Military fitness training takes more than just building muscle and increasing your endurance on training runs in combat boots. For some soldiers, the physical part of fitness is easier than the mental fitness required to thrive during military bootcamp and during your entire military career.
Why? Because you can see the results of your training when you’re building up muscle and strength; you can feel the results of your physical training when your cardiovascular system is conditioned and you recover after running and hiking. However, you cannot always measure your mental toughness. In most cases, your head doesn’t get bigger!
Mental Toughness and Military Fitness Training
You’ve probably heard the term “mental toughness” before, right? It’s what is supposed to help you get past “the wall” during training, allow you to push yourself that extra mile when you just feel like quitting, and help you to stay focused during a mission no matter what’s going on around you.
So how do you learn to basically train your brain and body to have a healthy response to the stress of military life, combat, or special assignments like becoming a Navy Seal or Army Ranger? There is an element of nutritional and dietary supplemental support that your body can use to fortify it from the inside. And then there is something else.
The key, according to a 2009 research report entitled “Age-Matched Comparison of Elite and Non-elite Military Performers during Free Living and Intense Operational Stress” is to be able to identify overt versus non-overt challenges.
The Mental Toughness Report
One group was Navy Seals. The other group (while referred to as “non-elite” for lack of a better term) was recent graduates of the 5-week Aviation Rescue Swimmer School. The study notes that the “non-elite” group had training that was mentally stressful and physically rigorous. The label did not suggest that they were not capable of handling tough situations.
The study consisted of questionnaires, collection of saliva to measure cortisol levels, and heart monitoring as well as how they reacted physically and mentally during Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School.
There were some noted differences between the two groups. Now, for those training to be a Navy Seal, you can see the importance (and advantages) of mental toughness. This affects how well you do your job and also plays an important role in your overall health. Mental toughness will condition you to face the stress and threats that you will be confronted with.
- The Navy Seals seem to get more restful sleep based on their measure of “heart rate dipping”. This suggests that they are able to recover more quickly after a stressful situation.
- Physiological stress was measured by the cortisol levels (an indicator of stress) between the two groups during SERE training. When there was what’s called an “overt challenge”, meaning it’s in-your-face and happening right now, the cortisol responses of the two groups were similar. However, in a tense situation that didn’t have an “overt challenge”, the Navy Seals had a lower cortisol response than the “non-elite” group.
Mental Toughness Can be Learned with Military Fitness Training
As the report stated, “…Elite participants also demonstrated more ‘selective’ stress responses than non-elite participants. We define selectivity as ‘the innate or learned ability to generate an adaptive stress response in the presence of overt threat while effectively suppressing stress responses in the absence of overt threat.”
To be successful, you have to know which high stress situations you are faced with are life-threatening (overt) and which are not. And you have to train your body to respond accordingly and recover quickly from those high-intense activities.
You need to learn mental toughness. And SEAL Command Psychologist, Commander Eric Potterat believes it can be taught. The mental toughness program which you will undergo when training to be a Navy Seal covers these four mental skills:
- Focus on what’s right in front of you. This is short-term goal setting such as “how am I going to get through the next 20 minutes.”
- Visual success – learn to get your game face on and see yourself succeeding. Be willing to do what’s necessary to win. It’s been said, “…if you’re not willing to give up everything, you’ve already lost.”
- Allow only positive talk. It’s easy to start beating yourself up when something goes wrong. Stop! Focus on what’s working and focus on the next positive thing that’s going to happen.
- Don’t panic. This can be a tough one but you can, in fact, control your body’s response in times of stress. Breathe. Inhale deeply, hold the breath, and then exhale completely. Do this a couple of times and let that feeling of panic pass by. The extra oxygen helps your brain to think more clearly and respond appropriately to whatever is going on.
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Age-Matched Comparison of Elite and Non-elite Military Performers during
Free Living and Intense Operational Stress