One needs an ample supply of mental toughness to hack it in the Marine Corps. From day one of boot camp, the emphasis on physical fitness and the tolerance of misery is made clear. There is no getting around it. Weak-bodied young men are turned into PT studs, or at the very least lose their baby fat. They learn the beauty of the pull-up bar, crunches, and a three-mile run.
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Ahhh, the memories…
At the end of my all-inclusive stay at MCRD San Diego, I lost 30 pounds and could hoist my pale body above the pull-up bar for double-digit reps. Like everyone else, I learned to push past doubts and the mental limits my mind had created for what I could and could not do. Ironman’s phrase of “Anything is Possible” became a mantra even before I knew what a triathlon was.
In the fleet, physical training continued. Most mornings we ran a few miles and knocked out a few max sets of pull-ups. Some days were harder than others, but rest and recovery or “easy days” were not emphasized and regarded as laziness. When your branch of the military views pain as “weakness leaving the body,” the more pain the merrier. After all, it’s not good training until someone throws up.
As much as I gained from the Marine Corps approach, sticking to this after I was discharged into civilian life did not always work well. The physical toll caught up with me and after a few days or weeks of this, I often found myself mentally and/or physically burnt out. To make matter worse I added poor nutrition, binge drinking, and inadequate sleep. See if you can relate to my pattern of exercise:
- Look in the mirror and feel utter disgust
- thrash myself in a workout
- keep this up for a few days
- suffer muscle tightness/overuse/pull a muscle
- get hurt/sick/wiped out and not exercise again for a few weeks or months
Many athletes know that training needs to be periodized. Difficult training sessions need to be gradually ramped up and at the appropriate pace for the body to absorb the benefits through adequate recovery. Willing myself to a higher level of fitness was not enough by itself.
Here are a few of the ways I misused what I learned in the Marine Corps.
1- Go all-out every day
This does not work for an extended period of time. Eventually, the body needs time to recover. During the rest days and sleep at night the body repairs the micro-tears in muscle groups to strengthen and fully absorb the gains. This is how we get stronger. Instead, Yoga, walking, and stretching are best for recovery days.
A great way to track your status is by using a Heart-rate variability (HRV) app. Once your baseline HRV is established, a simple two-minute test will determine if you can train hard, light, or take a rest day. Some of these apps don’t even require a heart-rate monitor – they use your phone’s camera and flash pressed against your finger.
2- Static stretching before a workout
Static stretches are best used after a workout when the muscles are already warmed up. Before then, cold muscles don’t stretch too far and it is easy to strain or even tear a muscle when forcing it too far. The best approach is dynamic stretching to warm the body up. Horrible, but well-intentioned advice to “bounce” in and out of a hurdler stretch was a fantastic way to pull a hamstring.
3- I’ll sleep when I’m dead
Yeah sure, but you’ll die much sooner and live a life of unrealized gains without adequate recovery. Without enough sleep, our bodies cannot repair themselves from the stress of physical exercise. Even after one night of sub-par sleep, we can find ourselves craving sugar-laden foods for energy.
Mark Sisson outlines the importance of sleep in an article that shows how an increase in sleep translated into faster times for collegiate swimmers and football players (doing shuttle runs). But seriously, does anyone really need to be convinced on how refreshed we feel after a night of quality sleep? To adjust for early morning workouts I simply go to bed earlier now. If I find myself still behind in sleep, I take a 20-minute power nap during the day.
4- Push through the pain
There are a couple types of pain when it comes to exercise. One is the discomfort of lactic acid burning in your muscles from a strenuous effort: the soreness of your butt in the saddle of a long bike ride, or that last rep on the pull-up bar. The second is the pain of overuse. That’s shin splints, a stiff IT band, sore knees, a strained back muscle, sprained ankle. This kind of pain isn’t “weakness leaving the body,” it’s your body desperately asking you to stop. Sometimes the fix is some mobility work. Sometimes the solution is to rest and reexamine your training regiment. In general, many coaches recommend no more than a 10% increase in training volume each week.
5-I can eat whatever I want and burn it off.
This is wishful thinking. While it’s true that athletes like Michael Phelps ingest massive amounts of calories while racing, a lifestyle of eating over-processed junk or consuming empty calories in the form of sodas or alcoholic beverages is not conducive to a fit figure. Overeating junk ususally leads to feeling terrible and the need to thrash yourself the next day as a punishment, which makes you ravenous for more junk. See how this can become a vicious cycle?
Staying outside of the low-carb/high-carb arguments, many experts agree that eating foods closer to their natural state is a good template for eating. In his book, “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan lays out the case for eating things closer to their natural state. In general, I aim to eat nutrient-dense foods to get the biggest bang for my buck.
To simplify it: eat garbage as a reward and you’ll feel terrible & get fat.
The positives I learned in the Marine Corps far outweigh the negatives. Even the list above is mostly a collection of ways I misused a set of skills out of context. The mental toughness required for the infantry and endurance sports alike is the most important assett one can aqcuire. But once honed, we need to respect our bodies and see fitness and health as a progression. Having patience with the limitations of how much our body can handle as well as the time and discipline of adequate recovery is another form of mental toughness – the mindset to withstand the insecurities and voices that tell us we need to thrash our bodies in order to deal with mental discomfort or feelings of inadequacy. As with most things in life, striking the right balance is a matter of continual evaluation. Enjoy the journey.