Fighter pilots are known for max performing aircraft, but it’sÂ max performing themselves to their physical and mental capacity that is truly impressive.
The United States government spends millions of dollars training each individual fighter pilot to make sure they succeed in their mission…and for good reason.
On any typical mission they will process absurd amounts of information all whileÂ pulling a number of G’s, and as the blood rushes out of their brains they are expected to maintain situational awareness, communicateÂ effectivelyÂ and, oh yea, fly the multi-million dollar aircraft with absolute precision and without error.
But where do they start??
I had the privilege of being in one of their programs and a part of their culture for a few yearsÂ at Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot training (that’s me in the picture above) – where fighter and bomber pilots are made. The lessons I learned are countless and the friends I made are some of the best I will ever have.Â Â For those of you who are part of theÂ Mental Toughness MilitiaÂ you know how impressive fighter pilots can be in one of the mental toughness interviews included in that course.Â
But there are three very basic principlesÂ taught, pretty much on your first day, which I seem to think about on a daily basis when I hit a high intensity workout.
If these three basic principles can help mold a fighter pilot, just think of what they can do for you in those tough daily workouts.
Let’s get to it!
Did you know [most of] the top aviators in the world started their career pretending to fly with a plunger in one hand, hitting fake buttons with the other hand all while sitting in a desk chair??
Itâ€™s called â€œchair flyingâ€.
This process greatly helps pilots develop the muscle memory, visualization techniques and memorization of certain procedures while in flight. Flying multi-million dollar aircraft isnâ€™t as easy as cranking it up and hitting the gas. There is a lot that goes into every minute of a mission, sortie or flight (whatever you want to call it).
Before it becomes second nature in the cockpit, pilots make it second nature on the ground with whatever they have available. Some use props like the plunger and some are just really good at visualizing everything the need to do. Preparing for a flight comes down to actually â€œflyingâ€ the mission on the ground before it happens in the air. Which means they actually pretend to hit every button, adjust every dial, make every radio call, and they even look over their shoulder at their wingman to “see” if he is in the right position, etc.
It is an extreme level of preparation that pays huge dividends when itâ€™s go time. Why? Because when you are actually moving in the cockpit your brain will already know what to do, even if you arenâ€™t 100% sure. You are prepared.
How does this apply to fitness?
Well, I donâ€™t recommend visualizing every workout for an hour the night before you do it the next day; simply because your level of preparation does not have the same level of consequences as a fighter pilot. However, it can make a huge difference in how well you perform, your intensity level and whether or not you set a PR today.
Picture yourself doing that heavy lift, or going to the pain zone. Familiarizing your brain with where you are going and how you will get there is the only preparation you need.
What to do:
Immediately before a lift, PR attempt or intense workout. Visualize…
- How hard will you push your self?
- How will it feel?
- Imagine the entire movement or workout from start to finish.
The key is to visualize it ALL the way through. This will help you, mentally, go in with a battle plan. When you plan to really push yourself, this will act almost as a contract with your brain. If you tell your brain how tough something will be before it happens, there will be less resistance to get there than normal.
If you can truly master visualization, you have unlocked the door in which most never will, and the limits you have set for yourself will start to crumble.
You will excel.
Aviate – Navigate – Communicate
One of the most basic principles instructor pilots will drill into your head starting with day one will be: AVIATE â€“ NAVIGATE â€“ COMMUNICATE.
What does it mean?
Well, when an inexperienced pilot gets into trouble in an aircraft (emergency situation) the natural tendency is to do things a little out of orderâ€¦Like radio-in to tell someone about your situation or get help, then maybe try to figure out where you are at, or where you are goingâ€¦all the while you may not be focusing on FLYING THE AIRPLANE which is what will most certainly keep you alive.
It really is a very simple principle and it follows the â€œwhatâ€™s the closest alligator to the boatâ€ metaphor/question. Meaning it doesnâ€™t matter if you have 50 problems or â€œalligatorsâ€ about to take out your boatâ€¦you only need to focus on the single closest and most dangerous issue. Once that issue is solved you can move to the next.
Applying it to fitness:
So how does this apply to fitness, or rather tough and intense workouts??
In the first 1-3 minutes of intense exercise your body is in the alarm phase. This is when your body hates exercise the most, thus your brain is immediately telling you “you’re going too fast”, “this hurts”, “what a bad idea this is”. You are finding every reason not to do something. Blood flow starts to increase, appetite is suppressed, you begin to sweat, your body is reacting to what you are doing, and it is not necessarily happy about it. Your brain realizes the body is unhappy and then it becomes the little devil on your shoulder telling you to quit or ease up.
If you give in to these impulses you will lack intensity or even quit the workout. What you need to do is focus on whatâ€™s next…so, whatâ€™s next??
Your next step or your next repâ€¦THATâ€™S IT!
Who cares what he is doing, what she is wearing or what music is playing. Once the workout starts you are not interested in your job, what’s for dinner or how you will pay your bills. You are only interested in the next rep, the next set and the next second. Thinking of anything beyond that time frame is useless and damning.
Block everything out.
Concentrate and focus on seconds and reps, nothing longer or further in time.
You donâ€™t need to focus on how much longer the workout will be, what others are doing around you…You ONLY need to focus on what is next, what will keep the workout alive and intense.
“Fly the airplane” first, then start to focus the other things when you can.
Eject, Eject, Eject
Ejection out of an aircraft is serious business.
If you are not familiar with flying you may think ejection is a get-out-of-jail-free card in which you simply get out of the aircraft and go about your day.
Ejection is always the last resort. Air Force Fighter Pilots are heavily trained problem solvers attached to rockets. They think and act quickly based off of years of training and muscle memory, and something they do not want to doâ€¦Eject. In fact, even in the quickest ejection scenarios (like at take-off or landing) the pilot probably either thought about or tried to execute a different alternative before deciding to eject.
Why don’t pilots want to eject??
Deciding to eject means you pulled the ejections handles and now an explosive cartridge has gone off and the under-seat rocket is exploding you upward through a hole in the canopy which also exploded open just milliseconds before you started your exit. Your feet are pulled inward by attached cords so your bones don’t shatter by hitting the instrumentÂ panel. There is a good amount of fire and smoke as you make your way out of the aircraft at potentially a 20+G ride which may compress your spine or injure you in many other ways. Oh and be sure to remember to keep your head back against the seat where your neck doesn’t have to fight a 20+G load while you are looking down.
So what does ejection (the last resort) have to do with fitness?
You need to know your limits in high intensity workouts.
Iâ€™ve heard people say things like â€œI will never quit a workoutâ€ or are proud of accomplishing some of the dumbest things that led to injuries or unsafe situations.
The ejection principle is simply sayingâ€¦Itâ€™s ok to give up.
Now, I donâ€™t say that lightly. I’m not saying you shouldnâ€™t push yourself or it is ok to quit a workout if you just feel like quitting a workout. No, I am saying if you donâ€™t feel right it may be ok to pull the handles and get out of there.
While, of course, it is not as serious as a pilot having to ejectâ€¦you need to know your limits.
There is a good hurt meaning you are breaking your body down in which it will in turn build up better than before, and there is a bad hurt, in which you shouldnâ€™t push it. YOU need to know that difference.
You have to know yourself and your situation. If you are in a really hot environment, a little dehydrated and doing rep after rep and you just donâ€™t feel right there are serious things that could happen; i.e rhabdo.
If you feel like you can’t really tell where it is “OK” to quit, maybe this will help…
If you arenâ€™t in danger, do you deserve to quit??
You need to start asking yourself what you deserve during every workout. Every time you want to set that bar down, every time you feel like you can’t take another step, or push it another second…ask yourself one question:
Do I deserve it? Do I deserve to quit?
I don’t know…do you deserve it? Do you deserve to be a part of the nearly 70% adult Americans who are overweight? Do you deserve to be a part of the 55% of the population that starts a weight loss program that never makes it past week one? Do you deserve to be a part of the 60% of people who engage in no vigorous activity at all? Do you deserve a fatty liver? Do you deserve diabetes?
If you can answer, “Yes, I deserve to quit”, then you are probably at that point. It’s ok. Give it a break.
Ejection should always be your last resortâ€¦but it IS an option.
Good luck crushing your high intensity workouts!