Ask Stew: Getting Back in Shape After Returning from the Field  

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen and a simulated “survivor” watch as an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter comes in for a landing. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Taylor)
U.S. Air Force pararescuemen and a simulated “survivor” watch as an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter comes in for a landing. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Taylor)

In the tactical professions, we often train for the inevitable cycle of long work hours, shift work or deployments. However, when we do jobs such as fighting forest fires for 4 to 5 weeks, train with our unit in the field for a month or deploy for many months, the stress and workload, lack of sleep and poor food choices can wreak havoc on our health and job performance.

Here is a question from a soldier who just got back from a month-long training operation where work and stress levels were high, sleep was low (4-5 hours a day), and food consisted solely of Meals, Ready-to-Eat.

Stew, I am on my way back from a field training exercise for the past month and dying to get back into the weight room. We have had a busy time in the field that kept us busy missing sleep, good food, and with plenty of high stress. Any recommendations to build back up to where I was when I left? I was training for a Spartan Race where I lifted, did PT, and ran near daily.  

Thanks, Sam


Thanks for the note and for serving. I am glad you mentioned all that you went through during the field training exercise (FTX). Because after a month of little training, high stress, poor food and poor sleep, you are likely pretty shot from a burned-out central nervous system point of view.  

To be honest, the last thing you need to attempt is the workout that you were on when you left for training. Here is a list of recommendations I would progress through to get you back up to speed, but you need patience. See why:

  1. Take care of any hygiene and general health issues. From cuts, splinters, insect bites and ticks to dirt covering your body, get clean, brush your teeth, and check for any infections (red areas) on your skin.

  2. Work on your gut health. Eat real food. Get a good meal of yogurts, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, and lean meats, and rebuild a healthy gut to help you digest food properly. Search Gut Health and why it is important.

  3. Get some sleep. Your No. 1 recovery tool is sleep. Clean yourself, eat well and sleep well. You may want to go party, but listen to your tired/stressed-out body and get some sleep.

  4. Wake up and eat well again. Same gut health focus, but go to the gym and focus on mobility. Loosen up sore and tired muscles and joints. Do not go crazy in the gym. This is stretch PT and mild non-impact cardio. Do this for a few days, along with eating and sleeping well.

  5. Slowly add some resistance training. As your work schedule gets back to normal, start mixing in some resistance training, but focus on light weights, even machine weights to stretch out and lightly work muscles and joints. Follow all resistance training with some light cardio. If you feel like running, run. But keep it short and only at a cooldown pace. I would do moderate-to-easy workouts for a few days.

Some say that for every day of not working out/being in the field with poor recovery (food, sleep, stress), it will take you 1 to 2 days to get back to where you were. In other words, a month in the field will likely take you about two months to get back to where you were when you left. Usually, after a month of fixing your gut, getting sleep, eating for recovery/performance, you will feel like you are training at the same intensity you had been before you left for the FTX. But it will still take you a few more weeks to return to a Spartan Race performance level. High-stress training/work cycles come and go with the tactical professions. Knowing how to recover from them will help you avoid injury, avoid prolonging your burnout, and keep you healthy in the future. It will also help you avoid the many over-training/over-stress symptoms that occur with these jobs.

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