Recently, I came across an interesting discussion on social media, pre-empted by this tweet from @damselndadugout:
Every single athlete on the planet says they work hard. Are there no lazy athletes out there? Or are some of them poor self-evaluators…?
— Rachel Balkovec (@damselndadugout) June 28, 2017
There were some interesting replies, most of which were along the gist that laziness is a bad trait in an athlete, and that you really must work very hard if you want to reach your potential.
I think there is another side to this coin, which I’ll introduce with this statement: in my career, I wish I had been lazy more often. This seems like an odd thing to say; the constant narrative that is re-enforced is that hard work equals success, although of course we now know that this isn’t quite the case. It’s clear that not everyone gets to be an elite athlete, no matter how hard they try. Whilst I was certainly a good athlete, I perhaps wasn’t elite, and yet to suggest to me that the reason for that was because I didn’t work hard is offensive to me. My biggest issue was that I worked too hard; I should have taken extra days off. Perhaps I should have had more sessions where I just turned up and went through the motions. By being lazier, perhaps I would have protected myself from my experiences with overtraining and injury, extending my career over a longer period of time.
Lazy = Rest
As I wrote recently, more and more research now supports the idea that athletes require alternating periods of stress (i.e. hard work) with recovery in order for optimal adaptations to occur. The amount of time required for optimal recovery to occur is highly individualized, and is the result of a variety of different aspects. One of these is previous fitness levels; the fitter you are, in general, the quicker you can recover from a training session (although this is further complicated by the fact that the fitter you are, the harder you are able to work within a training session). Fitness can also obscure “laziness”; how hard an individual finds a training session is partially a factor of how fit they are, such that a less fit athlete may appear to be working harder (in terms of looking sweatier, breathing heavier, etc.) then a less fit athlete. That’s the reason why Usain Bolt can look like he is working so much less than his competitors in competition.
Genetics, of course, also play a huge part in how quickly a person recovers from exercise. I recently analysed data in a study using a genetic algorithm to predict recovery speed in a group of soccer players with similar fitness levels. We got the players to carry out an intense sprint session, and then looked at reductions in counter-movement jump immediately after the session, 24 hours and 48 hours later compared to the pre-session levels. We found that those with a greater number of gene variants associated with muscle damage and inflammation recovered much slower than those in possession of fewer of these gene variants. In fact, after 48 hours of complete recovery, those in the slower predicted genetic recovery group still had not fully recovered. Practically, I’ve worked with an international soccer team who actively encourage some players to take additional days off after a game, based on a combination of genotype, subjective (i.e. recovery questionnaires) and objective (i.e. HRV) data. Other players in the squad are encouraged to train sooner; whilst they might think the other players are lazy, in fact they are doing what is required in order to maximise their performance.
Added to this is the fact that the amount of work required to elicit adaptations also has a great amount of variability between athletes. Some athletes do require higher workloads than others to be able to meet their potential, whilst others require much less stimulus. Sprint coaches such as Henk Kraaijenhof have long championed the minimum effect dose school of thought, whereby the smallest stimulus that elicits a positive adaptation is used, with the athlete then being allowed to conserve energy before the next training session.
Don’t Let Social Norms Control Your Training
In truth, we tend to get caught between what we intuitively believe is correct (that hard work is better) and what we have found through experience (that recovery is paramount). The idea that we need to work hard, all of the time, is false; it’s also damaging to athletes. Not only that, but it’s also damaging to non-athletes – how many people who work in an office are close to burnout because they need to appear busy in the hopes of avoiding being labelled as lazy?It's important to move away from the hard work equals success school of thought. @craig100m Click To Tweet
Bringing this all together, then, it’s important to move away from the hard work equals success school of thought, which in truth many coaches already have done. Athletes need to be protected from themselves sometimes, as they are highly motivated individuals (usually) with a lot resting on how they perform. At times, targeted laziness is likely useful in athletes, as it can protect them from overtraining and injury. In my experience, and despite what common narrative might have you believe, athletes are very rarely outstanding in training on a regular basis. Instead, they tend to show up every day and perform OK, and the accumulation of these OK sessions, plus talent, plus a coach giving the correct training, plus luck, leads to high performance. Moving away from the idea of laziness always being a negative trait might, therefore, be useful in enabling athletes to be able to recover sufficiently for the key sessions, partitioning their effort for when it is required the most.