Stress, Rest, and Performance

On May 6th, 1954, Roger Bannister, a physician—neurologist to be exact—accomplished what was believed to be, at the time, an impossible feat. He broke the 4-minute mile! On that day, Bannister, who was a track star while at the University of Oxford and at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, ran the mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. His performance was heralded by those in attendance at the race and around the world, and rightly so. While his accomplishment is beyond impressive, his training methods before the race deserve attention as well. Bannister began to incorporate periods of “rest” during his training. In fact, he virtually abandoned training just 2-weeks before his awe-inspiring performance. Authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (2017) recount the story:

He [Bannister] abandoned his training plan of intense intervals on the track and instead drove off to the mountains of Scotland, only 2 weeks before the race. For days, he and a few buddies didn’t speak of, let alone see, a track. Instead, they hiked and climbed in the mountains. They completely checked out of running psychologically and, to a great extent, physically….In other words, relative to his normal routine, Bannister was resting.

What’s the take away from this story? Certainly, the message is not to take 2-weeks off from studying in order to have a psychological, and physical, break. The point is centered around the importance of proper rest for optimal performance. As medical students, law students, and graduate students in general, the demands of your academic programs, and the pressures to perform, inevitably lead to stress—similar to the training and performance demands and pressures of world-class runners. Individuals differ in how they respond to such stressors, but the need for rest is universal. Getting enough sleep is extremely important, as regular sleep loss diminishes performance and makes one more vulnerable to stress, creating a cycle in which stress, diminished performance, and sleep loss can work together to perpetuate themselves. But, rest goes beyond sleep! Psychological breaks, such as hiking in the mountains like Roger Bannister did, provide opportunities to focus on and become absorbed in something enjoyable, pleasant, and refreshing. That is, becoming absorbed in the experience of playing with your child, going for a run, making your favorite recipe, having dinner with a significant other or a good friend, volunteering for a cause important to you, and a myriad of other activities, provides a healthy stress that can be energizing, psychologically and physically. While a student, schedules may not allow for as many “energizing experiences” as you may like, but the payoff may be more in the quality of the experience than in the quantity. Learning to fully engage with what you enjoy and temporarily disengage from the demands and pressures of your academic work can be both invigorating and restful. If you’re a professional or other graduate student, my guess is that you didn’t leave it to chance that you would gain admission to your program. Rather, you were intentional. The decisions you made and the behaviors you engaged in on the road to acceptance into your training program were purposeful! How intentional can you be when it comes to rest and self-care? Or, do you want to leave it to chance?

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