall health, dictating whether the body is able to efficiently access the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and recovery) or is in a chronic state of fight or flight. In fact, if we could measure and control the amount of stress in our lives like the volume dial on a stereo, we would probably have a good grasp on our overall health from that alone!
When someone is not sleeping well, has a low-trending HRV score, and is unable to get into a parasympathetic state even with the assistance of neurofeedback, there is potentially a big problem. Remember that when HRV is chronically low or trending downwards that the body has the stress volume too high and isn’t recovering well. Also keep in mind that there may be acute stressors and chronic stressors that need to be taken into consideration when seeing if HRV is trending up or down. The good thing is that, by tracking both objective and subjective stress metrics, we can quickly determine when stress is trending toward the danger zone, and can make changes in our lifestyles to prevent any possible negative outcomes. In effect, we can be alerted when our stress volume is too loud and can modify our lifestyle until the volume is turned down low enough for our bodies to actually rest, and more importantly, to adapt. Then and only then can we really know for sure that when we sleep, meditate, walk or hike outside, eat nourishing foods, and use other recovery methods, we are actually getting the desired effect.
Great strength and conditioning coaches understand that results don’t happen through training itself, but rather through rest, recovery, and sleep, which lead to adaptation. Don’t get me wrong; training is extremely important as a starting point, a stimulus for requesting that our bodies eventually adapt. However, sleep, and rest in general, are probably the most undervalued aspects of health, wellness, and even fitness. As I mentioned above, when people go on vacation or take some personal time in their everyday lives, even though the intent may be to relax and let go, they are often not sleeping well, are eating and drinking too much, and are not doing much beneficial movement or activity. Granted, it is definitely important to schedule time to cut loose and enjoy oneself, but it is essential to recognize that the body may actually perceive this type of relaxation as stressful, thus inhibiting actual recovery and downregulation of the sympathetic nervous system.
As a piece of the overall health picture, it can be helpful to track sleep and HRV to know when the body is getting sufficient rest and recovery. This data can aid us in determining whether we’re really making the most of our relaxing vacations or weekends away. Tracking sleep and HRV can especially be a game changer for those of us who train while on the road and want to know how much our stress volume increases during travel. Using this data, we can learn to manage our training accordingly to ensure that we are still recovering sufficiently.
Whenever your sleep and HRV are trending downward over the course of more than a few weeks, it is probably time to change something up. This might involve dietary changes, meditation, training program modifications, modified bedtime routines, and/or countless other ways to improve your body’s ability to rest. As a coach, it is my job to help guide my clients to the options that will provide the most bang for their buck. So, if you aren’t yet tracking sleep quality and HRV, get on it! And then use that data, and/or a handy coach like me, to guide you from there. Time to kinect with sleep and recovery!