Navy's fittest of the fit team with UPMC
Navy SEALs' rigorous training for specific underwater tasks can lead to injury.
Navy SEAL Joel McGuire participates in an aerobic capacity analysis while being monitored by Greg Hovey, exercise physiologist from the University of Pittsburgh, at Naval Special Warfare Group 2 in Little Creek, Va.
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The techniques that have made our best athletes better soon will be making the Navy's elite warriors tougher.
The U.S. Navy SEALs will announce later today a $2.1 million project with UPMC's Center for Sports Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences to study ways to help the Navy's commandos get more benefit from their physical training, and to reduce the injuries they suffer in training and on combat operations.
"The operator himself is the most important weapons system of Naval Special Warfare," said Capt. Chaz Heron, commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Two. "We are always seeking ways to improve our operators' success on the battlefield. I want every advantage possible to give my men a better chance."
If past is prologue, the research team headed by Dr. Scott Lephart will be able to provide Capt. Heron's SEALs with an extra edge. They'll be running the new Human Performance Research Laboratory in the SEAL compound in Little Creek, Va., near Norfolk. The lab is modeled on UPMC's Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, where many of the nation's top athletes have been coming for performance-enhancing advice since 1990. Dr. Lephart was a founder and is the director of the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, which is located in the Center for Sports Medicine on Pittsburgh's South Side.
The Little Creek lab, like the one at UPMC, has state-of-the-art biomechanical and physiological instrumentation that can measure both the physiology of the athlete/warrior such as percentage of body fat, and the kind of stress he puts on muscles, joints and tendons when conducting particular activities. It will be staffed by Greg Hovey, an exercise physiologist, and Anthony Zimmer, a certified athletic trainer.
The military long has had a "one size fits all" approach to physical training. The morning PT routine of calisthenics followed by a group run doesn't vary much from Army post to Marine base, or from years ago to today.
But just as a tennis player has to do different things than a golfer, who has to do different things than a ballet dancer or a hockey player to achieve maximum performance, the training regimen of people in our military should be tied more closely to the specific tasks they are required to perform, Dr. Lephart said.
"The SEALs have to do different things than the Air Assault guys have to do," he said. "Based on the demands on the athlete, we've got to tailor a program to optimize his performance."
The UPMC team also will offer nutritional advice. Unlike the athletes they deal with in Pittsburgh, military people tend to have poor dietary habits, Dr. Lephart said.
A partial solution might be for the SEALs to have a training table, like college athletic teams do, he said.
When you eat and drink can be almost as important as what you eat and drink. "Muscle needs glucose replenishment within 30 minutes [of a workout]," Dr. Lephart said.
The SEALs came to UPMC for help, Dr. Lephart said.
"They're recognized as one of the leading experts in sports medicine, and that's what we're dealing with in the Navy SEALs, an elite athlete," said Lt. David Luckett, the public affairs officer for Naval Special Warfare Group Two.
The Navy's interest was piqued by the success UPMC has had at Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the 5th Special Forces Group, and the Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Center for Sports Medicine opened an Injury Prevention and Performance Enhancement Laboratory there, the first of its kind in the U.S. military, last May.
"The effects of even this early data [from the lab] have been both immediate and profound," wrote Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, commanding general of the 101st, to Dr. Lephart March 3. "Unit and medical leaders have an increased awareness of shortfalls in physical training programs and injury patterns. ... These new approaches to physical training are expected to improve fitness and conditioning levels, leading to reduced injury rates and increased levels of soldier readiness and combat effectiveness."
The ruggedness of military training leads to many injuries. Soldiers of the 101st go through a grueling two-week Air Assault course, which features intense physical activity and a great deal of rappelling from helicopters. In the typical course, 53 percent of students suffer musculoskeletal injuries.
But Air Assault school is a walk in the park compared to BUD/S, the six-month basic SEAL course, which is considered the most arduous in all the U.S. military. On average, only 26 percent of each BUD/S class go on to become SEALs.
"When these guys get to the teams, they're broken," Dr. Lephart said.
Once they arrive at the teams (there are two officers and 14 enlisted men in a SEAL platoon), physical training varies widely, is often up to the discretion of the individual SEAL, and isn't directly related to the kinds of missions they'll be expected to perform.
"The guys who like to lift weights lift weights a lot, the guys who like to run, run a lot," Dr. Lephart said.
A high proportion of the injuries SEALs suffer come from overuse. "These are tough guys, and they don't always know when to quit," Dr. Lephart said.
The purpose of the Norfolk lab is to show SEALs they can do what they do better, longer, if they exercise smarter rather than exercise more. For some, that will take a psychological adjustment.
"It's so much a part of the culture to push yourself to the limit and beyond," Lt. Luckett said.
The Navy hopes the Human Performance lab will reduce the duty time SEALs lose because of injury, and lengthen the operational life of individual SEALs.
"Most important, they'll have a better quality of life at the end of their service," Lt. Luckett said.
First Published April 16, 2008 12:00 am