The Value of Rest | What We Can Learn from Elite Athletes

Jill Nawrocki

A  shot of a person's sneakers. They are climbing steps.

Few understand tough physical work, commitment, and goal-oriented thinking like elite athletes. They rise early, put in dedicated hours of training, and aren’t afraid of pushing themselves in the gym, at the track, or on the court.

But it turns out that many in the nonprofit world have a similar drive—one that’s motivated by agency mission, personal passion, and a desire to do good.

But here's the thing: top athletes also understand the value of pressing pause. Taking a break and incorporating rest into the training plan is essential to successful outcomes and major victories.

The same should go for nonprofit employees. This can be particularly challenging in a working world where extra hours in the office and numerous side hustles are revered. But incorporating rest into a professional grind—just like elite athletes do—can lead to serious gains when it comes to end results. 

Stick to 40 hours

It’s easy to assume that extra time spent on projects results in better, more effective outcomes. But elite athletes know it’s all about working smarter (not longer) to achieve success. This means pushing to fatigue at the gym and then taking a rest. Athletes and coaches alike recognize that gains only come when the body has a chance to truly recover.

The same applies to those working in the social-impact space. If you push through lunch to tackle a tight deadline, you shouldn’t also work late to attack the next item on your to-do list. Instead, leave the office on time, spend your evening doing something enjoyable, and come back to work feeling refreshed and revived.

The recently released book The Passion Paradox compares the mindset of elite athletes with those in the workforce and argues deep focus with intentional breaks equates to major improvements. This means setting clear boundaries with time. Maybe you set a strict rule of not answering emails over the weekend, or not taking calls after a certain time at night. These kinds of boundaries can actually improve focus when it comes to the task at hand. That’s because mental fatigue is as real as physical fatigue—just like bodies need rest, so too, do minds.

Catch some Zs

The research is clear: sleep matters, and athletes understand the importance of rest more than most. Endurance sport professionals often include naps in their training plans to compensate for the additional toll being placed on their bodies. Elite runners know a lack of rest can impact daily performance and potentially lead to being sidelined by injury. 

Getting less than six hours of sleep a night impacts more than just day-to-day function. It also contributes to an increased risk of heart disease and obesity, which equates to long-term health risks as well. 

While the chance of on-the-job injuries may be admittedly less for changemakers, reduced cognition and decreased focus have a definite impact on work and productivity. Missing essential rest could result in tuning out key details during a major meeting—or even the dreaded “Reply All” when hitting send on emails. 

To ensure sleep becomes an integral part of a post-work routine, avoid caffeine after 3 p.m. and consider an evening ritual—like recreational reading—before bed. Turn off screens at least an hour before hitting the sack, and steer clear of news or social media that could be triggering. 

A meditation or breathing practice with relaxing essential oils like lavender can be helpful if your mind tends to race in the evening hours. 

Get comfortable with saying “no”

Elite athletes are used to saying “no”—to family, to friends, and even to their partners. That’s because detailed training plans and key workouts can leave little room to improvise or adjust. Early mornings on the track mean it’s best to avoid a late night out. And while it may seem counterintuitive at first, saying “no” can actually become an exercise in saying “yes.” “Yes" to the training plan, “yes” to their goals, and “yes” to themselves. 

Sure, it can be scary to say "no" like this at work. But pressing pause on projects and engagements outside your interest or expertise can create more room to focus where you excel.

The act of saying “no” to one thing redirects focus back to key tasks at hand and increases productivity by eliminating distractions. It also offers up the opportunity for others who are interested or experienced to step up and lead. Not only can individuals reclaim their time—they also engage more fully as part of the team.


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Jill Nawrocki

Jill Nawrocki is a Licensed Social Worker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer living in Brooklyn. She is an ultra runner, freelance writer and social justice warrior with a background in program management, direct practice, mindfulness and advocacy.

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