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Is it a bad idea to stop practising your sport for a while? Or, can not stopping be harmful? What effect does it have on the body and mind? You may have questions about taking sports breaks. In this article, we present some answers from Dr Maraffi, a sports doctor.
Mum says, in a worried tone, "You know, it's not good for you to do too much sports." On the other hand, your sports buddy says, in-between strides, "Taking a break is death. You'll never be able to start back up!" Your doctor advises that taking a break would be good for your joints, while your coach is preparing a special "break schedule". Whew. It's hard to make sense of it all, isn't it?
Allow me to help. I wasn't too sure myself but that was before I sat down for a talk with Dr. Maraffi, a sports doctor and expert on the subject.
I could not have chosen better than Dr Samuel Maraffi to help you separate truth from fiction when it comes to taking a break from sports. Forget everything you may have heard on this topic and read on with an open mind. Both a family doctor and a sports doctor, Dr. Maraffi advises a professional cycling team, as well as an athletics and trail running club at Annecy. He is also head of a trail running university program in Besançon. He himself practises two of these sports (cycling and trail running) along with a full list of other endurance sports. He shares his expertise at other organisations, including Decathlon, and acts as medical adviser on sport-health issues at our research and development lab, our “SportsLab”.
Dr Maraffi enthusiastically replied to my request, and as it so happened was attending a conference on that same topic.
I hope I've convinced you to read on, so without further ado, let's hear what the good doctor had to say.
Whether you're an amateur or a pro, you practise your sport(s) regularly at a sports club, on a sports team, or individually, when the time comes for a "sports break", do you really have to stop? Should you continue to do some sports activities during that time? Are there tangible beneficial effects to taking a sports break? How should you go about the "restart"?
First of all, before we get into the doctor's advice and replies on the topic, let's answer the question: what is a "sports break"? Let's begin with the beginning :)
Samuel Maraffi gets us on the right track with a straightforward reply: "There is no accepted standard." The principle of a "sports break" is to stop practising your sport for a period of time (short or long). So my next question was whether there was a set length of time at which point one could call it a "sports break". The doctor explained, "It varies, and will depend on the sport. A sports break should be taken at different times depending on the sport and the level at which you play, and depending on the competition season schedule."
I did this interview in mid-October (a time of lovely fall colours for some, and rain and grey skies for others). The doctor explained that right now we're in a break time for cyclists, while skiers are in the middle of their season, and runners are just coming back from their break. Sport "seasons" tend to be built around when competitive events are held. Another factor is how long of a break to take.
"Some people need to be at the top of their game right at the start of their sport season, so they might take a shorter break, while others can take a longer one. Overall, sports breaks tend to be around 4 weeks, but it depends on the sport; they can be shorter or longer.
The doctor explained his surprise when he learned how long of a sports break hockey players take, sometimes for more than two months!
"Physically, there are no scientifically established standards. We're not going to say, "if you're doing X sport you should take this long of a break". There's nothing really written in stone."
Some people say that taking a break is bad because it's hard to start up again; others say that you absolutely need to take them to give your body some rest. Thanks to Dr Maraffi's insight, you'll have a clearer picture!
"Is it bad? No. Is it good? Yes, with some caveats." replied Samuel Maraffi. Stop leaving us in suspense!
The doctor explained that the real question is the following: Are there any physiological, scientific and/or medical benefits to taking a sports break?
"I will say 'yes', but not necessarily what we call a "sports break", but yes, your body needs times of recovery. Your body naturally has peak performance at different times. So the art of training is to try to line up these performance peaks with competitions; but the body also needs times of rest (shorter or longer). This includes micro-breaks of a few days after a competition, breaks that last a bit more than a week, and then the famous "sports break".
Thanks to our expert's explanations, I now understand clearly the benefits for the body as well as for the mind.
Sports breaks are beneficial because the body cannot maintain its peak performance all season long, or all year long. At some point, the body needs to stop pushing itself physically, or to at least reduce the intensity of expended effort.
Dr Maraffi speaks from personal experience, since he himself does a lot of endurance sports, but he also cares for high level athletes, which provides him with a broader view:
"What I see with the pro cycling team that I care for, they are really happy when the time comes for a sports break because that means they'll have more time with their family, spouse, friends, etc.; they won't always have their "head in their handlebars", and have to get out and train for 3 hours every morning, etc."
In fact, when you have to be at the top of your game in every little way, all season long, and always be paying attention to what you eat, getting good sleep, travelling with your team, etc., there comes a time when your brain just needs to switch it off. From that viewpoint it's obvious that sports breaks can truly be useful!
Samuel Maraffi explains that there isn't presently any scientific data that proves whether or not sport breaks are harmful, but based on what he has observed in his everyday work as a sports doctor, as well as his own personal experiences, sports breaks are beneficial. But not any which way! “It all depends on how the break is managed and at what point in the season you take it.”
Here's an example to illustrate: an athlete who stops their sport for 3 months and who usually has a hard time getting back into training but plans to compete in an event a month after starting up again, risks having a very hard time.
“The problem is not so much the length of the break but how you go about the "restart",” our sports doctor explains.
Taking a sports break means getting back to a "normal" pace of life for a while that will do your body some good. You rest, you get better sleep, you let your joints "reset", and the same goes for your heart and muscles. As far as the physiological aspect, sports breaks provide important benefits. Being more available for and spending more time with your loved ones and those in your social and professional circles is good for any athlete, even very high level ones.
Certain sports require a specific lifestyle that is suited to that sport.
"Taking the example of runners, trail runners or marathon runners, most are not pros; they have jobs and have to try to train extensively while also juggling their day job. Many of these people will train in the early morning or the evenings. This can be challenging for their family life, physical recovery, and sleep. Some people will wake up earlier just to be able to train and they won't necessarily have a good night's sleep," explains Samuel Maraffi.
But he also pointed out the importance of properly managing your sports breaks in order to benefit from them. A sports break that lasts too long will work against you when it's time to restart your training, which will be hard to handle.
"The problem with sports breaks that last too long is that your body is no longer used to exerting itself so much, so when you start up again you're for a time much more susceptible to injury. - Dr Samuel Maraffi
To answer this question, think about the sport you do. For example, when a cyclist wants to get back on their bike, they will know how to pedal of course; they won't have forgotten those reflexes. But their muscles will be a bit less coordinated, have a bit less strength, which will make cycling more difficult.
Take a runner for example: if they stop for a long period and don't properly plan their restart, they'll still know how to run when the time comes, but they'll have less strength in their calves, be less coordinated, and have less stability in their knees.
This can lead to some minor disasters. "That stone that they usually would have avoided while running, will instead get stepped on resulting in a twisted ankle."
Our sports doctor regularly sees cases of knee pains, injuries, and tendinitis among athletes who paused their sport without properly planning their restart.
“Relearning your movements happens quickly; your brain is good at it! The more often an athlete repeats a certain movement, the more ingrained it becomes in their brain. It becomes "sub-cortical" as we say in the medical field, which means it becomes grooved into our subconscious motor pathways. On the other hand, bear in mind that doing a sport is not just "knowing how to move" but that it also has cardiopulmonary, muscular and endurance components — something that is often overlooked.”
Do you have perfect technique? It would be wonderful if that were enough, wouldn't it? Your body needs time to get used to exerting itself and become as skilled as it was at the end of your sports season. So pamper your body while at the same time training regularly and gradually before you restart your sport, and your body is sure to return the favour. ;)
Number one tip from our sports doctor: know what you want to do after your sport break is over and how to plan your season.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to run a marathon in top shape after only two months of restarting your training? You might be a great athlete but your body still needs to once more get used to more physical exertion; the key to doing so successfully is preparation.
It helps to have a coach or a pro who helps you do everything you can to get the most out of your season, avoid injuries and keep the "pleasure" in your "passion".
There are also the psycho-social aspects, for example: "I'm about to get back into training, but I've changed jobs and moved houses. How do I go about this?"
These are all factors Dr Maraffi recommends you take into account in order to have a well-thought out plan that meets your objectives and matches your resources.
Again, the doctor reminded that your readjustment plan will depend on the sport you practise. As he explained, “It depends on the individual and the sport, but in almost any sport you need to get back into shape and redo some physical conditioning to gradually get your body back into an athletic condition suitable for that sport."
If we take running as an example, it is primarily the hip muscles that have to readjust to provide stability, as well as the calves, the muscles in the feet, etc. In the case of cycling this will be the quads, hamstrings, etc.
In short, remember that retraining your muscles is essential. ;)
To avoid injuring yourself or tiring quickly, or falling ill (a triple-whammy you want to avoid!), you should plan on once again getting your body used to exerting itself.
Here are a few examples from our sports doctor:
⇾ A person who practises a sport such as swimming, downhill skiing, running, trail running, or cycling, will need to work on building their endurance back up, and begin doing so well before restarting their sport!
⇾ Someone who does a sport that requires a bit more explosiveness such as rugby, athletics, basketball or volleyball, should plan some interval training in addition to endurance training, to restore their body's energy production.
Having a coach or sports trainer can help you achieve this. And if you're not a member of a gym, sports association or team, Samuel Maraffi recommends that you sign up for a few coaching sessions in order to properly plan your recovery, or even just a single session if you can afford it, to help you create a proper training schedule.
If you don't want to or can't, there are always ways to work out on your own; there are a lot of fitness and sport tips on the web, just make sure that the source is reliable. You may also find it helpful to use a sports app, and it was Dr Maraffi who raised the example of the Decathlon Coach app (I swear it's true!).
Dr Maraffi recommends that you don't go by how you felt at the end of your last sports season, because it won't be exactly the same when you start up again. “Don't use the end of the last season as a psychological landmark", explains our expert. So slowly start practising your sport again; tell yourself that you're starting a new season and turning over a new page.
By practising your sport gradually and regularly you will reduce the risk of injuries and other unpleasant events. It's better to do 30 minutes of sport 4 to 5 times a week rather than one 2.5 hour session on the weekends. While the total time per week is the same, spreading out the sessions is better for your body. Samuel Maraffi reassured me that "when restarting, you shouldn't be afraid of doing sessions that are much shorter but more frequent."
In many cases, "restart" is synonymous with "new gear". A new outfit, a new pair of basketball shoes, and all of a sudden you feel like you're running faster. It does provide motivation! Except that — at the risk of dampening your enthusiasm — it's best to plan out that part too. And yes, your body has to get used to new gear, and your new gear to your body. Just like the start of a new romance, we notice every little touch. So yes, if you run a lot, when you switch shoes, your biometric landmarks change as well. The same is true if you're a cyclist and change bikes, or if you're a skier and change skis!
Next, depending on the sport, having some equipment at home can be useful. That will allow you to get your body in shape and get used to the required level of effort through muscle strengthening.
I'm sure you know how difficult it is sometimes to work up the motivation to get out the door to the gym 3 to 4 times a week (lethargy can be a beast!). Having some basic gear at home can be helpful: a pair of dumbbells, some elastic training bands, a floor mat, a stepper, etc.And you're all set! You can do a short session without much ado.
Here again, regularity matters: "It's the same thing as with training; doing a one hour muscle strengthening session is good, but doing three 30 minute sessions is even better!"
And here's another little gem from Dr Maraffi: interval training helps the body recover better and make faster progress!
If you have clear goals you want to reach, or if you are injured or you injure yourself often, or if you're looking to boost your performance, getting help from a professional can be a big plus. If you feel the need, seek out a trainer or physical conditioning specialist who can provide you with personalised advice during this delicate period of getting back into your sport.
We don't say it often enough, but taking the time to fully recover after each session, to stay well hydrated, to be mindful of your food intake depending on your sport — all of this plays a crucial role. Nutrition and hydration play a part in your post-session recovery. You should incorporate them into your restart the way you would for your training sessions; it's the same idea.
"When you've taken a sports break and then start to get back into your sport, as soon as your body has to exert itself in that way it's going to take longer for it to recover than it did at the end of the last season when you had already been training for months." - Dr Samuel Maraffi
According to Dr Maraffi, “We should stop deionising the idea of not taking a complete break from all sports activities”.
He confided that there's no problem with continuing to do some physical activity, but you should vary your routine and pace. Staying in hard core competition mode all year is hard; sometimes our body needs to be able to switch sports or to continue doing the same sports but at a much slower pace.
Good news for the "die hards": yes, you can continue to do sports during your sports break! But just for enjoyment; not in a competitive spirit, or with the goal of training, or focusing on performance. ;)
You can also switch sports altogether; but if you do, you should take care not to injure yourself while doing those extra sports. Some sports, such as running, require a period of adjustment. Running involves a great deal of foot-to-ground impact and requires your body to be very stable and dynamic. When you stop for a long time your muscles get weaker; if you ski or cycle during the winter and do no running at all, your body is no longer used to that high-impact routine, which can make it more difficult to start back up again.
It takes time for your body to readjust! When it comes to running, the doctor recommends maintaining a certain level of activity by going running from time to time, but to do so at a leisurely pace, for your enjoyment. This will accelerate your restart and reduce the risk of injuries.
"People often think that if you don't take a break you'll be completely exhausted and unable to keep going at a given time. But in fact, we find that there are athletes who don't take sport breaks and can maintain high performance levels all season long without injuring themselves!” - Dr S. Maraffi
The term "sports break" can have several different meanings: Freezing all sports activity? Changing sports? Simply slowing down your pace?
In any case, one thing we do know is that you should manage your sports breaks differently depending on the sport that you do and the level at which you do it. Forget some of the popular notions, such as
“you should absolutely take breaks!”. It's up to you to take a break or not; the most important thing is to plan for and properly manage your "restart", especially if you do a high-impact sport. Remember that the longer your sports break, the more time you'll need to reach your level at the end of the sports season.
If you're reading this it's because you've had a chance to read all the good advice from the expert with whom I had the good fortune of discussing this topic. Keep these points in mind, and, above all, enjoy yourself! ;)