Special Operations Training

This is the first in a series of articles in which I will discuss the physiological and psychological aspects of special operator training. This series will introduce a conceptual framework for training these unique athletes effectively. Each article will give a deeper look at a different concept in the training model that I’m going to outline in this first article.

Before we discuss the different aspects of training a special operator, we first need to define what exactly a special operator really is. To do that, we’ll look at the demands that an operator is regularly faced with.

Demands on the special operator

Operators need to be capable of handling a variety of situations ranging from a few seconds of high output to long periods of sustained effort.

The variability in the operational environment lends itself to an operator who thrives in demanding and rapidly changing environments from a physiological and psychological perspective.

From a purely physiological perspective, operators need to be good at everything without losing adaptability by over-specializing in any one area.

Here is a general overview of the physiological makeup of an operator:

  • Large aerobic foundation
  • Moderate to high relative strength
  • Moderate alactic power
  • High lactic capacity
  • High movement capacity and fidelity under stress
  • High stress resiliency
  • High heart rate variability
  • High neuroplasticity
  • High specific work capacity

Operational demands can vary from multi-day land movements with heavy rucks and minimal food to rapidly scaling a climbing ladder hands-only while loaded with gear for a maritime assault. This level of adaptability rests on a huge foundation of generalized athletic capacities.

Building and maintaining these foundational capacities will enable the tactical athlete to adapt and develop skills specific to their operating environment.

High-level performance in any one of the areas listed above will likely entail trade-offs with others, which makes it difficult to develop this broad array of abilities without a systematic, long-term training structure.

Sometimes, specialization might be necessary for specific operational tasks or roles, but the foundational capacities listed above must be restored from time to time to maintain operational longevity.

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Stress inoculation

Stress inoculation training (SIT) is the processes of familiarization with mental and emotional responses under stress and then training the capacity to perform tasks well under increasing stress levels.

SIT is made up of three stages:

Stage One – Conceptual education – understand what will happen and pay attention to your response – learn strategies for dealing with natural responses.

Stage Two – Skills acquisition and consolidation – learn how to do the skill in a non-stressful environment first.

Stage Three – Practice the skill under stress

This model has traditionally been applied to learning operationally specific tasks, but we apply the SIT model during training to help improve psychological and physiological performance under stressful operational conditions.

Movement capacity and fidelity

Movement is a bit of a buzzword these days, but in this series of articles I’ll show exactly what I mean by movement capacity (or the lack thereof) and how it relates to psychological capacities such as stress resilience, performance, the ability to learn, emotional control, and recovery capacities.

Movement fidelity is the ability to maintain movement quality under stress and fatigue. It’s an integral component of stress inoculation training, and it’s critical that this be trained as part of any training program.

If movement is allowed to break down under stress or fatigue, the risk of injury and performance lapses multiplies almost exponentially.

Movement fidelity of running, swimming, rucking, or other physical tasks must be trained in the same fashion as any other operational activity, such as breaching a door, clearing a room, or handling a weapon.

The movement pattern or motor skill is learned in a “crawl, walk, run” fashion and complexity and stress are not increased until the skill can be demonstrated effectively under the current condition.

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Metabolic flexibility

Having the physical and psychological capacities to be a proficient operator is great, but you also need your body to be capable of providing you the energy necessary to execute those capacities.

Nutritional modifications throughout the special operator training process to elicit metabolic flexibility – the ability to switch back and forth between the utilization of fat or glucose as needed – is key to performing in highly variable conditions.

The stress caused from different dietary intakes will affect the mind differently as well. This is why training must occur under different nutritional states – well fed, fasted, in a deficit – to familiarize the brain with the specific stress and then train it how to perform consistently in that situation.

To summarize, the operator needs to be capable of performing regardless of their food intake: high carb, low carb, high fat, low fat, long periods between feedings, regular meal intervals, caloric deficit, etc., and this is something that can and should be trained.

Recovery

Many of the psychological and physiological capacities that are targeted in our training plans also improve recovery abilities. In fact, psychological recovery after stressful events is a huge part of our training process.

We enhance our ability to recover when we train our brain to turn on the physiological systems responsible for recovery.

The operator who can perform at a high level and immediately shut down to recover emotionally, cognitively, and physically will be able to operate for a longer period of time at a higher level.

Recovery needs to be emphasized as much as the training stress. Longevity in the operational environment will go to those that can recovery more effectively over time.

Training these qualities together

Nutritional, physiological, and psychological traits all need to be trained simultaneously in an ideal training plan for the operator. For example, metabolic flexibility should be trained in conjunction with movement fidelity, stress inoculation principles, aerobic adaptations and specific work capacity.

Over this series of articles I’ll take a deeper look at each of the basic principles outlined above and give you an outline for combining them in an effective and ultimately simple plan.

The science may be complex, but the end result for the operator should not be.

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The operating environment

Operational demands often break down these physiological and psychological capacities over time via fatigue and stress. Operators are selected for their high resilience, and that resilience is called upon over and over again in their daily work environment.

Without adequate attention to recovery and maintenance of psycho-physiological variability, burnout and breakdown are almost inevitable results of a special operations career.

Training must restore these resilience-promoting qualities, not just create more stressors that break down foundational capacities and contribute to burnout and injury.

The operational environment is far from ideal for training most of the time. In a perfect world, these traits would be developed prior to becoming operational and then maintenance work would be done with periodic foundational “repair” cycles.

With the high operational demands of the past decade or so and the highly dynamic nature of special operations, any planned training structure must be able to adapt to changing circumstances without losing sight of its overall purpose.

I will devote a significant amount of time explaining the conceptual ideas behind the development of each aspect in the training model so you can apply the concepts to your specific environment.

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