It’s no secret that nutrition and sleep are the two most important tools for optimal functioning and recovery from everyday stress. Experiencing optimal performance is definitely a “flow state” when everything is working in sync (training, recovery, energy levels, athletic skills, etc.) to see your mind and body perform at their best. The opposite can happen if any of these elements are not aligned with your performance requirements.
In the athletic world, many sports require a lighter build and competitive weight, such as wrestling, powerlifting, cross country running, and light rowing, to name a few. Some of them even require weigh-ins to compete. In the military, there is an abundance of poor dietary choices, mixed with often high energy demands.
Add in the issue of meeting height/weight standards for military weigh-ins and you have the same scenario as many of these same weight-restricting athletes. Here the balance can be lost, creating a relative lack of energy in sport (RED-S).
According to a recent study of sportsmen and women, RED-S is the result of low-energy diets (intentional or unintentional) and/or excessive exercise. Whether it’s athletes who run on a low-calorie diet or are dehydrated or simply malnourished, many military failures and injuries are caused by similar energy deficiencies.
As a trainer, one of my top tips when military members are getting ready to endure a multi-hour/multi-day selection program is to make sure you are eating, drinking and replenishing electrolytes as often as possible. Failure to perform, heat exhaustion and low blood sugar occur within hours of many challenging days of training and can diminish the chances of success for even the best-prepared athletes. This can be avoided by adding healthy food and water options before, during and after each training day.
In the short term, a lack of proper nutrition and timing of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and water/electrolyte consumption can be seen with the same symptoms such as overtraining/insufficient recovery. Signs of overexertion, overtraining, or food intake depletion include:
- Feeling washed out, fatigue, exhaustion, lack of energy
- Pain in muscles and joints
- Sudden decline in physical and mental ability
- Headaches/high blood pressure
- Increased number of colds and sore throats
- Reduction of training capacity and intensity
- Mood and irritability and/or depression
- Increased resting heart rate
Finding ways to de-stress and focus on optimal recovery will help you create healthier eating, sleeping and training options. If you do this, optimal performance does not lag behind.
When left unchecked, RED-S can be devastating to your long-term health. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, if left untreated, long-term damage can be seen in the following systems:
- Reproductive health: Irregular menstruation (absence or abnormal menstruation) in women and low libido in men
- Bone health: Increased risk of stress fractures and early onset of osteoporosis
- Immunity: More infections and colds due to decreased immunity
- Metabolism: The body converts food into energy more slowly
- Cardiovascular (heart) health: A low heart rate causes dizziness and the potential for long-term heart damage
- Psychological health: Low mood, depression and anxiety
Here’s a combination of healthy behaviors in more detail to get you back on track and avoid the above situations:
Eat protein-rich foods such as meat, nuts, eggs and beans; amino acids will help you they metabolize the catabolic effects of stress. Just as a protein shake or meal after a hard workout helps you recover, extra protein does the same for stressful days.
Also, add antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to help with recovery and combat the build-up of cell-damaging free radicals caused by stress. Add more Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish, nuts, oil or in pill form. They have natural benefits that reduce inflammation and help you fight stress.
Stay hydrated with water and make sure your electrolytes are balanced, especially if you’re in arid environments or sweat profusely during the day. Whether it’s maintaining normal bodily functions and body heat, high levels of activity, enduring hot, humid, and dry environments, or overcoming illness, the water, salt, and sugar composition of your body is critical to your success in athletic endeavors and long days of physical activity. .
Recovery number 1 the tool is asleep. If you’re missing out on 6-8 hours of sleep every day, it doesn’t matter how perfect your diet, exercise program, and home/work/life balance are. You can still see the chronic side of stress very quickly. So get some sleep by learning how to set the mood for sleep.
Tea the answer to improving your energy imbalance is to look at both sides of the calorie versus calorie equation. The amount and quality of food you eat is important, especially if you have a sports or military job that requires many hours of physical training or work every day. The fastest way to fail a sport or a long day at work is to not hydrate.
When you are in hot, humid (or dry) environments without water or electrolytes for several hours, you are no longer able to function and may even become a victim of the heat. Your reset button is asleep. For all things stressful in the day, a good night’s sleep will help you metabolize stress and be ready to perform tomorrow.
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and a fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness e-book store if you want to start an exercise program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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