(Editor's note: This article is part of a series that offers methods and tips for improving physical performance. As with all physical training advice, one should consult a physician or otherwise trained and qualified professional before beginning any type of training regimen. In addition, understanding your limits and being acclimated to your surroundings is essential to the success of any training program.)

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (July 5, 2013) -- In the Profession of Arms, it is widely known that endurance is an important part of being a top Soldier. The challenge for many within the profession is execution.

Part of the solution to attaining peak performance is proper amounts and intensity of training. The other part is proper nutrition.

"Balanced nutrition supports training and can improve performance and health," said Theresa Osteen, a registered dietitian at Lyster Army Health Clinic.

Frequency and amount

While the exact amount each individual should eat varies from person to person, Osteen recommends eating regular meals every four-to-five hours during the day using a method like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Choose My Plate" nutrition guide to obtain all the nutrients needed to maintain muscle mass and bone density. The guide is available free online at www.choosemyplate.gov.

Osteen said about half a meal should include fruits and vegetables. A quarter of the meal should include complex carbohydrates like whole-grain pasta or potatoes.

The other quarter of a meal can include lean proteins, like a three-ounce portion of canned tuna packed in water or three-ounces of white-meat chicken, according to the Livestrong Foundation.

"There are many adjustments to the diet a Soldier can make to maximize their performance, but if they are not starting with basic healthy eating, no other adjustments will be as beneficial," said Osteen. "One of the most basic, but important, things I tell Soldiers is to eat your nutrients instead of drinking them or consuming them as supplements."

Osteen says portion sizes vary depending on the food, but overall a half a cup of a cooked or canned fruit or vegetables constitutes a single serving within the food group. This serving size is one cup if served raw. One ounce is a serving from grains. About three ounces, the size of the palm of most people's hands, is a serving of a meat or protein food, and one cup, about eight ounces, is a serving of milk or yogurt. You can include more than one serving from each of the food groups as long as weight is in a good range and the increase in a food group doesn't decrease another group.

Army Field Manual 7-22 Army Physical Readiness Training states, "Good nutrition practices helps ensure Soldiers have the needed vitamins and minerals for safe performance of exercise in hot environments. Sodium, potassium and B complex vitamins are lost through sweat and exertion in the heat. It is important to replenish calories lost during exercise with foods containing these nutrients. Try to eat within an hour after exercise. This will assist in recovery as the body is still burning calories at an elevated rate."

Hydration

Improper hydration is one of the most common, and potentially most dangerous, mistakes Osteen says Soldiers make when training.

"Hydration is very important for the body to function normally and is even more important when activities or heat are added that deplete the body fluid," said Osteen. "Balanced eating, along with staying hydrated daily, eliminates the need for sports drinks for most people. An exception would be someone participating in activities that occur over an extended period of time."

She added that water and electrolyte drinks, which contain sodium and potassium, help prevent dehydration. Carbohydrates can help delay fatigue.

Capt. Daniel Klinkner, the deputy director of training for Army National Guard Aviation and USA Track and Field certified Level 1 coach, said certain drinks are better than others.

"My recommendation is stay away from the citric acids … no orange juice or anything like that before the PT test run," Klinkner says.

Klinkner added that citric juices are OK to drink after a workout, but consuming them before could lead to one developing some acid reflux symptoms and possibly throwing up.

Field Manual 7-22 also states, "Ensuring that Soldiers are properly hydrated and receive regular, adequate nutrition is a good way to prevent the onset of heat injuries. Water is the preferred hydration fluid before, during and after physical training activities."

The manual recommends Soldiers drink 13 to 20 ounces of cool water at least 30 minutes before beginning exercise. This is about two glasses of water. After exercise, drink to satisfy thirst, then drink a little more.

Avoidance of alcoholic beverages and soft drinks is recommended because these are not suitable for proper hydration and recovery, according to FM 7-22. Electrolyte drinks may be consumed, but are not required, and contain a considerable number of additional calories.

The manual also warns of the effects of consuming too much water. One should limit intake to no more than 1.5 quarts per hour during periods of heavy exertion.

Things to do for top performance

The world's top athletes ensure they are properly fueled before the start of events. Soldiers should also strive for top performance.

"What I brief to my guys is definitely fuel your body prior to the PT test," said Klinkner.

Klinkner recommends one eating a banana and a couple pieces of bread or toast for a quick snack before the PT test. He said that one should wash that down with some water, apple juice or an electrolyte drink.

"You got to eat before you run," says Klinkner. "The problem is (exercisers have) gone 12 hours without any food. You got to put something in the system that's going to provide some energy, something to pull from, while you're working."

After conducting a PT test or working out is the time to refuel the body with a meal or a snack for recovery, says Osteen. This meal should contain both protein and carbohydrates. The amounts needed are different for each person.

"A good post meal or snack may contain low-fat chocolate milk, whole-grain bread with peanut butter and banana or yogurt plus fruit or a protein- and carbohydrate-containing sports bar," said Osteen.

Things to avoid

Osteen said one should avoid all performance-enhancing supplements unless a medical provider, such as a primary care manager or dietitian, has recommended it.

"It is important to know that supplements are not regulated like medication or food are," said Osteen. "You can be getting questionable substances and amounts from them."

She said taking supplements can help one elevate performance to pass a PT test, but adds that the supplements many are using are not recommended to be used at all because of the dangerous and potential deadly side effects they can cause. In addition, legal ramifications may results, depending on what products are used.

Instead of relying on supplements and enhancers, Klinkner recommends shopping for natural foods in the grocery store.

"When you do your grocery shopping, if you can stay on the outside aisles of the grocery store -- if that's where the primary and majority of your food purchases come from - you're good to go," said Klinkner. "That's where all the healthy and fresh food is (located)."

Klinkner added that if one starts getting into the processed food areas of the store, the health value of those foods is significantly less or nonexistent.

"Foods with partially-hydrogenated oils are very difficult for your body to break down and it's not natural," said Klinkner.

Additional resources

Osteen said that every person differs on how much they should consume based on height, weight, age, body composition, activity level, if they have any health problems, and if they are trying to lose, gain or maintain their weight. Lyster Army Health Clinic patients can visit the nutrition care clinic Mondays through Fridays from 7:30-8 a.m. to have a basic assessment done to determine how much they should be consuming.

The clinic also offers individual and group appointments to assess and treat Soldiers, retirees and Family members who have diseases that include nutrition as part of the treatment plan. This includes, but is not limited to, diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, Crohn's disease, Celiac, gastrointestinal disorders, nutrient deficiencies, cancer, underweight, feeding and swallowing problems, eating disorders, tube feeding and obesity. The clinic also performs metabolic testing for patients as well as provide general classes on healthy cooking and food shopping.

Bottom line

Many Soldiers know it is an obligation to take care of themselves physically to execute their mission, and this includes fueling the body properly. This is an obligation owed to the nation and anybody else one cares about.

"If the body doesn't have the right fuel up to several days prior to an event," said Osteen, "it will not be able to function the way it needs to in order to perform to the best it is capable of performing."

Page last updated Fri July 5th, 2013 at 00:00