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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 temperature exposure with performance dietician Justin Robinson. Let’s get started.
Daniel Fletcher [DF]: Well, thanks for sitting down and talking with us. You have an extensive background on performance and physical fitness. A lot of people don’t have that experience and your insights are really valuable to the people that are trying to get into the pipeline.
Justin Robinson [JR]: I appreciate that.
DF: Today, we’re going to be talking about some nontraditional training environments or exposures, hot, cold and mountain environments, something that Naval Special Warfare Operators will be exposed to if they make it through the pipeline. It’s an area that is uncomfortable for people by nature. Being out of their comfort zone is a big part of NSW training and their operational environment. Talk a little bit about that in a broad sense, how important it is for people to be comfortable, uncomfortable.
JR: Yeah, I think that’s an enormous component of this because as we’ve talked about in previous episodes, you can look at a component of the training, an hour of the training, and it may not be that difficult, but it’s the other twelve hours in the day or the other twenty-three hours, so to speak, that separates this environment, the BUD/S, the SQT, the CQT environments from something else. So, if you are used to working out in the gym, and then you go home, and it’s a nice, cool environment, and you have your blender, and you make your post-workout shake, and then you can lounge around and watch TV for… [DF: Laying on your couch.] laying on your couch, then that is not the best way to prepare for this. So, yes, you need to get to the gym or get outside and do that hour, 90 minutes, two hours of intense physical activity, but then you also need to think about those other waking hours and how you can tweak those to make those a little bit less comfortable so that your body and your mind are more used to this environment once you get here.
DF: So, you’re saying it’s not about specifically preparing your body to be able to cope with this but more so getting yourself in that mental space. Is that kind of what you’re keying in on?
JR: I’d say they’re at least equal. And I think that’s part of it, too, is in the self-assessment before getting here, think about your strengths and your weaknesses, and if the physical component is there, you’re strong, you’re fit, you blow away all the PST scores, then maybe focus on the mental side. If you’re mentally strong, you’re that turtle who can just keep going and going and going, then maybe you need to focus more on the physical side. So, they’re at least equal in my opinion coming in.
DF: So, maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the, maybe your own experiences in those environments if you have any that were educational or that you can reflect on and say, you know, “In this, I learned this,” or, “Through this, I feel as though I developed this,” or, “These are some of the techniques I’ve used,” in your personal experience.
JR: Sure, and for the record, I have not gone through this training program, not current or former active duty military. So, most of my observations are just from my own running and triathlon experience as well as just observation. I believe you really need to focus on some of your weaknesses. So, for example, if you’re not accustomed to, and we’ve talked about this, running on sand, find some loose surface to run on before you get here. If you’ve never been in cold water, well, then maybe start taking really cold showers or lying in a relatively cold bathtub. If you’re not used to 75 degrees with 50, 60% humidity, maybe start training in warmer environments. And you can do things like train in pants and long sleeves or train in a combat style boot because I think a lot of students coming into the pipeline are very comfortable in T-shirts, shorts and running shoes on pavement.
DF: Yeah, stretchy clothing, all this stuff.
JR: Exactly, and they’re really fast runners. And then you put on boots and pants and a shirt and make them run in sand, and it’s an entirely different game.
DF: I think this is kind of an opportunity for people to not necessarily play but give themselves creative freedom to think about the different exposures that they’re going to have and to kind of think outside the box for themselves. I know this is an area where there’s a little bit of concern for safety because obviously, you don’t want to go off of the rails and be exposing yourself to things that are going to put yourself or your life in danger. The small things I think people take for granted, or they just make an assumption on like whether it’s, like you’re talking about the clothing people wear to exercise is so specifically tailored for comfort that you see people wearing it on airplanes for long flights and all this kind of stuff, but that really is the opposite of the spectrum from what people are exposed to at BUD/S.
JR: Exactly. It’s not the comfort, cooling material, the moisture wicking. It’s a white T-shirt that you get, and it’s military uniform that you get. Great points there, and one of the things we talk about in nutrition, a lot of the research recently revolves around what we call metabolic flexibility. And I think we’ve touched on this before, but that’s teaching your body how to use fats and how to use carbohydrate. It may include a few fasted training sessions. And so, when it comes down to it, your body can pull on any of those resources, so the play analogy of, “Hey, let’s do different things in different environments, so I can at least know somewhat how to react when that comes to me at BUD/S, I’ll be better apt to deal with it.” So, yes, the safety issue I think is a huge concern for heat or cold because if the body gets too hot or too cold, that is potentially life-threatening situation. So, if you live in a cooler environment, north parts, maybe Great Lakes area, where it can get really cool, and you’re trying to train in the winter for coming here in the spring or in the fall, then you’re going to need to layer up.
DF: No shortage of cold weather exposure training there.
JR: Right, so certain things that, if it’s really warm outside, and you want to go in the long sleeves and pants, don’t make your first heated run ten miles or twelve miles. Run for 20 minutes. Take a day off and then run for 30 minutes two days later, and gradually build that heat exposure and in the same way you would with your strength training. If you want to be able to do 30 pull-ups, you don’t just hop on a bar and try to do 30 pull-ups. You start off, “Okay, I can do eight, and then I can do twelve,” and then you build up from there. So, think about your heat and cold exposure in that same progressive manner that you would with your strength or your flexibility. Likewise, you can think about the other twelve or thirteen hours of, waking hours of the day and that if it’s warm outside, and you go outside, and you train for an hour, don’t come back inside with the air conditioner blasting, and you’re just in your shorts and flip-flops. Leave the air conditioner off and be uncomfortable for those remaining hours of the day just as you’re moving around, doing things around the house so that you can build some of that general exposure in addition to the exercise exposure.
DF: So, let’s maybe talk a little bit about the hot and the cold specifically and our bodies’ responses. You talked a second ago about the benefit metabolically of putting yourself through that in order to some extent exercise those processes in your body. Not necessarily just mentally exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations so that you can say, “Oh, I have some comfort here now,” but also your body’s reaction and strength, growth there is measurable, and it’s definitely a part of maybe being more comfortable when you’re in those spaces after you’ve exposed yourself a few times. You don’t have that natural shock reaction that many people are pretty familiar with if they’ve jumped into really cold water. It’s not just our mind that says, “I don’t like this. It’s uncomfortable,” but the blood moves in our body uncontrollably, and it’s a stimulus and a response there that is really our bodies, yeah.
JR: It’s a shock, yeah, and they call it the heat shock and the cold shock proteins in the body, so, yes, it really is a matter of shock. And to use an analogy, if you look at the National Football League and the cold weather cities, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, come playoff time, they tend to do better against the teams who play inside of domes because those teams aren’t used to that cold weather exposure. So, if you’re coming here with cold and heat exposure and having your body acclimated to different environments, you may do a little bit better. And I think that’s what this is all about, is how many drops can you get in that bucket to increase your chances of success, to create your own environment for success.
DF: Yeah, this is kind of a little bit of, like I said earlier, outside the box thinking in terms of programming, but let me know if you agree with this. I think when you’re looking at your programming for your exercise, whether it’s for the week or however far you shoot forward and then kind of grid out or plan out your programming, do you think incorporating variety, of not necessarily training surfaces or apparatus, but environments in terms of temperature into that programming so that you’re kind of killing two birds with one stone, so to speak, as opposed to, “I’m going to go to the sauna today,” or, “I’m going to do ice baths today.” It seems like it would be beneficial for people to incorporate this awareness into their programming in general.
JR: No doubt. It’s another variable to modify, so you’re right. You vary your training surfaces, your training load, your intensity, your recovery, so why not also vary in the temperature and the environment. You know, people think of San Diego and Coronado, it’s always beach season, and most of the training during BUD/S is literally yards away from the ocean, but it can get warm here. And, 70, 80 degrees can feel warmer. The sun is always beating down. We don’t get a ton of cloud coverage here, so that sun can make it feel really warm. And, again, when you’re training with layers of clothes, the T-shirt with your long sleeve over that and the boots and the pants and the head cover, it can feel warmer than that 70 degrees or 75 degrees. So, I look at it this way, you know, I talked about trying to increase your environment for success. I think the best way to frame it is you’re doing everything you can to eliminate excuses. By doing these types of training, by conditioning your mind and conditioning your body, you’re not giving yourself any single advantage, but you’re removing excuses. And I think that’s one of the best mentalities to take into this, that, “Hey, I’m ready for anything that comes to me,” because, again, [DF: As a confidence boost.] as a confidence boost, cause, again, the instructors are really good at finding your weaknesses and exploiting those weaknesses either physically, mentally, emotionally because they really want to screen and find out who will make the best teammates.
DF: So, let’s talk a little bit about the body and our reactions to these, we’ll say extreme environments, not that people should be exposing themselves in an extreme way, but I mean opposite ends of the spectrum of taxing our systems. What should people look out for in terms of whether it’s nutrition, rest or anything else that is specifically taxed in these conditions?
JR: I think you can look at a few things. You can look at your fatigue level on an acute basis as well as a chronic basis. So, if you know, let’s just take a 4-mile timed run, and you know your 4-mile timed run is X number of minutes, and you start training in hotter environments, if that time is going down significantly, then maybe you’re not hydrating enough, or maybe you’re not resting enough in between. If you notice some of the similar symptoms to over-training or under-recovery, as we’ve discussed in another episode, maybe your sleep is getting worse. Maybe overall, you are increasing your training volume, but you’re not getting any stronger or fitter, then maybe that’s an indication that you’re not recovering enough, or you’re not hydrating enough, maybe not getting enough sodium. So, one of the simple things to approach that is to weigh yourself before and after an activity, and the simple math is 16 ounces of fluid per pound of body weight loss. We call that your sweat rate.
DF: So, you’re saying that’s an acceptable level, or unpack that a little bit.
JR: That’s what you need to replenish that. So, if you, and, again, we’ll make it very simple. You stand on a scale wearing just shorts, and you’re 180 pounds. You go work out for an hour, don’t drink any water, come back, and you’re 178 pounds. You lost two pounds during that hour of activity. So, you need to replace that water, and it’s 16 ounces per pound that you lose, so that means your sweat rate in that particular instance would be 32 ounces of water per hour. My advice is measure that in different environments. So, measure that maybe running indoors on a treadmill, measure that on a bike ride outside, measure that on a trail run or hike, and because the different environments, the different physical activities are going to have your body sweat a little bit differently, but you can sort of average those together and know that, okay, during activity, I need to consume 24 ounces. I need to consume 40 ounces. Because that sweat rate is highly, highly variable among individuals. So, it will benefit you to know coming in, “Am I a very heavy sweater, or am I a light sweater?” cause, again, that’s eliminating one more thing to worry about.
DF: Set yourself up for success so that you’re not underperforming to your capabilities just because you’re dehydrated or whatever it may be.
JR: Exactly. And then with the sodium, that’s a little bit harder to measure, but if you’re the type of person who when you sweat, you get a lot of that salty crust along the side of your ears, or if a drop of sweat goes in your mouth, and it’s very, very salty, then you may not only be a heavier sweater but a saltier sweater. And so, that’s where sodium replacement becomes just as crucial as water replacement before, during and after physical activity. So, it could be something as simple as salting your food, putting extra salt on your food. Sports drinks have sodium. There are some sports drinks out there that have higher sodium levels than others. And then it could be things like chicken or beef broth, vegetable broth in between meals to get your body some of that extra sodium. When we look at sodium intake, people may be concerned about high blood pressure. Well, I don’t want to get high blood pressure. It’s very controversial, and what we’re looking at now is, is it sodium itself, or is it the fact that processed foods are high in sodium, and is it maybe the processing of the foods that has an impact on blood pressure to cause hypertension. So, it may not be sodium. It may not be the actual salt, sea salt or Himalayan salt, whatever it is that you’re putting on your salad or your meat, but it might be the marinade or the sauces and the condiments that have a slew of other ingredients, maybe including artificial this or artificial that that maybe has a negative impact on blood pressure. So, if you’re 18 to 24, and you’re working out a lot, and you’re otherwise healthy, I would not be concerned about a high level of sodium intake.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about the mountain environment and altitude training. If people don’t know, maybe you could talk a little bit about how that affects people’s ability to perform just for people that might not have any exposure to any knowledge in that area.
JR: Sure. And, again, this is going to be for the latter stages of the training pipeline since most of the early components are at zero feet. As I said, you’re yards away from the beach, so you are at, you cannot be any more at sea level. But, yes, as you go through the SQT and CQT pipelines, there are different environments that involve land navigation, hiking and those types of environments. So, from a nutritional standpoint, I think it does come down to hydration would be the number one factor. Some of those mountain environments are cold, and when we look at a cold environment, our thirst drive goes down. And so, people will think, “Well, I’m not exercising as much. I’m not sweating, so I don’t need to hydrate as much.” But in cold environments, specifically, you can have greater vapor losses. So, when we breathe out, that air is condensing, and so we’re losing some amount of fluid through our cellular respiration. The other thing to think about is because the thirst mechanism goes down, you’re probably not drinking as much, so you do have a risk for dehydration. And then it may sound silly, but typically when you are in a mountain or cold environment, you may have multiple layers, and people may subconsciously not consume as much fluid because they don’t want to delayer to go pee. For multiple reasons, your risk of dehydration is almost as high in a cold environment as it is in a hot environment.
DF: And that’s counterintuitive.
JR: It is counterintuitive. And likewise, altitude can affect your hydration status as well, and one of the ways to combat altitude sickness is sodium loading and fluid loading to some extent, so maybe getting in the day leading up or the 12 hours leading up to that environment or in between, so maybe you’re out on an evolution from 8am till 5pm, and so that 5pm till 10:00 when you’re going to bed, maybe loading up on fluids and hydration. So, we’ve talked about carbohydrate loading. Sodium loading is a thing as well, and getting more sodium with more fluids to increase the plasma volume of your body may benefit you in hot, cold and altitude environments. The other factor would be iron. So, what happens at altitude is essentially the red blood cells are less effective, and so we feel like we have low energy, low oxygen. I would not recommend an iron supplement without a lab because iron supplements can be dangerous to the liver, but high-iron foods in the month leading up may benefit, so that would be vitamin C is important for absorbing iron from your foods. Red meat is one of the best sources of iron. So, grass-fed beef if you can find that, eggs, the darker meat of chicken is a little bit higher in iron than the white meat. So, again, getting the variety that we’ve talked about. So, iron rich foods with vitamin C can potentially benefit some of that and iron supplements only if recommended by a doctor if you have that lab value to say you are low in your iron status.
DF: Obviously, cold and hot is used in recovery a lot, whether it’s from injury or inflammation and stuff like that, but as kind of a training mechanism on to itself, what are some of the ways that cold and hot are used right now in the industry?
JR: Good question. So, from a recovery standpoint, one of the biggest things is contrast. So, if you get the body, and theoretically, very, very cold, and then bring it to even something like room temperature, all the blood will expand after it constricts. And so, that’s one of the benefits of the cryo-freeze chambers where the body, I want to say it’s like negative 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s super duper cold, and you’re in there for five minutes or so, and all the blood vessels constrict, and you come out to room temperature, and it expands, getting in hot and cold tubs that are even a few degrees apart and maybe going back and forth between those. So, there’s definitely a theory and an application in terms of hot and cold for recovery. But as we’ve discussed a little bit already, I think there can be for heat and cold tolerance as well, and in the same way that you would progress your running, the more often you run, you start to run faster, and maybe you also extend the length of that run. It’s hard to do both at the same time. You can’t go from five miles to eight miles faster. If you can, then your first five mile was just really, really slow. So, with heat or cold, think about that progression as well. So, if you are lying in a cool tub, maybe 60 degrees, maybe start with ten minutes, and then go to 15 minutes. That’s very similar to what the ocean is here. It’s high 50s to sometimes in the 70s, but that 60 degrees or so, so it’s not an ice bath.
DF: But it’s uncomfortable, right?
JR: But it’s very uncomfortable. And, again, if you have to run in and run out, that’s not so bad, but when you have to lie down in that water for 15 minutes at 2:00 in the morning when it’s dark, and you’re hungry and otherwise cold, it can be very, very challenging from that standpoint. So, think about heat and cold exposure, start small, progress either the temperature or the length of time, and then really focus in on those cues. If you’re dizzy or lightheaded or nauseous, get yourself out of that environment immediately. Heat exhaustion, heat illness, cold exposure, those again, can be very, very serious consequences, and you can have internal damage, other organs. You can have brain damage to even relatively not that hot environments. So pay attention to your body, and those are setbacks. So, if you go too long or too hot, now you can’t train for a month because your body has to recover…or you really injure yourself, or there is a chance of death. You know, let’s throw that out there, that too hot or too cold, the body, [DF: Just stop. It stops.] yeah, it’s funny how we are incredibly resilient but also incredibly fragile at the same time. So, know that, monitor that. If you just online search heat index. There are certain rules for, if you combine the temperature with the humidity how long you should train in that environment. So, if it’s a black condition, where it’s really hot and really humid, you can’t really train. If it’s a red flag, you can maybe be out for a certain amount of time where you have to stop every so often for hydration. So, don’t be an idiot. Don’t think you are a superman coming into this program. Be incredibly intelligent about your conditioning before you get here.
DF: Thank you so much. I think that this is a really good tool that people can incorporate into their self-monitoring, self-assessment and then also their training and learn to grow in kind of ways that they probably didn’t really think are important, so appreciate your time. Thank you for your knowledge.
JR: I appreciate your time as well. Thank you.