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Stress + Rest + Preparation = Growth

By Ross Hartley | March 06, 2018, 11:24 a.m. (ET)


Everyone knows you have to work hard to grow skills in any venture. So how do you get better when you are working as hard as you can but not seeing results? This article is written through an endurance athlete lens, but I believe that the principles and strategies listed are applicable to a variety of life situations.

When you are training at your current maximum capacity, then the only way to improve is through the world outside of training. Elite athletes not only train at the highest level, they rest at the highest level. This is what is not always seen or appreciated: rest and training going hand in hand. World-champion triathlon coach Matt Dixon says the key difference between the best and the rest is rest. Anyone can work hard, but it takes real courage to rest, he says.

[For further reading on stress and rest, check out “The Growth Equation: Stress + Rest = Growth”by Brad Stulberg]

I believe there is one more variable in the growth equation though.

Stress + Rest + Preparation = Growth

The variable that is oft forgotten about is the preparation to stress, rest and growth. Preparation in this context represents the habits and activities outside of stress and rest that contribute to maximal growth. These habits involve both physical and mental preparation to train and compete at one’s current highest level. Your highest level, or elite, means the best version of you.

Elite Performance = Elite Training with Elite Rest with Elite Habits

The best in the world are the best in the world because they consistently and repeatedly perform at that level. They perform at that level because they train (stress) at that level, recover (rest) at that level and their habits (preparation) are at that elite level. Growth is a recipe made up of three ingredients: stress, rest and preparation. Of the three ingredients, stress is the most commonly recognized variable linked with growth. The harder one works, the more growth one will see. This works up to a point, and then operates under the law of diminishing returns.

With this in mind, I believe that the three variables in the growth equation are all directly related. As stress increases, rest should increase, with the preparation increasing as well to produce the maximum growth. A disparity between increasing and decreasing the variables will not result in maximal, if any, growth. For a lot of people, putting in the effort is not the issue preventing them from improving. Rather, it’s recognizing and embracing the link between the other variables, rest and preparation, in conjunction with stress.

The mountain of success is steepest at the top, meaning that the better you get, the harder it is to get better. The ascent is most difficult at the peak; a lot of effort for small improvements and increments. A lot of times, the most efficient and effective way to improve performance is to focus on the preparation variable.

What does this preparation variable look like in real life? Some of these habits have to do with what you are putting into your body. Input shapes output. What you put into your body is what you will get out. The food, liquid, words, thoughts and vibes (input) are the fuel for your actions (output). Crappy input leads to crappy output and vice versa. Other habits are focused on mindfulness and self-reflection. Here are several habits and performance enhancers that the best in the world employ:

  1. What you put into your head: TV, books, music, podcasts, conversations. Motivation is a reflection of what you put in your brain. The information that you input into your mind informs your thinking patterns, and it influences your output in the form of the decisions you make, the work you produce, and the interactions you have. Good input = good output.
  2. Quality and quantity of food and liquid. This is your body’s physical fuel.
  3. Meditation
  4. Yoga
  5. Daily journaling
  6. Visualization along with written positive affirmations
  7. Who you spend your time with. “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” - Jim Rohn

None of the associated habits and exercises have anything to do with trying/training harder during practice or work. These will build on themselves; because when you get stronger mentally, you are able to stress yourself more physically, which will require more rest and more preparation. And then cycle starts again. Get stronger with the little things, get stronger with the bigger things, perform at a higher level.

Ross Hartley is currently the head coach of Future Stars Youth Triathlon and middle school teacher. He is also a high school cross country/track and youth swimming coach. He is based out of Columbus, Ohio.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.