Missing Link to Performance: Rest/Recovery, De-​​Stressing

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A competitor fills his canteen during the Best Ranger competition.
A member of Team 25 fills his canteen while participating in the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger competition at the McKenna Urban Operations Training site on Fort Benning, Ga., April 16, 2021. (Sgt. Henry Villarama/U.S. Army photo)

Life often can get in the way of fitness performance as well as your basic health. The missing link to many Special Operations candidates as well as active-duty members is proper amounts of rest, recovery and stress mitigation skills.

Actively pursuing recovery has to be done whether you are in a high-level Special Ops training program or just trying to get through a stressful day at the office or home. Here is an email question that shows how easy it is to burn the candle at both ends. The problem is if this stressful life continues for too long, you can suffer some long-term side effects of chronic stress, which makes life very unpleasant for you and the people close to you.

Hey, Stew -- I am a firefighter/paramedic in a busy city, making calls constantly when on duty. I am also training to go to Army SF Training with my National Guard unit this next year. I am finding that my scores are not getting better (run/​ruck times and PT scores), even though I am working out hard 5--6 days a week. I think I am doing everything right -- what do you think can get me out of this plateau of the last few months.

First of all -- thanks for your service to your community and country. The line between training hard and too hard is a bit blurry at times. You actually may not be training that hard at all, relative to what you are capable of doing, but you still can have the performance-dropping effects of over​​training. This is because there are many elements that have to be in perfect balance in order for optimal performance to occur in an athlete, soldier or anyone, for that matter.

These elements of better performance are nutrition, hydration, sleep, logical progressions of exercise, and moments of peace and de-stressing. If any one of these is not in proper alignment, you could fail to achieve your personal and fitness goals due to lack of energy, injury, sickness or emotional distress. All will keep you out of the game.

Nutrition: There are several articles in the Military​.com archive to help you with eating properly, but the main thing you need to know is that eating food high in protein (amino acids) can help you fight off the catabolic effects of stress. Proteins, good carbs (fruits/vegetables) and fats from plants, fish and nuts also can help you recover faster than if you ate foods low in protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and high in sugar. For more information on nutrition, see Nutrition and the Tactical Athlete.

Hydration: Our bodies are designed to survive for weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Being dehydrated can lead to many performance-dropping ailments as well as deadly injuries. Being a heat casualty (heat stress/stroke) can be debilitating and deadly, and dehydration is the number one cause.

When in doubt, drink water all the time. When sweating profusely or in very arid environments, drink even more water, but also make sure you get electrolytes (salts like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium) as well. You will notice sweat in humid environments, but in dry climates, sweat will evaporate off your skin immediately. The only thing you will see are the salt stains on your shirt, but you will experience chapped lips and dry mouth quickly so that should trigger you to drink more.

Sleep: Sleep is our natural recovery cycle. Not getting enough sleep can lead to suboptimal performance. When we are still young and growing, it is the prime time our bodies actually grow. So getting 6--8 hours of sleep is critical to our performance. Doing it in dark, quiet environments also leads to a better quality of sleep. It does not matter how perfect your diet, exercise program or home/work life is in balance, you still can see the chronic side of stress very quickly when you do not get enough sleep. Lack of sleep also can affect your mood and increase hormonal stress levels, which will have a negative impact on performance.

Exercise -- The Importance of Logical Progressing Workout Cycles: People often do not have a plan when training. Having a plan and working the plan is the key to seeing gains in performance. The science of periodization is what athletes of all sports have been doing for decades. Pre​​season training, in-season training and postseason training is a simple way of looking at it. See more information on periodization here.

De-stressing: Life makes us stressed. This can be good and actually performance enhancing, but it also can be bad if physical activity or other coping skills are not done to combat it soon. Enjoy nature. Step outside and enjoy a pretty fall morning, a warm spring day or the stars on a clear night.

Take big, deep, cleansing breaths. Five-second inhales and 10-second exhales usually will do the trick if done for as little as five minutes. Turn off all gadgets, sounds and lights, and sit or lie quietly in the dark for a few minutes. Even turn off the to-​​do list that pops up in your head automatically when you are doing nothing. This takes as little as five minutes as well.

Mix these recovery skills together, and you will see your performance increase. You also will see when you do not physically or mentally perform at your best and likely tie it either to your food intake the day before, water intake or sleep quality, as well as the amount of stress in your day.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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