By Mike Compton
Certain TV talking heads love to wax poetic about how some veteran NBA players are pursuing a load management strategy to extend their careers and stay fresh for the push to the playoffs. What they’re usually referring to is coaches resting players from low-consequence contests or the second half of back-to-back games. But is load management really just about rest days, or is it a bigger topic? And where does the continual overtraining versus under-recovering debate fit into the picture?
We believe most rest days should be utilized for active recovery, and that exposing players to adequate load so they stay ready for the rigors of competition is just as important as them recovering adequately.
Let’s dive deeper into why that is and how it can be applied in competitive sports settings.
What is a “Rest Day”?
First, we need to define what we mean by a rest day. Typically, NBA players and other pro athletes are given a day each week. This is often spent with families, friends, and significant others. It allows players to do some of the things that we regular folks do, like getting groceries, taking day trips, and so on. It’s also a chance to let battered bodies heal up a little, particularly in contact sports like rugby and American football.
This is a different scenario to what NBA commentators call rest days. What they’re referring to is simply not suiting up to play on a given evening or afternoon. This reduces the intensity, density, volume, and collision/contact that a player is exposed to in the short term and over the course of the season. Yet it’s atypical for a player to be completely inactive on such a day. They’ll likely still hit the weights, go for a run, or do some other kind of training. Recovery modalities like contrast therapy (the combination of heat and cold), mobility, massage, and hydrotherapy are also common for days that don’t involve competitive play. Or athletes opt for less strenuous activities like going for a walk or yoga.
Active Recovery and Strength and Power Maintenance
There’s plenty of evidence to support this practice of using so-called “rest days” for active recovery rather than being completely idle. In a review published in Sports Medicine, New Zealand All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill and several colleagues stated that, “With regards to maintaining/retaining strength and power in American football and rugby codes, where competition periods are lengthy (i.e. 18–24 weeks), the retention of these qualities is of great importance for preventing injuries and maintaining consistent performance throughout the season.”
They recommended one to two weight training sessions per week during the season to achieve a maintenance dose to prevent athletes from diminishing their speed, power, and strength outputs. The co-authors went on to state that if athletes don’t keep up with this weekly schedule, they might start to lose some capacity after three weeks and will notice significant drop-offs in their performance after five weeks. This shows the necessity of pro athletes maintaining a regular resistance training program. During road trips this can be difficult given limited access to equipment and travel schedules, so using a small portion of a rest day to train is a good use of an athlete’s time and will prevent the kind of detraining that could eventually compromise their performance.
Another paper published by exercise physiologists from Atheltic Bilbao supported the findings of Gill and his colleagues and stated that detraining can begin at four weeks. In other words, even if a player comes into camp in great shape, this can be for nothing if they then reduce their load exposure once the competitive calendar kicks in. The authors noted that, “At the muscle level, capillarisation, arterial-venous oxygen difference and oxidative enzyme activities decline in athletes and are completely reversed in recently trained individuals, contributing significantly to the long-term loss in VO2 max.” It appears that if an athlete consistently chooses to be idle on rest days, there can also be a cumulative effect on their metabolism, as “Resting muscle glycogen levels return to baseline, carbohydrate utilisation increases and the lactate threshold is lowered.”
The authors went on to suggest that even moderate training can reduce the risk of such deleterious physiological training. If an athlete wants to add in more variety, cross-training can provide a useful diversion and give them a new challenge that also helps them maintain strength, power, and endurance levels over the course of the season. Perhaps a basketball player starts cycling (as Kevin Durant and other NBA players have been doing of late), a football player uses the rowing machine, and a rugby player fits in a weekly road run or two.
Avoiding Detraining After Injury
Professional teams are understandably cautious when one of their prized assets is out injured. While they need the contribution of stars (and, for that matter, key role players) on the field or court, they also recognize that rushing an athlete back too soon can lead to re-injury or getting hurt in another way. Yet once an athlete is cleared by the medical staff to return to practice and eventually to competitive play, they need to tread a fine line between adequate load exposure and overtraining.
The emphasis is typically on the latter due to the fear of re-injury for both the athlete and organization, but to withstand the forces they create and those their bodies are exposed to (collisions with opponents, ground contact, etc.), athletes must simulate such loads in a training context.
In a video for ALTIS, legendary track coach Dan Pfaff contends that the idea of an injury simply healing itself is erroneous. For an athlete to come back fully, there must be a remodeling process that “is influenced by the stimuli that you’re placing on these factors,” Pfaff said. “There are prescribed forces, velocities, angles of insults, and duration that can positively influence the remodeling of a tissue or structural injury.”
So what should an injured athlete do when they can’t train their whole body? The Athletic Bilbao team suggested that, “the existence of a cross-transfer effect between ipsilateral and contralateral limbs should be considered in order to limit detraining during periods of unilateral immobilization.” In other words, if a player is rehabbing an injured leg, training the other one and their upper body will still do the trick in terms of preserving previous training adaptations and preventing physical decline.
This again suggests that while the media might call a player not suiting up a “rest day,” it is in fact a chance for the athlete to expedite their full return to competition, reverse any decline that occurred if they were laid up immediately after injury or following surgery, and prevent their previous training from going to waste.
An athlete management system like Smartabase can assist in this process with both injured and healthy athletes. Having a single, at-a-glance view of the former’s recovery timeline and the latter’s day-to-day activities gives medical, performance, and coaching teams a clearer view of exactly what the athlete is doing and when and then allows them to suggest adjustments. This can assist in the application of true load management, which not only involves full rest days but also those that incorporate active recovery. Tracking player progress in real-time also helps to find sweet spots for exposing athletes to adequate stimuli to prompt adaptation in the offseason and scheduling regular training during the competitive calendar to ensure they preserve these gains.
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 Daniel Travis McMaster, Nicholas Gill, John Cronin, and Michael McGuigan, “The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football: A Systematic Review,” Sports Medicine, May 2013, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23529287/.
 Iñigo Mujika and Sabino Padilla, “Detraining: Loss of Training-Induced Physiological and Performance Adaptations. Part II: Long Term Insufficient Training Stimulus,” Sports Medicine, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10999420/.
 Dan Pfaff, “Dan Pfaff: The Myth that ‘Rest Heals all Injuries,’” ALTIS World, March 24, 2021, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGVuP4rGnn4.