HEALTHNeurochemistry for the Tactical Athlete

Neurochemistry for the Tactical Athlete

By: Bill Dungey – Volunteer Firefighter

“Mindset and physical performance are linked. They feed each other. Physical training toughens the mind. Being mentally tough allows you to extend the limits of your physicality. It doesn’t matter how mentally tough you are if you lose all situational awareness because your heart rate is twice as high as it should be moving up a staircase with 80 pounds of bunker gear on.”

Operational athletes demand a rhythm between the physical and mental components that make up our way of life. We have an immediate connection to the things we’re doing out in the world because we are connected to it by our senses. We get to see the scene and touch the tools, so it’s easy to be more linked to that experience. Likewise, the hormones floating around in our brain help to define our response to the environment we’re working in. By mindfully understanding the chemistry that keeps us moving, we can try to unlock the hidden link between physical performance and mindset development.

What is an operational athlete?

I recently had the opportunity to connect with K. Black, author of the ‘Tactical Barbell’ series of fitness programming. To accurately define our understanding of a tactical athlete, Black offered the following description.

“An operational athlete is an individual who is required to excel at multiple fitness domains simultaneously along with the ability to apply that fitness at any given time.”

Separate from the periodization that makes up the majority of programming for the average gym-goer, Black notes that our jobs require firefighters to be on point year round. Fundamentally, the trade requires output unseen in most other athletic circles. 

Recognize that a specific focus on mindset development compliments our time spent pressing weight. Two important components of our outlook are rooted in dopamine and adrenaline. 

What’s the deal with dopamine?

Dopamine is the driver for our ambition. It’s an interesting and often misunderstood element of our hormonal makeup. Sometimes, dopamine is confused for a ‘feel good molecule’ when we describe a ‘dopamine hit’ as the reward system for achieving a goal. 

When we’re in pursuit of something we want, dopamine is produced to encourage the drive itself. A study in Neuron, a leading neurochemistry journal, suggests that our motivation and regulation of ‘goal-directed action’ is affected by dopamine. The important takeaway from this assertion is that our reward system isn’t given a hit for reaching the goal post. Our motivational systems, or the thing that keeps us moving forward is organized by dopamine. The hormone does indeed make us feel good, but for doing the work toward what we’re aiming at, not hitting the mark itself.

This is a challenging but incredibly useful idea. Instead of relying on the reward, we can influence the type of work we’re capable of by feeding our brain with an atmosphere that is palpable for dopamine production. We can add music and caffeine to jack up our dopamine levels before a workout, leaving us with an eager or hungry attitude before we hit the squat rack. However, when we increase our dopamine levels above baseline, there’s a crash associated with ‘coming down’ from that release. Therefore, according to expert sources, we should try to maintain an equilibrium between the additives we use to enhance our experience and the natural production of dopamine our body creates to help drive us forward naturally. 

Understanding the chemical processes of the brain

The way we understand the chemical processes in our brain affects our output. Black came back to this idea through our communications by expressing a common truth – you’ll never have to attend to just one aspect of occupational preparedness.   

“Mindset and physical performance are linked. They feed each other. Physical training toughens the mind. Being mentally tough allows you to extend the limits of your physicality. It doesn’t matter how mentally tough you are if you lose all situational awareness because your heart rate is twice as high as it should be moving up a staircase with 80 pounds of bunker gear on.”

Dopamine vs. epinephrine

A close cousin of dopamine is epinephrine. Epinephrine is commonly known as adrenaline and is tied to dopamine by being part of the same string of hormones that modulate our responses to stress. When we interact with our environment, the pathways behind adrenaline production are activated and trigger the ‘fight-flight or freeze’ mechanisms associated with stress response. From the great resources by renowned situational awareness instructor Richard Gasaway, we know that this process readies our body to move quickly and sharpens our senses to a more vigilant state.

When we encounter a situation that triggers a stress response, a number of physical and mental changes take place. Adrenaline makes our pulse and respiratory rate increase. It makes us start sweating and decreases our ability to feel pain. Sounds like a benefit, but it also means we feel jittery when it kicks in and can lead to an overload of our senses, inhibiting our ability to act. 

Physiological sigh

A self-directed tool to manage the output created from a sudden increase in adrenaline is the ‘physiological sigh’. Andrew Huberman of Stanford University and the Huberman Labs podcast describes the physiological sigh as a real-time tool that we can use to counter the negative effects of an adrenaline response following stress. It works, he notes, because when we start to exchange the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream for carbon dioxide, our body starts to trigger a stress response. 

The physiological sigh works like this; take two deep inhales through your nose and exhale completely through your mouth. Run that pattern for 3-5 repetitions. Inhaling twice allows your lung to ‘pop’ open unused alveoli, letting in extra oxygen followed by a deep inhale to empty out our stores of carbon dioxide.

Forming and governing deeper connections

To perform the way we promised we would when we signed up for firefighting, we must find and form a deep connection between the systems that govern our performance. K. Black continued our conversation on the structures that tactical athletes must develop to perform by explaining the connection between our mind and body. 

“Mindset and physical performance are linked. Physical stress predictably impairs judgement, perception, and other thinking skills. Physical fitness impedes or delays that impairment. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how fit you are if you haven’t developed mental strategies to control

your emotions and apply the tools of your profession competently during high stress calls. Physical fitness is just the price of entry in our world.” 

We are inexorably bound to the organization of our physical and mental capacity. The people who call upon us depend on our ability to regulate our emotions and adapt our corporeal skill to the task at hand. Should we fail to prepare, the lives of our crew and citizenry alike are at stake. 

Your cognitive toolbox

Cognitive tools like the physiological sigh can help facilitate a rapid recovery from stress responses before, during and after a confrontation with an adrenaline release. Maintaining a healthy relationship with dopamine can help balance our lifestyle and keep our mind focused on the pursuit of our valuable goals. Of course, these variables coexist with the baseline routines of the tactical athlete; keeping true to good dietary choices and taking focused action in the gym.

In learning about the way our bodily systems influence each other, we’re not only trying to improve our own condition. Where most attend to their regimen for recreation, the tactical athlete made a promise and is therefore required to perform – this is not a hobby.