Authors Note: I can only speak from a very limited scope and point of view, so this is by no means a comprehensive summary of this topic; more just an observation and some thoughts from a very small sliver of the pie.
The blogosphere of today’s strength and conditioning community is rife with advice, formulas, science, and probably some spells and incantations about how to maximize gains, increase size, optimize recovery, and synergistically employ the cognitive domain (check out THOSE buzzwords) all in the name of health. Despite the plethora of authors, opinions, and experiences, they all share some common factors:
- Consistency in training – Have a program, follow the program. Regular (smart) training and recovery
- Nutrition – eating quality foods for recovery and to encourage growth
- Rest – a key cornerstone; without this, you will blunt the majority of your results
I don’t pretend that those three encompass everything there is to be said, and I do recognize the existence of outliers (henceforth known as “unicorns”), but I think we can that these three factors are some of the most influential when it comes to health and fitness.
Unfortunately though, for many of the men and woman in today’s fitness community who are active duty or reserve military, one (or all) of these aspects can go out the window, especially on deployment. Before we go too far into it, I want to reiterate that I’m speaking from only a very SMALL perspective of the military community; I’ve deployed both on ships, and to land bases with the Navy and Air Force; since the ship deployments required the most planning when it came to these three components, I’ll speak from that point of view. I do recognize that in the scheme of things, trying to compare a deployment on a ship to a FOB somewhere in the desert doesn’t work by any means…but I digress, I can only speak from my experience and invite others to share theirs.
For those who haven’t been involved in the service or who don’t have a concept of deployment, I’ll do my best to paint a picture from my experience. First of all, imagine yourself in a space that’s about 500ft long and 60ft wide, that you can’t leave…for about 30-40 days. Your daily routine might look something like:
Wake up – 6AM
Breakfast – 6:30AM
Watch (think of this as a shift) – 7AM – 12PM*
Lunch – 1230
Work/Meetings – 1PM – 430PM
Dinner – 5PM
More work – 6 – 10PM
Watch – 10PM – 2AM*
Sleep – 2AM – 7AM
*Watches are typically broken up into the following cycles:
7AM – 12PM
12PM – 5PM
5PM – 10PM
10PM – 2AM
2AM – 7AM
Below is an example of a “3 section rotation”, which means your rotation would like:
7AM – 12PM 10PM – 2AM 12PM – 5PM 2AM – 7AM
The takeaway is that, in the time that you’re off, the expectation is that you eat, sleep, get your work done, and basically handle your business (ie workout/study/relax). I was in the three section rotation for about half of my deployment, which meant that for about 5 months I was on the full sleep/half sleep/no sleep schedule.
Food on the ship isn’t the greatest; whatever meals that are made have to be able to last in storage for a good amount of time, and have to be easy enough to mass produce (about 300 folks have to eat it). Breakfast isn’t too bad…eggs, some sort of meat, and fruit (if you’re lucky). Lunch and dinner can be hit or miss; sometimes its chicken, sometimes its pasta, and sometimes your options are pizza and hot wings. As far as gym equipment goes, we had 3-4 treadmills, a few bikes, a smith machine, a rowing machine, a dumbbell set up to about 90lbs, a leg extension machine, and a stair stepper. These were scattered around the ship, sometimes in rooms where your back would hit a valve or pipe when pulling too hard on a row, or a burpee meant you touch the ceiling (we were a moderate sized ship…some ships have MUCH less than this, while some have a lot more). You could go outside the ship and do some pull ups on the deck space, but the outside temp was about 110F with heavy humidity. Oh, and did I mention since it was a ship, we were rocking? Yep. Forward and back/side to side.
I don’t share this with you to try and toot my own horn, but more to try and paint a picture of what we were working with for 2/3 of a year. You always had to prioritize your free time; usually you had to decide whether you wanted to work out and eat a quick meal before getting back to work, or skip your workout (and possibly the meal) and just sleep because after weeks of long hours, you are tired enough to literally fall asleep standing up (saw it happen…almost had it happen to me). Let’s say you did choose to work out, then maybe you went to eat dinner and got a piece of meat that’s roughly the size of your hand (or maybe a little bigger), some iceberg lettuce or canned veggies, and washed it down with water or some nice condensed milk (you see why I spent about $400 on Steve’s Paleokits and packaged tuna). What about an early morning workout, to refuel with some eggs and bacon? Breakfast was usually no more than three eggs (have to have enough for everyone), and a few slices of bacon/processed meat. Plus this also meant sacrificing 1-2 hours of your already condensed sleep cycle for a workout.
So with all that being said, how did I and a few other guys get our fitness on? Simple…you just do. You carve out time through the day, even if that means sacrificing some sleep on the back end. You realize quickly where fitness falls on the priority list; is it something you do when it’s convenient and when everything else in your life is in order? Or is it something you’re willing to literally suffer the rest of the day for? You also have to come to terms with a lot when forging Deployed Fitness; you realize that you’re not going to pull a max deadlift or max clean, and decide to work on metabolic conditioning. You time your movements between the rocking (no joke) so you don’t accidentally pull yourself through the roof, or get crushed by a DB bench (rocking definitely makes rowing a lot more interesting…sometimes you’re fighting to get your pull in, and sometimes you have to make sure you don’t fly forward through the flywheel). When the only access you get to a free weight squat rack is maybe two days a month, you learn to count this time as precious. There were times after being at sea for 40 days where we would pull in, and ALL of my friends would be getting ready to go out to a nice restaurant and just get boozed up; as for me, I was grabbing my lifting shoes and putting on my shorts to head to the gym and get a heavy squat session in, followed by a decent meal and then heading to bed for the first full, uninterrupted 8 hour night in a month. It even affects how you spend your money in port; $300 can buy a great night for dinner and drinks, but it can also buy a month’s worth of quality pre-packed foods that you might have to rely on during this next period at sea.
More importantly, you realize how important this outlet is in your life. Sure, you might feel off after a long day at the office and you miss your workout, but when you don’t see the sun for days on end (it can happen), you have to deal with the same people (re: same bullshit) every day, and you slowly realize you’re living Groundhog Day, you understand how important this stress relief is, and how much better you truly feel even after just a 15 minute sweat session.
The goal of this article was to give you a small view of what it’s like to try and stay fit while in a deployed environment; like I said, this represents only a very view of what our service members go through. Some experiences are much easier, and some are much, much harder. If you have any questions or would like to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll gladly help out however I can.