When Was the Last Time You Took A Break?

September 3, 2011

Like most siblings, I grew up driving my brother crazy, and him doing the same to me. He’d try to hug me, I’d get grossed out, he’d get mad, I’d cry, you know, the usual. Then I went to college and left him at home with mom and dad and the coolest thing happened: we became friends.

Me and my little brother

I count my brother among one of my best friends now. He knows me unlike few others (save my husband and parents) and can relate to me on a large scale. We both love music (though in different ways), LOVE lifting and can talk for hours about nutrition, psychology and our workouts.

One of the funniest things that happens between us happens over and over again. One of us will call the other looking for advice about some aspect of nutrition or asking some question about “why is my strength stalling? I can’t bust through my plateau!” etc. and invariably, one of us will ask the other

“When was the last time you took a break?”

It never fails, give us a few months and one of us will be calling the other complaining about something and that question will arise from the other one of us. That’s one of the neat things about having a sibling with which you share a lot of common traits: we undersand that both of us

  • overanalyze things to death
  • are dead-set of getting things right the first time
  • When we get into something we go in 110% – we don’t dabble….which invariably leads to burnout

All of these traits can be seen in a positive or negative light. On the positive side, the analyzation leads to greater self-awareness and discovery with deeper understanding for future struggles and the perfectionism and enthusiasm belie a FANTASTIC work ethic. On the negative, the analyzing will drive our friends and/or significant others crazy, we tend to lose out on the learning process by perfectionism and by ceasing to dabble in something, burnout occurs a lot faster. I’m willing to bet that a lot of you reading this can relate to me on one, if not all of those personality traits.

So the question invariably comes up

When was the last time you took a break?

From dieting?

From training?

From practicing?

etc.
The list can go on and on. We all need times of solitude, times of respite, of quiet. We need times to break out of our routines and habits – which is why we go on vacations. But sometimes, you don’t necessarily need a vacation from life, you need a vacation from your workout or your diet.

Two Take-Home Points

1. If you find yourself asking “when was the last time I took a break” and have a hard time answering definitively, that’s your first clue it’s time for a break

2. There are warning signs everywhere

  • you are not sleeping well
  • you have no desire to workout
  • you are frequently tired
  • You DREAD going to practice and when you are there, you get very little done, you have little stamina
  • You are in pain more often
  • The things that used to bring you joy now cause you dread
  • just thinking about your workout makes you tired
  • you suffer physically. This can be seen in any number of ways, be it lack of sleep, lack of interest in things, joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, feeling “wired but tired”, hair becomes dry or falls out, you get sick more often and take longer to recover (sick can mean anything from viruses to allergies, because your immune system becomes cocmpromised)

The gym is for tearing down, rest is for repair and building

When you lift weights, you aren’t going to build or strengthen your body, you are literally tearing your body down. You cause low-grade (sometimes mid-grade) inflammation and during REST is when your body repairs the damage you’ve done, creating new tissue, stronger or bigger tissue. If you are constantly working out, going heavy 6 days a week and not giving your body a chance to repair, pretty soon you’re going to hit a wall.

Rest is underrated and you desperately need it. If you’ve been lifting 5-6 days per week for years, I beg you to stop. Switch to 3 days a week and work your whole body. Do the big lifts: deadlifts, squats, bench press, pull ups or rows and throw in extra stuff for mobility and stability like lunges on top of it. It will feel weird at first, but I dare you to do it for 3 months and see if you don’t grow more during that time than you ever have since you started.

Sometimes, you need a break from your diet.

We have break times like this at Christmas, Thanksgiving and maybe your Grandma’s birthday party, but if you have been anal retentive about your diet or even been gung-ho and “on your diet” for months and can’t remember the last time you just let yourself eat….it’s time. You have to be willing to trust yourself that you will do yourself no harm by not tracking and weighing your food. If you’ve been dieting for months and can’t remember the last time you ate at maintenance calories, then today is the day. Stop today and take 2 weeks, starting today, and eat at maintenance calories.


What about practicing?

So what happens when you take a break?

You might find out that a host of good things happens. Not only does your enthusiasm for the sport or the instrument return, in regards to lifting: you might have gotten stronger, or bigger or even leaner, depending on what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. When the inflammation response goes down, water drops, muscle repairs and hormones stabilize, good things happen and suddenly, what you were training for, actually starts to work the way you were hoping.

My brother's amazing calvesCalves like these are grown OUT of the gym. Just ask my brother, they belong to him and he works out 2 DAYS A WEEK.

In regards to practicing, I assure you, your technique does not fly out the window, your tone does not disappear, nor do you simply lose everything you worked for in the last decade. On the contrary. Just like in lifting, good things can happen. Your tone, your technique, your memory, whatever you’ve been working on can actually IMPROVE!

Point in case…

Let me tell you a story. At some point during my first year of graduate school I said to myself “I want to be principal flute of USO” (the top university orchestra). I thought this thought once and filed it away in my subconscious. I worked very hard on my excerpts and worked all year to improve.

Then came the summer. I knew I should practice, and I did, in fact, but I practiced piccolo mostly. I didn’t practice that much. A few hours a week, maybe, not a few hours a day. I began practicing in earnest about a week or two before auditions for the next school year, just to see how things were.

I stepped into the practice room and to my amazement,

  • my tone was better
  • my technique was spot on, better than during the school year and more accurate
  • my excerpts, while certainly not flawless, were better than I had ever played them, even without working on them all summer.

I went in to the audition room, played the Debussy the best I ever had (in one breath no less!) , nailed William Tell FLAWLESSLY, had FUN in the audition and guess what? I got 1st chair.
What happened?

What happened was that I gave my body, my mind and my abilities time to rest. I worked hard all year on improving my technique, my tone and my excerpts, then I basically took 2-3 months OFF. It allowed my brain and my body to actually absorb and process what I had learned. You see, you don’t necessarily get better when you are in the middle of practicing, the results show up later. What they forget to tell you is that it’s partly a result of rest.

So, take heart from my story, and take a break. Your body will thank you. 🙂

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