Ask Stew: How to Balance Daily Commitments with Training and Recovery

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Sgt. Hector Masso, a Binghamton, New York, native and automations section sergeant with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, performs weighted squats at the Greywolf Physical Fitness Center Aug. 13 at Fort Hood, Texas. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Banzhaf, 3rd BCT, 1st Cav. Div.)

Finding the right balance between stress and recovery in our personal, professional and physical training lives is a challenge that can take decades to figure out.

Here is an email from a young man seeking to serve who is working a part-time job, going to college, playing a club sport (rugby) and starting to train for future military and spec ops selection after graduation this summer.

Stew, I know I have a lot on my plate, but is there any way I can make this work? I have college classes in the mornings, work or play rugby in the afternoons, and train for Army SF selection and study in the evenings. I pretty much do this during the week -- with longer workouts, more work hours or games on the weekends. I am not too worried about the academic load as I am in my last semester, but I am not seeing any progress in training. Any suggestions? -- Thanks, Kirby

One thing college teaches you is how to manage time. I remember a remarkably similar life while in college, juggling academics and project loads, military workouts, rugby practice, sleep and nutrition. You cannot burn the candle at both ends. I know this is a cliché, but think about the diagram below. When you see the load of stress you are under on the right side of the picture, you have to reduce it with an equal balance of recovery skills on the left side.

Think of your life as a balance board. On one side are all the ways we stress ourselves every day. When you have a high volume of stress from professional or scholastic requirements (or both), family and personal responsibilities, emotional worries, physical training or sports, you must have a significant number of stress mitigation techniques from the other side of the balance board to prevent burnout or long-term chronic stress.

In other words, you must actively pursue recovery to remain productive in any of your daily tasks. Otherwise, you will develop symptoms that show warning signs of stagnant productivity and progress before you eventually get injured, sick or burned out.

To avoid turning burnout into chronic stress, consider the following:

1. Timeline. Check your ego at the door, and do less right now. Why do you have to train hard-core for special ops training at this moment? Adjust your timeline so that you can have less to juggle in your life and more time to devote to good training, nutrition, recovery and sleep.

Special ops-level fitness requires special attention. You have to put in the time and push perceived limits while balancing yourself with the recovery required by high physical stress training.

You can still train to stay in shape for rugby and work on a few weaknesses, but there is no reason to be spec ops ready now. When you join the Army, you have Basic Combat Training (BMT), Infantry Training or Airborne Training before you start the selection prep process with the Army Special Forces Prep Course (SFPC).

It will take several months to a year before you even get to Army Special Force Assessment and Selection (SFAS), so do not be in a rush to be spec ops fit right now. After college, get on a spec ops training program.

2. Breathe. Breathing is our best and easiest recovery tool, one that offers immediate stress relief. Take big inhales followed by bigger exhales in the nose and out the mouth. This will help you unwind and focus on the task at hand if you find yourself easily distracted or unable to sleep.

Try box breathing: 4 seconds inhale through the nose, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds exhale through the mouth, 4 seconds hold (or extended exhale) and then repeat. This exercise, done in combination with a walk outdoors, will be even more helpful.

3. Assess Yourself. Check your weaknesses and strengths and start to focus on weaknesses when you have the time for any specific military training activity. For example, you will be required to run 2 miles fast, do pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups at high repetitions during selection. That's in addition to the new Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), which includes deadlifting, power throws, sled pulls, load-bearing activities and hanging knee-ups. That combination will be challenging if you are not used to it.

These exercises do not require a lot of work to improve your technique. If you need to get better on these strength skills, get to the weight room for 30- to 45-minute workouts. If you need to get faster at running, work on your speed and pace for timed runs during 20- to 30-minute workouts. Add in a PT pyramid if you need to focus on your PT scores.

You can fit some of these quick workouts into your busy day without overdoing it and eating up too much time. Save the rucking for weekends or when you have more time to give to your Special Forces-specific training.

You will find that your overall energy levels, attitude, physical and mental performance, and health will be much better if you focus on your recovery, find time to relax and breathe, and pull back on the intensity when it makes sense.

When you have less on your plate and more time to recover, you can go hard-core and see much better results with your spec ops prep -- and actually put in the time doing longer runs and rucks and other strength or muscle stamina activities.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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