NBA and Rest: Is There Science Behind It?

The question of resting stars is now boiling in the NBA.  We touched on the issue last week and concluded that NBA teams’ duty to keep players fresh hasn’t always been properly balanced with their need to keeps fans and networks entertained.  Shortly thereafter, Adam Silver passed out a memo to the teams warning that too much rest, without proper notice to the league, could bring back the stiff fines that David Stern used to levy.

There were many loud responses.  Let’s focus on the responses of two well respected coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr (both of whom are known to subscribe to the resting theory) and see if their responses hold water.

-Poppovich, who has been known to thumb his nose at authority, was fairly thoughtful in his response.  He recognized the NBA’s concerns and felt the issue could be worked out with constructive dialogue.  Still, Poppovich felt strongly he was protecting the players: “the league has to understand that the science of what we do is a whole lot more sophisticated than it used to be, and we have definitely added years to people. So, it’s a tradeoff: Do you want to see this guy in this one game or do you want to see them for three more years of his career? And do you want to see him through the playoffs because he didn’t get hurt?”

-Steve Kerr also gave a thoughtful response, noting that resting hurt the NBA but that players need a reprieve from the grueling schedule: “This is not a right-or-wrong issue….This is not a right-or-wrong issue.”

But is there actually an articulated science doctrine on resting athletes?  Without turning to a learned treatise, here are a few articles that sum up the theories:

-In 2013, Laura Hambelton of the Washington Post wrote an article detailing professional sports team trainers and their goals and concerns.  Proper rest was a huge part of their concern.  Washington Capitals trainer Greg Smith explained that: “You can’t make [athletes] tired.  They have to have proper rest. They sleep eight to 10 hours a day. The better rest [a pro athlete gets], the better they recover.”

-In 2014, Cork Gaines of Business Insider wrote an article detailing how Poppovich started to rest his players more over the years.  Gaines wrote that in 2010-11, Pop would rest one of his stars every now and then late in the year.  By 2012-13, however, Pop would started resting even early in the season and sitting the stars in groups.  The pattern also showed that: “The move always happens on the road against a good team and on days when the Spurs had a game the night before.”

-In a 2016 article for the Huffington Post, Daniel Duane found that resting was a vital component of the training process in the context of marathon trainers.  Duane wrote that working out must be balanced with time off: “exercise physiologists have identified potential markers of the cumulative fatigue caused by long-term training -– spikes in enzymes, for example, associated with inflammation and muscle damage. Jump back into working out too soon, before you shed all that built-up fatigue, and you virtually guarantee substandard performance later.”

Since cumulative fatigue is a real concern, “[r]unners, cyclists and triathletes typically aim to reach peak fitness about two weeks before a big event. Most training plans ease up at about that point, heading into the so-called ‘taper’ period, getting an athlete ready to race. Research has shown that cumulative fatigue fades quickly for those first two weeks, while fitness fades very little, meaning that you can show up on race day still in great shape but far more rested, allowing for optimal performance.”

-Last June, Ken Berger wrote an interesting article where LeBron James explained that getting proper sleep might be the most important aspect of any recovery from playing.  LBJ told Berger that “[s]leep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery, and it’s very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. … There’s no better recovery than sleep.”

So, there is a ton of evidence that cumulative fatigue is a serious issue and that periods of rest definitely have benefits.  It is not clear, however, how to quantify the benefits.  It might be that every player is different and the effect of rest varies.  Still, Poppovich and Kerr have a point when they rest that it is for a good reason.  Still, it is clear that until Silver complained Pop and Kerr were not going to consider the NBA’s concerns.  The obvious solution is to make sure that likely significant games not be part of a long stretch of back-to-backs or other draining steps.  This can’t always be done but coaches must temper the theories on rest with the NBA’s need for ratings on occasion.

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