The first step in creating a robust training program is understanding where to focus your efforts. Of course you’ll have to ruck, run, swim, and do pushups and pullups. But, you probably have some other questions:
What about strength work?
How many days per week should you run? How far?
What should my pushups and pullup workouts look like? Do I just do as many as I can everyday?
What’s the right mix of strength, conditioning, and calisthenics for my stage of training? How do I adjust as I prepare to leave for selection?
How do you learn how to ‘just not quit’ or be ‘tougher’?
Before you can answer any of these questions you have to get your lifestyle in order.
The research is clear – the more fit you are, the better your chances at passing selection. The less fit, the more likely you’ll wash out.
There are, of course, statistical outliers who will pass without training intelligently, eating well, or caring about getting enough sleep. But, unless you want to count on being that rare lucky person, you’ll want to do everything you can to prepare.
How fit you are now and will become is only partially determined by your training.
Doing the work – running, rucking, swimming, strength training, calisthenics – is no guarantee of a large improvement in fitness, no matter how hard you train.
How well you eat, how much sleep you get, and how well you manage all the other stressors in your life governs the trajectory of your fitness. Your body adapts during the 20+ hours of the day when you’re not training.
So, before you focus on what your training looks like, it makes sense to set up your life to get the most out of whatever training you are already doing. This is where lifestyle comes into play.
Your lifestyle is how you organize your life to prioritize your time and energy. In other words, how you are spending the coin of your life.
Before we talk about what your lifestyle should look like and how to assess, we’ll discuss why it matters:
In order to understand how to train, you first have to understand how and why your body responds to training. When you understand that framework, things like how much running to do, how fast, and how often become much easier to program and adjust.
Just like programming, adaptation is a complex subject that people spend their entire careers studying. We are going to discuss the principles that you need to understand when coaching yourself or others, without getting lost in the weeds with small details.
Your body is always adapting. Everything that you do places a stressor on the body and it responds accordingly to keep you alive. This ever-changing process is called allostasis. Technically speaking, allostasis is the total physiological reaction of your body to the stressors that you place upon it in order to maintain function.
Your body has two main responses to any stress: a short-term response and a long-term response. The short-term one is simple – get through the moment. This is usually characterized by flooding the body with hormones and redistributing blood flow and energy to the appropriate system and local area within the body.
Once the stressor has been dealt with, the long-term adaptation component kicks in – prepare for the future moment. Your body releases enzymes or signaling hormones that start a cascade of responses which create a more permanent adaptation. The outcome of this is the body being able to deal with the stressor in future. The magnitude of the signaling response is directly proportional to the load of the stressor. This is why the body stops adapting when the same stressor is imposed repeatedly (such as doing the same workout plan every week).
Too much of a good thing
While these adaptations can lead to the improvements we are looking for, the problem is that most of us spend way too much time accumulating stress and not enough time recovering. So, our allostatic load (i.e. the total load of all stressors in life) is constantly elevated. This leads to a high cost of adaptation to exercise.
People generally tend to fall into one of two camps described below.
Net Positive Adaptation Process: the body has a surplus of resources created by balancing recovery and training stressors, so the body utilizes these resources to create an adaptation to the training you’re doing (gain muscle, more mitochondria, new or stronger neural connections in the brain, etc).
Net Negative Adaptation Process: the body adapts to your training stimulus, but by doing so you become vulnerable to other problems because of the cumulative and progressive nature of stress. Do this for long enough and you can get injured, burned out, sick, hormonally imbalanced, etc.
In other words: if you train hard, your body will adapt, but the cost of adaptation varies. Both processes are utilizing resources to create an adaptation, but one comes at the expense of health, while the other maintains it and improves resilience.
Before we talk about how to create a net positive adaptation process we need to explore some of the nuances of adaptation.
Everything is a stressor
Stress is anything that elicits a response from the body. Food, light, sound, movement, exercise, emotional events, and mental strain are all stressors. Anything that has an effect on your body must be considered when planning and executing a training program because it will change your response to training. This is especially important when considering writing a program for an individual whose entire life doesn’t revolve around training. Outside stressors such as relationships, work, and sleep / recovery constraints will play a large role in how the trainee adapts.
Your body is always adapting
Adaptations are almost always useful from the perspective of your body. For example, if you bury yourself under an extreme load of endurance work, your body may ramp up cortisol, slow down sex hormone production, and a bunch of other ‘negative’ effects, but it’s doing so to protect itself. This adaption is serving the purpose, really, of trying to stop you from being stupid. It’s only negative from your perspective, but from the body’s perspective, it’s doing what it needs to do to survive, and to get you to stop doing so much because it can’t cope effectively. The magnitude of the signaling response is directly proportional to the load of the stressor. In other words, the total load controls the intensity of the stress response.
There’s a sweet spot in this process – creating a stimulus that leads to the adaptations we want, without leading to the ‘negative’ adaptations we don’t want.
This brings us back to your lifestyle. In order to create a net positive response, you need to optimize your recovery. To figure out where you need to focus, complete the assessment below.
The lifestyle (recovery) category is broken into three domains:
- Sleep – Quantity and quality both matter. You may feel ok with 6 hours, but that doesn’t mean that you perform and recover at your best at that level.
- Nutrition – How much and what food you put into your body plays a big role in your body’s ability to adapt
- Stress – The amount of perceived (subjective) and objective stress you’re under throughout your day plays a big role in how well you’ll adapt to your training. Nothing is free – stress in every aspect of your life has to be accounted for.
Quantity and quality both matter. In terms of quantity, unless you’re getting 8+ hours of uninterrupted sleep, you’re leaving results on the table.
On the quality front, if you’re not waking up feeling rested and refreshed most days, your sleep quality likely needs some work, regardless of how much sleep you are getting.
Sleep hygiene fundamentals:
- Regular schedule: Go to bed and wake around the same times (within an hour) as often as possible.
- Limited stimulants, including electronics: Total daily caffeine intake below 200mg, nothing within 8 hours of bedtime. No electronics within one hour of sleep.
- Dark, cold room: Use blackout curtains and keep the room cool.
- Light: You should get sunlight first thing upon waking to help regulate your circadian rhythm and improve natural sleep cycles.
Just like sleep, both the quantity and quality of your food matters.
Most 18-25 year olds’ diets look something like this: mostly processed foods, sporadic feeding schedule, no food prep, veggies appear sporadically, and they need to gain or lose some weight.
That’s a recipe for poor results. In terms of quality, your diet should like something like this: almost no processed foods, consistent eating schedule, balanced meals, and close to ideal body composition.
You should be eating 3-4 larger meals each day (no snacks) composed of the following:
|1g per pound of bodyweight each day / around 50-70g each meal / 2 palms worth each meal
Any non-processed (ideally) grass-fed, wild caught (fish) meat
|.5g per pound of bodyweight each day / around 20-30g each meal / 2 thumbs worth each meal
Avocado, coconut, nuts and nut butters, seeds, olives, animal fats
|1-1.5g per pound of bodyweight each day / around 50-80g each meal / 2-3 cupped handfuls worth each meal
Rice, oats, quinoa, ancient grains, potatoes, beans, corn
|8+ cups per day with a 2:1 ratio of veg/fruit / 2 fists worth each meal
All fruits and vegetables can be eaten (starchy vegetables fall into the carbohydrate category)
Total calories: 18-20x bodyweight (total, not lean mass). In rare cases, up to 25x bodyweight.
If you’re losing weight, eat more. If you’re getting fat, eat less. If you’re right where you want to be, stick with that. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that so it isn’t.
Stress is both objective and subjective in nature.
You might be very effective at managing your stress response, but if you work long hours at a challenging job, you have a lot of objective stress and it will take a toll on recovery.
At the other end of the spectrum, your life might be objectively easy: you hardly work and have very few responsibilities, but your relationship with your family is strained and you don’t deal with setbacks well. In this situation, despite not having many demands, you still have a high amount of stress due to your subjective response and your recovery will suffer.
When analyzing your systemic stress levels, you need to consider your total daily demands and how you think about and respond to them.
- Do you work long hours at a challenging job or are at school in a very challenging academic environment?
- Do you have a spouse or other family members you are responsible for that require a significant amount of time and energy?
- Do you often feel emotionally or cognitively burned out?
- Are you able to regulate your emotions and thoughts in challenging situations?
There is no easy way to assess your overall stress outside of training. As we discuss in depth in our book, how you think and manage yourself plays a huge role in your allostatic load.
To help manage your overall stress load, you should have:
- a highly organized schedule,
- consistent routines,
- manageable professional (or academic) demands, and
- work on your mental game
Since sleep, stress, and nutrition tend to be variable from day to day and week to week we suggest periodically revisiting this assessment to get an accurate idea of your average recovery status over time.
After going through these assessments and reflecting on your lifestyle, you should know where your strengths and weaknesses are on the recovery front. The next step is to adjust your lifestyle and cut out the unnecessary to make room for sleep, nutrition prep, and simplifying life to reduce stress.
When doing this exercise, don’t stop at the superficial. It’s easy to target the obvious time wasters in your life – superficial bullshit like Netflix, social media, and social obligations you could care less about. Dig deep. Think about your relationships, your career, your dreams. Reflect on your purpose. Ask hard questions:
Are you really giving 100% to every aspect of your life?
Where are you trading comfort for happiness?
Comfort is sneaky. It’s not as simple as taking the easy road at work or putting in the minimum effort with your relationships. Comfort can look and feel challenging. It can look like long days at work followed by soul-crushing workouts and feel like mental and emotional burnout.
Just because you’re working hard doesn’t mean you’re doing what is required to give yourself the best shot at passing selection.
If you want to be a SOF operator you need to live the lifestyle now. That means living with commitment and following through in every part of your life – not just training.
Use the articles below to help make adjustments and optimize your lifestyle:
- Nutrition for SOF
- Finding your purpose
- Optimize your approach to challenges
- Use attention to build skills
Once your lifestyle is dialed in, you can shift your emphasis to improving your training process. The following articles are excellent resources for getting started on that front.
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