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Unlike with the average Joe, professional athletes, and tactical athletes in this case, minor changes in nutrition can truly make or break your performance and recovery. For most of us it likely doesn’t matter what we eat before or after the gym, and as long as we generally hit our nutrition goals we’ll see results. But when you’re pushing your body to extremes to get just a little bit stronger, faster, leaner, etc. the small details really start to matter.
So what better place to learn how nutrition impacts your performance than taking a look at the most extreme output on the planet – Navy SEAL Hell Week.
As a former Navy SEAL dietitian stationed out of Coronado, CA, one of my primary responsibilities was developing and overseeing the menu for BUDs Hell Week. This included targeting nutrition and timing to not only provide these extreme athletes enough calories to keep going, but support recovery, and reduce the chances of developing one of the many health complications that came along with the training.
While nutrition didn’t necessarily act as the determining factor for success in Hell Week, it was a crucial component and there is a lot to be learned from it. Here’s the breakdown on Hell Week: how it works, what happens to your body, and what you can learn from it to make yourself an even better athlete.
Basic Underwater Demolition training or BUDs, is a grueling six-month training program that puts students to the test, to see if they have what it takes to become a Navy SEAL (1). While the entire program is extremely difficult to complete and only 1 in 5 make it through, the most famous make-or-break moment happens at week four – Hell Week (2).
Hell Week is a non-stop mental, physical, social and emotional undertaking that eliminates roughly 50% of the students that go into it.
Imagine not sleeping for four days, while constantly working out in cold water, sand and mud. Then add an extra layer of mental stress thrown your way and you’ve begun to scratch the surface of how tough this week really is.
This level of extreme endurance training puts major strain on your body – trainees are taxed with deep friction wounds, extreme swelling and inflammation, and are at risk for hypoglycemia, hypothermia and swimming induced pulmonary edema (SIPE).
You know how marathon runners chafe in weird places? BUDs trainees suffer from an extreme version of this with friction wounds. Constant chafing in a sandy and wet uniform can do some serious damage to your skin. And the wounds you see are deep and continue to worsen as the week goes on.
Additionally, your immune system is already impaired from lack of sleep, and with no breaks, there is zero time to heal. This can lead to “tunneling”- when a wound spreads into and through tissue or muscle beneath the skin. Yes, you can actually get tunnels of wounds in your body.
Prolonged intense exercise in general has been linked to increased risk of upper respiratory infection (3). But this inflammation coupled with blood vessel constriction in cold water, increased blood pressure from lack of sleep, low blood sugar from inadequate energy supply and dehydration from constant output create the perfect cocktail for severe upper respiratory issues, like SIPE (4).
While most will recover from SIPE, it is incredibly uncomfortable to go through. Imagine feeling like someone is constantly sitting on your chest and water is pouring into your lungs – almost a little like you’re drowning slowly.
And for the icing on the cake, as little as 24 hours without sleep leads to symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia (5). This can definitely affect your eating habits when you feel like you are seeing and hearing things. You may even start asking yourself, is this food a mirage?
While only the strongest physically and mentally make it through, what you eat at this level of performance can certainly affect how well you hold up (6).
Students going through BUDs need about 5,000 calories per day to maintain their lean mass. This amount increases to well over 8,000 calories during Hell Week. Even the biggest bodybuilders on the planet have a hard time eating this much. Especially when you’re trying to get 100% of these calories from food and beverages only.
Instead of trying to eat mountains of nutrient dense foods, you’ll want to try and get as much energy as possible into a reasonable serving size. Because yes, you will have to start training as soon as you finish eating and may even throw up some of your lunch.
Fatty foods and high calorie beverages become critical for energy – you basically want to eat the opposite of what you would tell anyone trying to lose weight. Add butter, oils, creamy sauces, cheese, sugar, and load up on breaded proteins to add calories without adding too much volume.
Your macro balance and adequate micronutrients are also crucial to success. Carbs are non-negotiable. It is impossible to survive BUDs without carbs. You need a lot of them, and all day long.
Carbohydrates are the body’s quickest source of fuel – consuming carbs allows you to get energy fast when you need it, compared to fat and protein that you have to work a little harder for. And in non-stop movement, your body has no time to replenish lost stores and needs a constant supply.
Any lack of carbs at extended performance levels can lead to hypoglycemia, dangerously low blood sugar, which may increase the risk of hypothermia during cold water workouts (7).
Protein is essential for preventing excessive lean muscle wasting as well as supporting wound healing. Getting enough protein can help keep friction wounds from getting too out of control.
Vitamins and minerals are also important. Deficiencies can occur more quickly, and essential nutrients are needed to maintain normal function. Students are told to salt all of their food to prevent hyponatremia and include nutrient dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, to provide antioxidants to counteract the high amounts of inflammation that occur.
And just when you thought the pain was over, this level of training creates an unusual added layer of eating difficulties that limits what you are able to comfortably consume. Lack of rest, coupled with high output and cold and sandy conditions, puts some wear and tear on your esophagus which can create swallowing difficulties and a harsh reaction to acidic or spicy foods. Think about how your throat gets a little sore after staying up too late too many days in a row, and multiply that times one hundred.
Bowel regularity also suffers – when you are working out, your body prioritizes blood flow away from the gut and to the muscles, which after a long time can cause digestive problems.
Soft, bland, high calorie foods like mashed potatoes with gravy, pasta, chicken nuggets, bread with jam, and steamed veggies with loads of butter are meal staples during this week, paired with juice, milk, and sports drinks.
And in case you were wondering, dessert is never offered – it’s Hell Week; you don’t get any luxuries, not even dessert.
After the worst/best week of your life, and medical treatment aside, there are a few dietary approaches to helping you recover.
Eating the wrong foods could make recovery harder. Even though the first thing you think of is dessert, pizza or a bacon cheeseburger, your body needs recovery fuel more than it needs calories. Your focus should be on restoring glycogen with easily absorbed carbs, supporting wound healing with protein, and reducing inflammation with healthy fats and nutrient dense foods.
Here are a few options we used:
If the diet for the most extreme training program in the world can teach you anything, it’s that no matter how strong, dedicated or determined you are, poor nutrition could ruin everything.
In the simplest terms, your body needs food to survive. And everything you eat will be prioritized according to this one basic principle. At the highest level of work your body is just trying to make it through. So, when you’re eating for performance, get the basics down first.
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