By Justin Klein MA, RD, CSSD, LD
When we hear the term “sports nutrition,” we tend to think about nutrition for athletes and more specifically, our traditional sport athletes like those playing football, basketball, soccer, etc. There is another group of athletes we often forget about or do not automatically classify as athletes. Military service men and women, along with first responders, are known as tactical athletes. Tactical athletes often have the same physical and mental demands as traditional sport athletes and therefore require the same effort and level of care to promote health and performance improvements.
In the Army, one way of measuring a soldier’s physical readiness is through a regularly-occurring physical training test. Until recently, this test consisted of push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. A new test is now in a pilot phase as the test of record, named the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT). According to Army statements, this test is designed to better reflect the stresses of a combat environment, to address the poor physical fitness of recruits, and to reduce musculoskeletal injuries of soldiers. The ACFT consists of six events graded on a scale; a three-repetition deadlift, a 10lb backward overhead medicine ball throw, hand release push-ups over a period of two minutes, 250-meter sprint-drag-carry, hanging leg tucks, and a two-mile run.
The demands of military service, training and missions are very unique, requiring both physical and mental strength and endurance to succeed. Similar to collegiate and professional athletes, soldiers need to optimize their individual performance potential and well-being. Nutrition is a critical component that can be utilized to enhance mental and physical performance, to aid a soldier with ACFT success and remain mission ready. By fine tuning fueling habits, soldiers can become bigger, stronger, faster and more ready in both physical and non-physical domains. In reviewing the key fueling points below, think about how they apply to tactical and other athletes you work with.
Consistent Fuel: Proper fueling is all about consuming the right nutrients, in the right amounts, at the right time to maximize training results. If a soldier’s daily fueling routine is inconsistent, it can impede performance. ACFT efforts can be maximized by prioritizing nutrition through focusing on quality carbohydrates, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables to optimize fueling strategies. Filling half a plate with starches and the other half with a mix of lean protein, vegetables and fruit, is a strategy to ensure sufficient fuel to support demands. It is critical to fuel and hydrate the body consistently throughout each day to ensure nutrients and fluids are delivered to support health, maintain muscle mass, and promote adequate energy levels. Aim for 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day while avoiding long periods (greater than 3-4h) without fuel.
Hydrate: Adequate hydration is a key factor in achieving success on the ACFT. Performing in a very dehydrated state can reduce VO2max, power output, agility and sprint speed, and increase perceived exertion. Formulate a sound hydration plan to avoid dehydration. A simple guideline to follow is to consume 0.5-1 ounce of fluid per pound of body weight each day (weight in pounds x 0.5 minimum, up to weight in pounds x 1 = ounces to drink each day), take in 10-20 ounces of fluid 30 minutes before training or testing, and rehydrate after with 20 ounces of fluid per pound lost to replace sweat. To calculate weight lost during training or testing, measure body weight immediately before and after activity, wearing minimal, non-sweaty clothing. The majority of weight lost in a training session reflects fluid lost via sweat and needs to be replaced with 20 ounces per pound.
Top Off the Tank: Carbohydrates (anything grown from the ground) fuel high intensity exercise so it is imperative to begin training and the ACFT with adequate carbohydrate stores. This requires prioritizing carbohydrate fuel the day before testing by filling half of the plate with starches or whole grains such as oatmeal, sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat pasta at each meal, as well as waking up early to consume additional fuel to arrive to the test prepared. In the last meal before high-intensity exercise, aim for a gram amount equal to half of body weight in lbs (i.e. 150lb person needs 75g carbohydrate to fuel before). If a full breakfast is not an option the morning of the ACFT, opt for an easily digestible carbohydrate rich snack containing 30-45 g of carbohydrate about 15-20 minutes prior to the test. This can be as simple as a banana with peanut butter, sports drink or even a packet of instant oatmeal.
Recovery: The recovery phase (after an ACFT or any other training session) can be just as important as the training itself. Strenuous exercise depletes energy stores and breaks down muscle putting the body into a catabolic state. Nutrients from food and fluids transition the body from catabolic back to an anabolic state, promoting recovery and maximizing training adaptations. The goal of recovery is to rebuild muscle tissue, refuel muscle energy stores and replenish fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. The more intense the training session, the more nutrients needed. For training lasting 60 minutes or longer, aim to refuel with half of body weight in lbs of carbohydrate (body weight in lbs / 2 = grams), 20-30g protein, and fluids with electrolytes to adequately replenish depleted nutrients, following guidance in the Hydrate section above. An example of this could be a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana and 8oz of chocolate milk plus adequate water to replenish sweat loss.
Prioritize Sleep: Sleep is vital to the ability to physically perform, recover from the day’s training and tasks, think clearly, manage stress, and self-regulate. Creating a good sleep routine that consists of consistent quality sleep, will be essential for performing well not only day to day but on the ACFT as well. Chronic insufficient sleep leads to a multitude of issues including poor nutrient utilization, decreased power output, greater perceived effort and faster time to exhaustion. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night to improve performance capabilities.
The physical and mental demands of being an athlete at any level are very challenging. For service members, whose mission success or failure can have dire consequences, optimizing performance is especially important for individual soldiers as well as overall unit readiness. Developing consistent fueling habits will be critical to support optimal physical and cognitive function, as well as lifelong health.
This article was written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org