Often life 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 Fire Fighter / 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 of this plateau of the last few months.
First of all — thanks for your service to both your community and our country. The line between training hard and too hard is a bit blurry at times. In fact, you may actually not be training that hard at all relative to what you are capable of doing but you can still 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), fats from plants, fish, nuts can also help you recover faster than if you ate foods low in protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and high in sugar. For more information on nutrition — see related articles: 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 both 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, calcium) as well. You will notice sweat in humid environments but in dry climates sweat will evaporate off your skin as soon as you sweat it. 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 not performing optimally. 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, home / work life is in balance, you can still see the chronic side of stress very quickly when you do not get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can also affect your mood and increase hormonal stress levels which will have a negative impact on performance.
Exercise — The Importance of Logical Progressing Workout Cycles: Often people do not have a plan when training. It might be a favorite workout you do week after week after week. It might be a workout of the day you randomly through together. 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 Post Season Training is a simple way of looking at it. See more information on periodization here.
De-Stressing Skills: Find Moments of Peace in Your Day
Often life makes us stressed. This can be good and actually performance enhancing but it can also 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 — usually 5 second INHALES and 10 second EXHALES will do the trick if done for as little as five minutes. Turn off all gadgets, sounds, lights, and sit / 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 5 minutes as well.
Related Article on Stress in the Military.com Archives: De-Stressing Routine for Anyone Working Night Shift (nutrition, workouts, sleep)
Mix these recovery skills together and you will see your performance increase. You will also be able to see when you do not physically or mentally perform at your best and likely be able to tie it to either your food intake the day before, water intake, sleep quality, as well as the amount of stress in your day.