FORT BLISS, Texas - As the nation slowly re-opens, Soldiers are resuming their battle rhythms while continuing to adhere to strict COVID-19 safety precautions, which can make training for combat-ready fitness and performance levels especially challenging.
Soldiers are encouraged to wear masks and gloves and maintain social distancing even during the toughest physical training sessions.
Despite these less structured times, it is important for Soldiers to stay in top form in order to maximize performance output and carry out missions effectively, according to Capt. Amber Oates, Physical Therapist at the 4th Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
“The reason we prepare and emphasize physical fitness is because when the time comes to fight our fight, that’s the time it’s going to matter,” said Oates. “We're only as strong as the weakest link, so it's every Soldier's duty to take their physical fitness and performance levels into their own hands.”
Soldiers who have not kept up with their fitness levels during the pandemic might feel pressured into going extra hard in an effort to catch up with the rest of their formation, but according to Capt. Allison Hart, Physical Therapist at the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 1BCT, 1AD, the key to safely returning back to exercise after a period of undertraining or no training at all is going back to square one and rebuilding your foundation.
“You’ve got to keep your ego in check and make sure you don’t return to the same weight level you were at before COVID,” said Hart. “If you're a Soldier that used to squat 400 pounds but you haven’t really lifted barbells in three months, you put yourself at risk for injury.”
“Take things easy for two or three weeks and rebuild your foundation gradually; the first day back in the gym isn't the day to do your one rep maxes,” said Oates. “Start with lower repetitions and less weight and see how you feel.”
Soldiers can use soreness as an indicator of whether or not they are overexerting themselves.
“If you haven’t worked out in a while and you’re sore for a day, that’s perfectly normal,” said Oates. “But if you’re sore for 48- 72 hours after a workout, then you’ve over-trained and need to dial it back.”
Soldiers that have gained the ‘Quarantine 15’ will need to pay extra attention to their eating, sleeping, and hydration habits on top of returning to a regular workout schedule.
“When it comes to weight loss, having adequate amounts of protein, quality sleep, and staying hydrated 24/7 are going to be the keys to success,” said Oates.
BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES / MAKESHIFT WEIGHTS
Soldiers with limited access to gym equipment should look to implementing bodyweight exercises as part of their fitness routine.
“Bodyweight exercises are the easiest because it requires no equipment, and you can go out and do it anywhere,” said Hart. “I know a lot of our soldiers do it, especially during the pandemic.”
If bodyweight isn’t enough, Hart recommends adding some weight and resistance by utilizing household items you may have on hand.
“It’s really easy to add in some makeshift weight equipment to your exercises to provide a little bit of progression and resistance,” said Hart.
“You just need to think a little bit outside of the box,” added former marine sergeant Paul Lopez, a strength & conditioning coach at the 16th Engineer Battalion, 1BCT, 1AD. “You can use a filled duffel bag or rucksack, a gallon of water, headgear; you can even tailor a lifting program by adding more weight to your duffel bags in increments.”
However, it is not recommended to wear body armor while doing high impact exercises such as running, jumping, or jogging as it can put too much stress on the joints, warns Oates.
Bodyweight Exercise Examples: Push-ups, lunges, planks, crunches, mountain climbers, burpees
Makeshift Weight Examples: IOTV and plates, rucksacks, ACH, water jug, duffel bag, gym bag
When it comes to taking care of your body, post-workout recovery is just as important as working out itself.
“Everyone wants to work out hard but not much thought is given to the recovery part like stretching, foam rolling and mobility work,” said Hart. “But it's a huge component for maximizing your athletic performance when you’re running and lifting, and for preventing injuries that are going to take you out of the field.”
“Post-workout, the first recovery exercises you want to do is static stretching,” said Oates. “That’s when you sit down and perform long-hold stretches like the hamstring stretch, glute stretch and quad stretch, for at least 45 seconds per stretch,” said Oates.
Next, Oates recommends rolling exercises for myofascial release (the loosening of the muscles) to help your body recover even quicker.
“Gently apply pressure for about 45 seconds to roll out tight muscles with either a foam roller (for larger muscles like quads), or a lacrosse ball (for smaller muscles like the shoulders and feet),” said Oates.
Sleep is another major part of the recovery process and key to achieving optimum performance levels and staying combat ready.
“Most people just think about sleep as ‘okay just go to sleep and then wake up the next day’, but it’s actually the most important thing that you can do for recovery because it’s when your body repairs, rebuilds and restores itself,” said Lopez.
After a long work day it is common for Soldiers to unwind and spend time with friends and family, but those who want to thrive and not just survive in their missions should avoid late nights.
“Soldiers will stay up late and then wonder why their bodies are still sore the next morning; it’s because they didn't sleep properly overnight to get their body and muscles to properly heal and recover,” said Nick Elicone, a strength & conditioning coach at the 2-3 FA, 1BCT, 1AD.
According to Hart, it’s not just about getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but making sure that you’re getting quality sleep.
“We all know that we need to get more sleep, but if you can only get six hours of sleep a night you want to make sure it’s the best six hours you can possibly get,” said Hart.
Tips to Improve Sleep Quality: Sleep in a cool dark room for the optimal sleep environment, no caffeine at least six hours before bed, put away all electronic devices one hour before bed, don’t fall asleep to the TV, maintain a regular sleep schedule as much as possible on duty and off-duty days.
ARMY PHYSICAL THERAPISTS
Soldiers who over-train or end up getting injured should look to Army physical therapists for faster recovery.
Physical therapists focus on musculoskeletal (joints, muscles, nerves) injuries, acute injuries and chronic injuries.
Athletic injuries can be treated at hospitals, but for 1AD Soldiers it’s much more efficient to meet with the physical therapist embedded in their unit.
“One of the really cool things about our H2F program and being a battalion level asset is that people can walk in and see me whenever they want,” said Oates. “We want to treat people the moment they are injured, not three weeks later like it is at some hospitals. By the time you're seen at the hospital it’ll have been almost a month, when really it’s an injury that could have been treated and addressed a lot earlier with better results.”
“Don't just sit there for a month with a sprained ankle when you can just reach out to us,” said Hart. “Take advantage of the resources that the 1AD H2F teams provide you.”
ARMY STRENGTH & CONDITIONING COACHES
Strength & conditioning coaches are also embedded in each 1AD unit. Their main goals are to get Soldiers fit for combat and help them attain the physical stamina and endurance necessary to perform their duties at full capacity.
“My job is to make sure Soldiers are physically ready for combat, so that if one of you for some reason goes down, that soldier over there can pick you up and get you out of there or get you back into the fight,” said Lopez.
Strength & conditioning coaches conduct unit sessions at leadership’s request, but they also provide personalized programs for Soldiers to utilize on their own.
“Everything is very individualized and we try to tailor it as much as we can to the soldier,” said Elicone.
“This can be for Soldiers that want to do something extra on top of their PT in the morning, Soldiers that feel like they are lacking in something or even Soldiers that want to get fit for specialty roles like SF or Ranger School,” added Lopez.
Soldiers are highly encouraged to reach out to their coaches for questions and concerns as well.
“We have an open door policy, so come on down and if you have any questions.” said Elicone. “No question is a dumb question and I would rather Soldiers ask, rather than do something wrong and injure their bodies.”
Army Wellness Centers (AWC): Centers that provide programs and services that improve and sustain health, performance, and readiness of the Total Army delivered by highly trained health professionals. https://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/healthyliving/al/Pages/ArmyWellnessCenters.aspx