Rest in Sport

Rest  is  the  cessation  of  activity.  Rest  is  of  interest  within  sport  and  exercise  psychology  because performance  and  learning  in  sport  and  exercise domains are affected positively by appropriate use of rest and negatively by inappropriate use of rest.

The specific effects of rest depend on the length of the rest period and the length and type of event within  which  rest  is  provided.  When  the  event  is a practice or exercise session or competition, rest periods  are  usually  taken  or  provided  within  the event and last for seconds or minutes. These periods have three functions.

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First, they reduce physical fatigue induced by the activity.  Physical  systems  engaged  during  activity consume energy and produce waste products. Rest affords energy replenishment and removal of these products. Failing to rest prevents these processes, which  degrades  physical  functioning,  leading  to poor  performance.  Despite  common  beliefs  that physical  fatigue  negatively  affects  psychological functioning (e.g., decision making [DM]), there is little evidence of this currently. Second, rest periods within  an  event  reduce  cognitive  fatigue  induced by the activity. Sport tasks often require full attention, especially if tasks are not well learned or the goal is to improve rather than maintain task performance. Providing full attention is effortful and leads  to  cognitive  fatigue.  Consequently,  practice sessions requiring full attention are often limited to around one hour before fatigue is experienced and rest is required. Rest replenishes attentional capacity.  Failing  to  rest  prevents  this  process,  which degrades  the  ability  to  attend,  leading  to  poor performance.  Third,  rest  during  practice  sessions specifically can enhance the learning of movement skills. The provision of rest within a practice session  is  termed  distributed  practice;  providing  no rest is termed massed practice. Distributed, versus massed,  practice  enhances  long-term  learning  of movement skills. Theoretical explanations for this effect can be found in References: at the end of this entry.

Rest  periods  lasting  hours  or  days  are  usually taken  or  provided  between  events  (e.g.,  competitions).  These  periods  have  four  functions.  First, they  allow  greater  energy  replenishment  than is  afforded  by  the  smaller  rest  periods  typically taken or provided within events. Second, an event placing  a  greater-than-normal  physical  demand on  the  performer,  known  as  an  overload,  causes a  breakdown  in  the  overloaded  physical  system. Breakdowns stimulate physical adaptations within the system that lead to a new, higher level of system  functioning  than  existed  before  the  overload was applied, a process termed super-compensation. However,  days  of  rest  are  required  for  complete adaptations  to  occur.  Thus,  rest  days  between events  allow  for  super-compensation  following overload. Third, rest periods lasting hours or days enhance memory consolidation, particularly if they include  naps  or  overnight  sleep,  which  facilitates learning (e.g., of a new movement skill). Memory consolidation  involves  a  gradual  stabilizing  of newly   acquired   memories   following   practice. Consolidation increases the resistance of memories to  forgetting  and  interference  from  other  similar memories,  resulting  in  better  learning.  Fourth,  a high  level  of  motivation  must  be  maintained  for the  performer  to  attend  fully  during  an  event  as well as spend many hours per day within the sport environment (e.g., in the gym). Rest periods lasting hours or days help reverse decrements in motivation  that  result  from  extended  practice  and  competition and immersion in the sport environment.

Practice   and   training   regimens   spanning   a competitive season or longer time frame are often divided into periods, a process known as periodization, to allow athletes to obtain a high level of performance when they are required to compete. One common approach to periodization involves three major  periods.  The  first  period  involves  preparation for competition. The second period comprises the  target  competition(s).  As  such,  the  performer undertakes much activity in these two periods. The third period involves a transition between a completed  competition  period  and  the  next  preparation period and is characterized by weeks of rest. Rest in the transition period involves the cessation of activity but often also includes what is termed active  rest.  Active  rest  involves  engagement  in activities designed to help the performer maintain a base of physical fitness and movement skill while imposing a low training load.

The  weeks  of  rest  provided  in  the  transition period   afford   physical   energy   replenishment, physical  adaptation,  and  healing  following  the demands of the preparation and competition periods. Also, a high level of motivation must be maintained for the performer to (a) provide the physical and  cognitive  effort  required  during  the  preparation and competition periods and (b) spend many hours  per  day  during  the  months  spanning  these periods within the sport environment. The transition period, involving weeks of rest and active rest, helps  reverse  decrements  in  motivation  that  may follow the preparation and competition periods.

Chronic  failures  to  rest  within  and/or  between practice or exercise sessions or competitions, and/ or  between  demanding  periods  of  larger-scale training  regimens  (e.g.,  preparation  and  competition  periods)  can  lead  to  physical  and  psychological problems that impede performance and are slow to reverse. Among these are the overtraining and burnout syndromes. Overtraining syndrome is characterized primarily by a long-term decrement in  performance  capacity  restored  only  following weeks or months of rest. The key characteristic of burnout  syndrome  is  a  long-lasting  experience  of emotional and physical exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced sense of accomplishment.

In conclusion, rest influences performance and learning  in  sport  and  exercise  domains.  Athletes and  coaches  as  well  as  exercisers  and  fitness instructors  who  include  appropriate  rest  periods within and between their practice and exercise sessions and also competitions can expect to capitalize on the positive effects of rest.


  1. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363–406. doi: 10.1037//0033-295X.100.3.363
  2. Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Gleeson, M., Rietjens, G., Steinacker, J., & Urhausen, A. (2006). Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome. European Journal of Sports Science, 6,1–14. doi: 10.1080/1746130600617717
  3. Shea, C. H., Lai, Q., Black, C., & Park, J.-H. (2000).Spacing practice sessions across days benefits the learning of motor skills. Human Movement Science,19, 737–760. doi: 10.1016/S0167-9457(00)00021-X

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