Optimizing Health Wellness and Performance of the Tactical Athlete

Optimizing Health Wellness and Performance of the Tactical Athlete

Written by Ben Bunting: BA, PGCert. (Sport & Exercise Nutrition), British Army Physical Training Instructor.  

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Tactical athletes, primarily law enforcement, firefighter, and military personnel, need general health and wellness programs designed to maximize their job-related performance.

These programs may focus on strength, endurance, power, speed, and anaerobic fitness. Deficiencies in any area of fitness compromise safety, mission success, and increase risk of musculoskeletal injury.

Stress Management

Stress is the physical, mental and emotional response your body gets when it perceives a challenge or danger. It's a normal part of life, but it can become overwhelming and harmful when it's chronic.

Everyone experiences stress, whether it's from a big event like a job loss or death in the family or from everyday hassles and demands. But long-term stress can damage your health and make you more likely to develop a mental health disorder.

Managing stress can help you stay healthy and prevent the development of diseases that are associated with high levels of stress, such as heart disease and cancer. It can also help you get the most out of your life and improve your ability to handle difficult situations.

There are many ways to manage your stress, including talking with a doctor, using medications or seeing a therapist. You can also learn stress-relieving techniques, such as meditation or yoga.

The key to stress management is to avoid letting stress control your life. You can use a few simple strategies to reduce your stress, such as taking a walk or doing an exercise routine.

You should practice these strategies regularly, especially when you feel stressed or anxious. Some of them take only a few minutes, but they can help you feel calmer in the moment.

Athletes and coaches who are looking for new ways to improve their performance are turning to mindfulness practices. These include meditation, breathing exercises and mindful eating. These methods have been shown to reduce stress and promote resilience in athletes.

Another option is to engage in hobbies that are enjoyable and make you feel good, such as painting or running. You can also spend time with friends or family to give you a boost of positive energy when you're feeling stressed.

Tactical athletes must be prepared to deal with the varying degrees of stress that they face on a daily basis. This includes dealing with the stresses of their jobs or life events, as well as the pressures of training and competition. These factors can lead to fatigue and recovery issues, which is why facilitators need to be aware of these aspects in order to optimize the health wellness and performance of their teams.

Sleep

Sleep is an integral and essential component of the overall health wellness and performance of the tactical athlete. It influences short- and long-term physical, psychological, and cognitive functioning through the processes of sleep entrainment and regulation, sleep disruptions, sleep deprivation, and sleep recovery. The importance of sleep in the context of athletics is well-established and is increasingly recognized over the past decade, which has penetrated just about every professional sport domain.

Athletes must balance the demands of training, travel, and competition while navigating other aspects of their day-to-day lives that may influence their ability to achieve and maintain healthy levels of sleep. Moreover, athletes are often subject to adversity and psychological stress related to competitive performance that can negatively impact their sleep health and overall wellness.

Furthermore, travel across time zones may disrupt the circadian rhythm, which can negatively influence the timing of entrained physiological processes that are critical to sleep and wake functionality. This has been shown to negatively impact both sleep quality and ability, resulting in a negative impact on cognitive function as well.

Increasing the amount and quality of research on sleep health in professional athletes is crucial for better understanding the role of sleep on competitive performance, addressing any underlying factors that negatively impact sleep, and improving treatment outcomes. Specifically, professional researchers should design longitudinal studies that leverage the best available modern measurement tools for subjectively (e.g., digitally delivered questionnaires/sleep diaries) and objectively capturing the multidimensional components of sleep health while athletes navigate variations in training, travel, and competition as well as other changes in mental and physical well-being.

In addition, the use of wearable technology to measure sleep and monitor progress can assist in this endeavor. However, these devices must be selected carefully for their appropriateness and effectiveness. These devices must be comfortable to wear, have long battery life, and be able to detect the sleep stages at which the athlete falls asleep and rises.

There are existing interventions that have been shown to improve sleep health among athletes, including sleep extension paradigms, supplementary daytime naps, sleep hygiene practices, and circadian-based strategies. These interventions are used to assist athletes with achieving sufficient sleep duration across their main sleep period, as well as providing support for periods when achieving this is not possible due to various factors such as travel and competition schedule congestion. 

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Nutrition

In order to maintain a healthy body, it is important for individuals to consume a variety of nutritious foods. The nutrients in foods provide the body with energy and help it to perform daily activities. A healthy diet also helps to prevent disease and keep the body at a desirable weight and composition.

Nutrition is the process of consuming and absorbing nutrients from food, drinks, and supplements to meet the needs of the body. It is essential for health and wellbeing, and can also be used to enhance performance in sports and other activities.

As a result of the physical demands of their work, tactical athletes require physical training to achieve occupational goals such as being able to carry heavy objects and equipment, respond to emergency situations, and perform life and death tasks under stress. In order to optimize their health wellness and performance, it is important for tactical athletes to develop and implement a well-balanced diet with dietary guidance.

Tactical athletes need to maximize nutrient intake by eating meals with adequate carbohydrate, protein, and fat. These components are necessary for the body to function properly, as well as promote muscle growth and recovery.

To optimize nutritional intake for tactical athletes, it is necessary to develop guidelines that are tailored to their unique needs. These guidelines should focus on a combination of nutritional interventions to support: (1) adequate dietary energy and carbohydrate intake; (2) controlled dietary fat intake with consideration of population recommendations of reducing saturated fat and prioritizing unsaturated fat intake; and (3) moderate, high-quality protein intake that is not prioritized at the expense of other macronutrients.

The Tactical Athlete Nutrition Score (TANS) is a tool developed to assess a tactical athlete’s dietary intake to identify their nutrient deficiency risks and provide them with specific recommendations. It was developed by reviewing current science-based evidence, observations during mealtimes at fire stations and informal interviews with firefighters, and an expert judgment exercise.

Tactical athletes need a diet that provides them with adequate vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids to maximize their strength, speed, endurance, and overall health. These nutrients are found in various foods, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and grains.

Recovery

Recovery is a complex process that involves the individual as well as the surrounding environment. It is an ongoing and evolving process that is built on strengths, incorporating occasional setbacks and learning from experience.

A strong foundation of recovery is necessary to optimize health wellness and performance in the tactical athlete. This requires a long-term approach to building recovery habits and maintaining a high level of discipline.

Tactical athletes are often asked to perform in extreme situations that require maximal output from the cardiovascular system without any warm up, with little or no prior warning. This sudden need for maximum output of the cardiovascular system can be extremely dangerous and potentially life-threatening.

Therefore, it is crucial to incorporate hydration guidelines into a tactical athlete's fitness program to ensure optimal health and performance. The Institute for Medicine recommends that 2.7 L (11.5 cups) and 3.7 L (15.5 cups) of total water per day are sufficient to support optimal health, performance and cognition. Dehydration can have serious implications for a tactical athlete's health, performance, and ability to meet mission demands.

Optimal hydration supports essential physiological processes, including hydrolysis, heat absorption, joint lubrication, and waste removal. It also promotes a sense of well-being and can help to mitigate the effects of stress.

The ability to hydrate effectively can be a challenge for tactical athletes due to the extreme conditions they encounter and their work schedules. A lack of consistent hydration practices among this group has been linked to decreased levels of physical and mental performance.

To reduce the risks of dehydration, it is important to incorporate a three-step approach within a tactical population's fitness program to evaluate hydration status, monitor and weigh for adequate fluid intake and reevaluate on a regular basis. A thorough hydration evaluation should consider factors such as ambient temperature, clothing, physical activity and exposure to toxins.

Tactical athletes should also have access to a wide variety of nutritional supplements to meet their needs. Some of these include beta-alanine, caffeine and creatine monohydrate. Supplements can be utilized to provide a health or performance benefit such as enhanced endurance, cognitive function and neuroprotection.

Conclusion

The physical requirements for tactical athletes, such as military service members, law enforcement personnel, firefighters and emergency responders, can be significant and unique. They may require direct physical trauma and long movements under load. Moreover, they frequently need to suddenly perform high-risk tasks, such as sprinting or navigating obstacles, during mission-related activities.

A significant burden of musculoskeletal injuries has been identified in this population, as well. The rates of injuries among tactical athletes are comparable to the incidence of musculoskeletal injury in non-military patients, but they vary depending on the athlete’s profession and occupational duties. In addition, injured tactical athletes often experience more prolonged rehabilitation and reconditioning than nonathletic patients. Injured patients also face significant administrative and financial burdens if they are not able to return to their occupation.

Tactical athletes have no off-season, so they need to maintain a strong body and mind throughout their career for optimal performance. Developing optimal training and nutrition programs are essential to their success and longevity.

Getting to know your nutritional needs and habits will help you find a program that fits you best, as well as provide you with individualized support along the way. For example, if you’re working to build muscle, you might need to increase your daily protein intake, and if you’re trying to reduce chronic inflammation, you may want to supplement with phytonutrients.

Lastly, make sure you keep track of your progress. This could be in the form of a journal, voice notes or a video of your workouts. You’ll be amazed at how much you can change over time when you take the time to really reflect and set goals.

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