Music open intro...
There are no shortcuts to a successful fitness regimen, only hard work and consistency. And to navigate through the mountain of fitness advice available, candidates must learn to separate fad from function. I’m Daniel Fletcher, welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, The Official Navy SEAL Podcast. In this extended series, we’ll speak with select special warfare performance experts to clarify common training misconceptions and provide insight into areas of focus specifically important to special warfare candidates.
Today we extend our fitness series with a discussion about rest, recovery and sleep with performance dietician, Justin Robinson. Let’s get started.
DF: Today, we’re talking about rest, recovery and sleep, and I think this is kind of the yin and yang of this program to a certain extent, the other half of it that’s not really specifically prescribed but almost, and maybe more important. The people walking into BUDS are going to be facing a lot of volume of exercise, and the people that have gotten this far have already done a lot of training and exercise, and they’ve looked at a program that’s pretty extensive, a ramp up for this. I know people have a tendency to push hard to try to get through this course but I think at a detriment sometimes, and we’ve talked about that a couple different times. A lot of the operations that NSW perform are at night and sleep deprived. What do you think are some of the key indicators of people not getting enough rest or being sleep deprived in their training?
J: Yeah, you’re spot on with that assessment, and I think that if you look at Naval Special Warfare as a community on the physical side, what do we do well? Well, they’re really good at the high volume training. They’re really, really good at doing their job of kicking down doors and being tactical operators. They’re great at training. What are they not as great at? The rest, the recovery and the sleep. So, yeah, and, again, a lot to unpack with that, but I think one of the biggest concepts to discuss with this is over-training versus under-recovery, and that, yes, you have to do more than the average man to make it through this training program. You have to do more than the average military person in order to sustain your SOF operational career, but like you said, how much is too much, and when does that bell curve start to tip down, and you’re doing too much at a detriment to your body. So, it’s a very interesting concept with is it too much physical activity, or is it not enough sleep, not enough food, and that’s where a lot of research is switching to right now really what we’re trying to dive into, and I will say in this community, if I had to answer, it’s probably under-recovery, the body is a system. It’s a system of bones and muscles and tendons and ligaments and a brain and a mind, and each of those tissues can only take so much of a force or load or stress, however you define it, before it’ll start to break down. And some of the signs that we typically ignore, either intuitively, or maybe we’re taught to ignore some of those, not sleeping as well, maybe waking up more frequently and not falling asleep as fast, maybe more nagging injuries start to occur. Maybe appetite goes down even though you’re doing more activity. Maybe your performance starts to taper off or starts to decline despite the fact that you’re running more and more and more, but you’re not getting any faster. So, there’s a lot of those subtle and some of them not so subtle cues that I think we tend to ignore and that if we were to take an extra day off or incorporate some active recovery into our training program, yeah, it seems like less volume for this week, but I know that my training session this Tuesday that’s a recovery session, I’m not doing that for today or tomorrow. I’m doing that for three weeks from now. And so, the biggest way to look at this is foresight, and you can’t just look at, all right, well, “I have to do enough this week to get stronger, to get fast.” Yes, well, “I have to train smart this week so that I can train harder a month from now. And I have to train smart a month from now so that I can train even harder six months from now.”
DF: And I’m sure that kind of varies between people, the kind of sleep deprived or under-recovered or under-rested state manifests differently in everybody I’d have to guess, to a certain extent at least.
J: Yeah, and you’re right. There’s some commonalities, but then everybody does have a tendency to express that slightly differently. Some people might be more mood swings, like it maybe some people it’s more appetite driven. So, yeah, with the recovery piece, I think it comes down to planning, and I think we, again, have this mentality that a little is good, a lot is great. If a lot is great, then even more is…bleeping awesome, right. Yeah, and you’re right, and we keep stacking that, but we don’t think about how that affects our long-term health and how it affects hormones. Again, without getting too much into the physiology, there’s stress in our lives, and this is the other piece, too, is I think we sometimes ignore cumulative stress.
DF: Can you define that a little bit for us?
J: Yes, we think about the physical part, you know, “What am I doing for my training program? How many miles am I running this week? What was my volume and intensity load for this particular training session in terms of reps,” my outputs, right. But we sometimes don’t factor in family and school stress and work stress and relationship stress because those are all forms of stress, whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual, those all add to that cumulative stress effect. And so, if you have a cup, “This is my maximum level of stress that I can take,” and you fill that all the way to the top with the physical components, but you just broke up with your significant other, or unfortunately you had a loss in the family or dealing with financial issues, where are you going to pour that into? Your cup is already full, so something has to give. You either have to cut back on the training or the physical and biochemical processes in the body is going to start to break down. And so, getting back to the hormones, we talk a lot about cortisol versus testosterone. Everybody coming through the program, “What can I do to boost my testosterone levels?” whether they’re an 18 year old, just starting out the program or a 40 year old or a 60 year old. Every, everybody wants to boost those T levels, and the answer I give every single time is, “Sleep.” “What can I do to boost my T levels?” “You can take a nap. You can get more rest. You can improve your sleep habits and what’s tied around those,” because when we get a lack of sleep, that drives up cortisol in the body. So, cortisol, a similar compound to adrenaline in that it stimulates what’s called our sympathetic nervous system, that fight or flight response. If you only get four hours of sleep, adrenaline and or cortisol are going to be increased that day versus the other day where you maybe got your seven and a half, eight hours of sleep. And so, in the course of one day, that’s not a big deal, but if that’s four nights a week, [DF: That’s cumulative stress.] that’s part of that. So, the lack of sleep, exactly, now we’re getting back to that under-recovery, over-training cumulative stress, that lack of sleep, over the course of time, even if it’s an hour less than you need, every day, that’s going to absolutely affect that cumulative stress factor, and that’s going to lead you to being in more of that sympathetic nervous system state, and that’s going to affect your ability to recover from exercise, that’s going to affect your ability to gain lean muscle mass because it’s gonna alter that testosterone to cortisol ratio. And you may still be producing a lot of testosterone, but when that cortisol increases, that ratio decreases, and, therefore, ability to generate lean muscle mass, to re-heal the body and the tissues in the body diminishes. And so, you may get that “low T” feeling or symptoms, but it may not be from the testosterone itself decreasing. It’s from that high sympathetic nervous system drive and all the different hormones and biochemicals that are associated with that.
DF: Are there any kind of pillars that people can use to monitor their stress state? Is sleep probably the best place to start, or like, cause I know this seems like even to people that are well researched or well read about the topics of exercise and recovery, this is a big gray area, you know. Like you’re talking about testosterone levels, it’s like blood tests and stuff, so is monitoring your sleep or your quality of sleep or the length of your sleep, or are there other indicators that you’re getting too much sleep or that you’re getting too much rest, or how is it that you recommend people approach that kind of self-assessment?
J: Great question, and in my now just over four years of working here, I don’t think I’ve met someone who, any operator students who get too much sleep or too much recovery. So, we have to think about what eggs we’re going to put into which basket, and I’m going to say that the majority of people listening to this probably are not getting enough recovery and not generating enough of that what we would refer to as parasympathetic drive. So, getting back to the sympathetic nervous system, that fight or flight, we talk about parasympathetic as rest and digest. And so, how do we get that sleep is one component. Mindfulness, people are afraid of the word meditation, but just taking a few moments each day to be mindful and be aware of what you did, maybe what you have coming up, [DF: Or even what you’re not doing.] or what you’re not doing, precisely. So, just that, whether it’s in the morning and/or in the evening, just taking that self-assessment, you know, “How does my body feel, what parts of my body hurt more than others? Okay, my back is really, really bothering me. I have a back squat session training planned tomorrow. Maybe I talk to my strength and conditioning coach, and we modify that so that I don’t add even more stress to my low back. How can I train my lower body without compressing my spine tomorrow because my back pain is higher than it normally is?” I mean that’s one example, [DF: Right, right.] but, again, I think we intuitively or because we want to be tough or because we want to suck it up, we ignore some of those cues. So, taking literally 30 seconds twice a day to inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth and just take that self-assessment of, “Yeah, what am I doing, what am I not doing, how’s my sleep, how’s my nutrition? How do I need to change my mindset and increase my mindfulness for the next twelve hours until I can have a moment to myself again?”
DF: Right. What are your thoughts on using play as a form of like active recovery, whether it’s hiking, free diving, golf or stuff like that?
J: I love it. I love play in terms of, all forms of, any physical activity. I will say this. I think where we get into trouble, though, is when it’s a novel activity for the body. So, in other words, if you’ve been running trails and doing ruck runs and hikes and lifting weights, but you haven’t been doing any speed or agility work, then playing pick up basketball at the Y may not be the best recovery session for you, even if you didn’t stay inside of a target heart rate zone because you hadn’t done stop and go and speed and agility, and so you’re sore the next day. And if that was your active recovery day, oh, man, I got a hard training session [DF: A little too active.] planned, a little too active. It may just be, again, something that’s different. But if you’ve been doing a lot of speed and agility work two days a week, and everything has been hammered into these specific zones and target heart rates, yeah, then you go shoot some hoops. It’s not a big deal cause your body’s done that. I love that concept, but I will warn that make sure that whatever your active recovery session is that it’s something that you’re used to doing. So, yeah, when we look at things like kayaking, right, well, if you don’t kayak on a regular basis, yeah, sure, it’s leisureful, but I’m sure your lats and triceps and biceps are probably going to be sore that next day, or if you’ve been running on flat ground, and you decide to go for a hike, you’re instituting something new and different to the body, and so I would say recovery sessions should not be new to the body, but, yes, playfulness is a great way to give the mind a break going back to that idea of cumulative stress.
DF: Do you think muscle soreness is generally a good indicator of proper exercise volume and intensity?
J: Yes, it can be, and I think it’s one of the factors to look at. The only thing is the more trained you are, probably the less sore you become. So, I know some people maybe have the mentality of, “If I’m not sore, it means I didn’t work out hard enough,” and I don’t agree with that. If you’re new to an exercise program, or, again, if you’re doing new exercises, you’re probably going to be sore, and that’s fine. That’s a good thing. But not being sore doesn’t mean you didn’t have a good workout. Again, if we’re looking at the cues to monitor, if all of a sudden, you’re starting to be sore from things that didn’t make you sore, maybe that’s an indication that something is changing. Or if you’re never sore, if you work out for three months, you’re not sore, on the other end of the spectrum, okay, maybe you didn’t institute something new, you didn’t get that new stress to the body, so, therefore, you’re not getting that new adaptation that may be important.
DF: You just said something about monitoring or keeping track. Would you recommend people do that with their sleep, or is that getting a little too crazy, or what’s your thoughts on that?
J: No, I like sleep monitors. There’s a number of, different ways to do it.
DF: Or even in just like a journal, just like keeping track, or what’s the kind of approach there? What’s popular…
J: Technology is popular, whether it be, there’s rings you can wear, there’s watches you can wear, different apps for your phones, things you can clip to your ear, all kinds of different things. And I would say that all that technology, whether it be heart rate variability, which is something that we can look at for in terms of how recovered you are or minutes of deep sleep, those are tools. Those are all parts of the equation, but you have to take more of that quantitative data and combine it with the qualitative. I’ve talked to strength and conditioning coaches who with their collegiate athletes, the athlete will come in, look at their fancy watch and be like, “Oh, I didn’t get enough REM sleep last night. I’m going to have a horrible training session today.” And the coach will be like, “How do you feel?” “Oh, I feel good.” And so, it doesn’t always match, but if you’re sore, if you’re fatigued, and you look at your watch, and it says you got poor sleep…
DF: And it maybe said that for days in a row or whatever.
J: Exactly. Now, you put those four or five factors together, and then we say, “Okay, you know what? Let’s just foam roll today,” or, “Let’s work out in the pool instead of on the track.” But if you have those four or five things you’re looking at, and four out of five are green lights, all right, well, maybe we’ll just kind of monitor this. But we can’t just get so locked into the technology and to that quantitative data because it’s just a tool. It facilitates what we should be good at, and we’re not, again, listening to our bodies and taking that self-assessment. And so, I love the idea of journaling, journaling your food, journaling your workouts, journaling your sleep, and then you can look back and just say, “Okay, well, horrible night’s sleep, bad training session two days later. Okay, maybe there’s a connection between those.” we haven’t talked much about alcohol and how that affects the body. I go out on a Friday night, I sleep all day Saturday and all day Sunday, but I still have horrible training sessions on Monday. What’s going on with that?
DF: You’ve done a good job of explaining that the magic isn’t in the numbers, and it’s not in the product. It’s not in the thing. It’s really in using and negotiating those to learn to listen to yourself and as a data point for you being able to self-monitor your own body and then kind of teach yourself that because I think that’s a big part of it is feel, and you can’t just tell somebody how to do that. It’s a lot of different parts that come together, deciphering information and kind of figuring out for yourself what causes what, how you perform and having something to look back on instead of a wild guess.
J: Exactly. And you have to have some data to support that. You can’t just go by feel all the time because if we’re always doing what we feel is good for our body or what works for me, we’ll probably choose the path of least resistance. So, having that objective eye, whether it’s something you’re writing down and like, “Huh, I didn’t see that before,” or having a coach there with you to say, “Oh, no, this is the angle you need to take on something,” that’ll push our boundaries. it’s definitely a concoction of a lot of different things, and if we only go by feel, we’re probably not going to get the progress that we need, but if we only go by data and by the numbers, then we’ll probably lead to some form of over-training or under-recovery.
DF: Yeah, you got to investigate and kind of go steps further and kind of in that in-between area. So, one last thing I’d like to talk about in terms of recovery is temperature, whether it’s ice baths or a cryo chamber or a sauna, talk about where you think that kind of science or understanding is in today’s day and age and what you recommend for people to experiment with or if they should at all.
J: Yeah, great questions, I think it comes down to two methods, one would be blood flow, and the other would be what we refer to as heat shock proteins in the body. So, the cryo chambers, where you go in, and it’s liquid nitrogen, and it significantly cools down your body. When the body gets that cold, it constricts, it vaso constricts, so all the blood goes to the internal organs, and all the blood vessels shrink. And then when you go back into room temperature, since that’s such a great difference, all the blood “rushes” back into back into the muscles. So, that blood flow return is very, very beneficial to recovery, and that’s something you can’t get from putting an ice bag on your elbow or your knees or your quads because the ice doesn’t penetrate the muscle as much. So, putting ice on a joint I think is good for pain relief, but I don’t know that it does a lot for true recovery.
DF: The bigger benefit is kind of the temperature shock loads, an ice bath, let’s say, right?
J: Right, and an ice bath, the difference between an ice bath and a cryo chamber, well, a couple differences, an ice bath is much cheaper cause you don’t have to pay, whatever, 30, $40 per session for six minutes, but the cryo gets you there a lot faster, and it’s less painful than sitting in an ice bath. And then, of course, if you sit in an ice bath too long, you have potential to cause tissue damage from the muscles or the tissues getting too cold. What else works is what we call contrast, so going hot to cold, hot to cold, and what’s nice about that is the hot doesn’t have to be too hot, and the cold doesn’t have to be too cold. So, we’re not talking about a sauna and an ice bath, but just to get a little bit of a temperature gradient between those two can definitely help.
DF: So, oxygenating the parts of the muscles and, it’s the change in temperature. It’s not being in the ice or being in the hot. It’s the change in the flow.
J: Exactly, and that gradient difference, exactly, is one component to sort of restrict and then increase the blood flow, which we get from movement, and that’s why sometimes a light training session is more effective recovery for the body than ice or heat because you get the body moving, and what better way to increase blood flow than movement or physical activity, but we just monitor it, and we make sure that that training session is a lighter training session to restore blood flow, and then, of course, there are different breathing techniques to relax and to get back into that parasympathetic state. So, yes, that gradient difference I think can be very beneficial for recovery. The heat shock proteins are interesting because again, to the best of my current understanding, is that when we get really, really cold or really, really hot, it’s a very similar thermogenic response. So, those heat shock proteins maybe are stimulated by extreme heat and extreme cold, so sauna use can be something that’s very beneficial. Yes, you get to sweat, and you can release some of the toxins from your sweat, but being in that room, in that heat environment may have physiological effects.
DF: It’s almost like a form of exercise to a certain extent of your body’s regulatory system?
J: Yeah, so when we exercise, it stimulates a whole cascade of different hormones and chemical signaling responders, and, yes, a heat session may trigger some of those same ones. Not to say that you can get in shape by sitting in a sauna versus hitting the pavement on the road, but you can have some recovery and some muscle tissue repair from sauna use. But you definitely need to work your way up to that because you don’t want to pass out, that’s very common…
DF: Yeah, this may be more of a honing your body as opposed to the initial steps of getting into fitness.
J: Exactly, and there’s different sauna protocols out there, but there is a lot of research coming out of the benefits of sauna, so maybe starting with five minutes on, three minutes off, working your way to where you can be in there for ten to fifteen minutes. I think ten in, five off for three cycles is a very common approach, but, again, it gets back to the question of listening to your body, knowing your body, and, of course, if you have any medical conditions, know that prior to going into that incredibly hot and sweaty environment, assuring hydration because you’re going to sweat a lot. So, if you just did a hard training session, you probably finished that session dehydrated. And if you’re going to go from there straight into a sauna or into a hot tub where you may not notice that you’re sweating, [DF: Not the healthiest way to lose weight.] not necessarily, yeah, and you may sweat more than you realized, be more dehydrated, and then we talk about recovery, well, now are you under-recovered because you didn’t rehydrate enough to start your next training session, so there’s, a lot of different factors that go into that adequate recovery.
DF: Do you think it would be helpful for people to test themselves in a sleep-deprived state in terms of fitness? I know that when people come to BUDS, they’re going to be looking straight at Hell Week, and they know that that’s going to happen, it seems like it’s a bit of a risk and maybe not worth doing, or does that pretty much the common opinion there, or what are your thoughts on that?
J: So, it’s a great question, and I haven’t been asked that question before, so I don’t have an exact answer, but to some extent, probably, and I’ll use an analogy for that. There’s a lot of data coming out now in terms of fasting, exercise and fasted training. Should I skip a meal, wake up in the morning and go on a run, and what does that do for my fat loss, what does that do for my exercise response? From a fat loss perspective, we know that fasted training doesn’t do a whole lot. There’s no benefit in that respect. But from a protein signaling standpoint and a muscle and physiological adaptation, that may be increased. So, the advice we give is that if you’re going to go into a fasted session, that should be more of your long, slow distance type of activity. I wouldn’t do an Olympic lifting training session fasted or sprints, something very technical. Likewise, I probably wouldn’t, if I slept, purposely slept five hours, got up and went out on a training session, I probably would make sure that those sessions are not my highly technical, highly explosive types of sessions. But, again, if it’s something that is planned that could be a valuable component to your training, but it’s not something that I would do once a week, or, 99% of the people we work with and probably the people listening who are training for this don’t get enough sleep. So, you’re already there.
DF: You’re playing with fire there, yeah.
J: Exactly. You’re already there just by virtue of what you do most days in that slightly sleep-deprived state, but the worst thing you could do would be to not sleep all night and then [DF: hit it hard.] hit it hard. And even within some of the training here, in the latter weeks of first phase and the latter days of Hell Week, the physical activity component goes down a little bit. It’s a little bit more of the mental component, too, because the instructors who’ve been there, done that and know their stuff, they don’t want to do harm to the students. So, the risk definitely increases at some point.
DF: We talked about sleep in a lot of different ways. Are there any aspects of sleep you think that are currently exciting or developing to you that you think are areas that people should do a little bit of research about in their rest and recovery research?
J: I would say sleep hygiene.
DF: What do you mean by sleep hygiene?
J: Yeah, great questions, so we’re tied to technology. We’re tied to our phones, televisions. There’s all the apps on TV where you can binge watch as many shows as you want, and that exposes us to blue light. So, one aspect of sleep hygiene is decreasing blue light exposure from screens. So, blue light actually stimulates the brain to turn on, to be active.
DF: Like the sun basically.
J: Very similar. And you can do some of the research. There’s some really good research on circadian rhythm and light/dark cycles and how, one, if we’re locked inside all day, and we don’t get that natural UV light, that we don’t get enough of the turned on during the day. Therefore, we have trouble shutting off at night, so the yin and yang if you will. But the other aspect is at nighttime, we watch television, and then we go into our bedrooms, turn off the lights, but then we turn on our phone and check all our social media right before we go to bed. And so, the last thing our eyes see is that blue light. So, 30 minutes before bed, shut off all technology would be one aspect of good sleep hygiene.
DF: So, you’re kind of protecting that space. I see what you’re saying.
J: Yeah, and you’re allowing the brain to start to shut down, and you’re allowing the brain to produce melatonin and serotonin, which are those natural biochemicals that help us actually fall asleep. I mean people will take melatonin, but they don’t realize that, hey, looking at your phone decreases your melatonin. And so, there are natural ways to, read a book, making sure that your room is cool and dark. Depending on where you live, making sure that you have things like ceiling fans, and there are different numbers of types of blankets and sheets and mattresses that have more of a cooling technology because when the body cools itself down, we actually get better sleep, and we can fall asleep faster, also doing things like just taking all the technology out of your bedroom. You know, the bedroom is only for a handful of things, and watching TV and paying attention to technology should not be one of those aspects. So, television in the living room, maybe going back to getting one of the old school alarm clocks instead of relying on your cellphone for your alarm clock…I know when I go into my bed, it’s not for reading, it’s not for watching TV, it’s for sleep, and then that starts the whole process, the winding down process, so that we can fall asleep a little bit sooner, get into that deep sleep a little bit sooner and get more of that deep sleep.
J: So, getting back to the sympathetic versus parasympathetic, the fight or flight response versus the rest and digest response or state, one of the easiest ways to get that parasympathetic state going is breathing techniques. So one of the most simple techniques that some of our mental performance coaches teach here is box breathing, and that’s where you inhale for four seconds, for example, hold, slow exhale for those four seconds, and then another four second hold, so you’re kind of creating that box, whether it be three seconds, four, five seconds. The easiest one to remember is four seconds each for four minutes, and it’s just a very simple technique because when we breathe in through the nose versus through the mouth, that actually triggers that parasympathetic system. Mouth breathing, which we get into when we’re really, you know, think about panting during exercise, that’s when you want those stress hormones, when you want that cortisol and the adrenaline because you’re trying to get through the latter parts of physical activity. But think about a yoga practice, where we really want to wind down and improve that mindfulness. It’s a lot of nasal breathing. So, something as simple as breathing in through the nose versus breathing in through the mouth, whatever time of the day, can actually alter that sympathetic and parasympathetic drive. So, if you’re trying to get ready to go to sleep at night, doing some of that box breathing is beneficial, and how we tie that into operational performance, it’s a dose response, so a lot of that relaxation, mindfulness and breathing will put you to sleep. A little bit of it will get you in a better state for going in and clearing a room or maybe sitting down to take a written exam. We know that if we’re super hyped up and amped up for a 100-meter sprint, that’s great, but maybe if you’re looking at something like trying to fire and hit a target, being a little bit relaxed actually helps your accuracy. So, again, the dosing of breathing techniques, for example, a little bit will get you into the right zone for accuracy. A lot will get you into that zone for falling asleep and getting more of that recovery that we need.
DF: Awesome….this has been a really interesting discussion, and people will have a lot of benefit from listening to this. Thank you so much for your time, and I think this is a much bigger part than most people realize. Rest and recovery is huge.
J: The biggest aspect, the biggest thing that is overlooked, no doubt.