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Performance Strategies: Optimize Your Body's Response

The human body’s potential to optimize its internal resources enables it to accomplish incredible feats—from lifting great amounts of weight to running long distances. Upon activation, senses become heightened, muscles contract, and key systems engage and accelerate in unison. The body becomes primed for action, with the task at hand dictating the appropriate activation level. This Performance Booster assists warriors in modulating their body’s fight/flight response system and thereby enables them to optimize their internal resources to accomplish greater physical feats when needed.

Controlled Response System

The Controlled Response (CR) System within the body is made up of key organs that, when activated, reallocate internal resources to optimize human performance. Breathing and heart rates increase, muscles contract, and blood circulation is redirected. This chain reaction leads to an explosive increase in energy use. Similar to a car, the human body has the capacity to “overdrive” for short durations. Activation is automatic—triggered by a positive threat assessment. Optimal performance is achieved through the ability to modulate within and across various “Zones.” See Table 1 for examples of proper Zone modulation.

Table 1. Performance Zones and the CR System. In the White and Green Zones your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate are low while digestion and brain function are high. Typical activities in the White, or “Parked,” Zone are sleeping or reading a book. In the Green, or “Idle,” Zone, activities might include socializing with a friend or just working on a job. In the Yellow and Red Zones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate are high (and get higher when moving from the yellow to the red zone), whereas digestion and brain function are low. In the Yellow, or “Ready,” Zone you might be on the sideline of combat, such as patrolling. In the Red, “Overdrive,” Zone you are “in the game”—in contact during combat.

Table 1 Performance Zones and the CR System

Strategy #1: State Awareness

Optimal performance at any activity can be achieved through proper Zone modulation. For instance, lifting weights calls for activation and then modulation to Yellow or Red Zones due to the need for increased muscle contraction and explosive power. Conversely, initiating and maintaining a restful sleep pattern comes with a decrease in your body’s activation process to within the White Zone.

Important: Mastering the ability to modulate to and from Zones is key to performing well at any task—personal and professional. Lack of mastery can be seen in difficulties achieving desired goals and in degraded performance at any level. For instance, the inability to modulate from Red Zone to White Zone can be seen in difficulties falling and staying asleep. Similarly, the ability to control fine motor skills becomes compromised while operating in the Red Zone and can be hazardous for pilots, EOD members, and medical personnel. It can also negatively impact your relationships (more on this later).

Recognize what Zone you are currently operating in. Check your body’s state before engaging in any task. The following are examples of what your body should be feeling when in each Zone:

White: Muscles relaxed, hands and feet warm, breathing in stomach, mind quiet but active.

Green: The proper muscles for a task are being used hands and feet warm, breathing is maintained in your diaphragm, mind feels clear, attention is focused and directed on something, and concentration is good.

Yellow: When you move from Green to Yellow, your blood circulation moves from your hands and feet to support increased heart rate, breathing moves to your chest, respiration increases, digestion slows, brain function begins to decline, and thinking becomes difficult.

Red: In the Red Zone your muscles are fully engaged for speed and power, heart rate is rapid, breathing is from your chest, digestion is minimal, brain function is at its lowest, and reactions are instinctive.

Table 2 (below): Examples of well-Zoned activities—in the right Zone for the activity. When parked in the White Zone, examples of appropriate activities include sleeping at bedtime whether you are doing sports, in a combat zone but off duty and at home, listening to relaxing music at home or an athletic activity, and relaxing in bed when in a combat environment. In the jdle, Green Zone, athletics-related activities include socializing or studying a playbook; in a combat environment, playing cards or eating at DFAC; and at home, driving your family to a movie or having a meaningful talk with your spouse. In the Yellow, ready Zone, suitable activities in an athletic environment include getting ready to press weights at the gym or in the huddle at a game; in combat, patrolling or driving in convoy; at home, driving in bad weather conditions.  When in overdrive in the Red Zone, examples of appropriate athletics-related activities are lifting weight at the gym or when the ball is snapped at a game; in the combat environment, examples are taking contact or responding to IED; at home, they include running with a partner or wrestling with your kids at the park.

Table 3 (below): Examples of poorly-Zoned activities—in the wrong Zone for the activity. You are in the wrong zone for the activity if you are in the White Zone when your are on the line ready to hike the ball (athletics), standing tower guard (combat), or taking your military physical fitness exam (at home). Examples of wrong activities for the Green Zone are: lifting 300 lbs off the bar (athletics), approaching an area known for insurgent attacks (combat), and defending yourself during combatives (at home). You should not be in the Yellow Zone when studying a playbook (athletics), lying down on your cot to sleep (combat), or standing in line at the commissary (at home). And the same goes for being in the Red Zone for these activities: discussing your point of view with your coach (athletics), negotiating with village elders at a meeting (combat), or relaxing at home.

Strategy #2: Recalibration

Prolonged activation of your “Overdrive” system can disrupt the ability to control activation sequences. Your system becomes extremely sensitive to activation, and any perceived threat, no matter how small, will FULLY engage your “Overdrive” network (e.g., your Zone for a firefight should be different from your Zone for an argument with a colleague or waiting in line at the DFAC). However, continuously activating your “Overdrive” system overrides your ability to tell the difference; the connection between mind and body becomes severed.  The human body, like any weapon system, requires regular recalibration to maintain a high level of performance. You can help your body recalibrate through various strategies—some are described below.

Recalibration Method 1: Breathing Retraining

Practicing breathing from your diaphragm for at least 10 to 15 minutes each day will assist in CR System recalibration. As you become more comfortable breathing with this technique, you will notice improved control over your Zone modulation efforts:

  • Get comfortable, sitting or standing, and relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Place one hand on your upper chest and place the other hand at the bottom of your ribs, just above your waistline. Use your hands to feel the movements as you breathe.
  • Take a breath in through your nose so that you feel your hand on your stomach move outward. Do not let your shoulders move up. You should not feel movement of your hand on your chest. Think of expanding your lungs down toward your toes.
  • Breathe out S-L-O-W-L-Y and gently through your mouth with your lips fixed as if you were going to whistle or blow out a candle. The hand on your stomach moves in as you breathe out. You may need to pull in your stomach muscles at first to help move your diaphragm up. Exhale at least twice as long as you inhale.

Recalibration Method 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) can also assist in CR System recalibration and re-establishing the connection between your mind and body. Through daily practice, you can achieve greater control over physical resources and modulate your Zone responses, which will improve your performance on and off the battlefield.

PMR involves the systematic conscious tensing of muscle groups: Start with the head and work down to the feet. Each contraction and release is paired with cue words such as “calm” and “tense.” These labels serve to re-educate you to identify various states of activation and refine your modulation control. For a full description of how to do PRM, read pages 6-7 of the Controlled Response section of the OSOK Solo handbook.

Strategy #3: The Relaxation Response

Your body’s natural state of relaxation is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. You can activate the relaxation response in your body by following Dr. Herbert Benson’s simple steps1:

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  2. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and moving up to your face.
  3. Breathe through your nose and become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "one" silently to yourself. For example, breathe in...out, "one,"…in…out, "one," etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
  4. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes, and then sit quietly for several minutes after you finish.
  5. Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and allow relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, don’t dwell upon them.

(Note: With practice, your body’s ability to relax will happen with less effort. Try practicing the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since your digestive processes can interfere.)

1 Benson, H. & Proctor, W. (2010). Relaxation Revolution: The science and genetics of mind body healing. Scribner: New York, NY.

Warning Signs of Poor Zone Modulation

Relationships: Remaining in your “Overdrive” state can blur and even destroy your ability to communicate. This could significantly hinder your relationships with your unit, your friends, and your family members. The natural stress response of the body that helps you remain hyper-vigilant in battle often takes some time to re-adjust/reset once you are back home or off the range.  If you find yourself suppressing your emotions, being more irritable than normal with your loved ones or buddies, and being easily angered or feeling numb, you are not in the right Zone for optimal performance. For strategies on how to boost communication, see the HPRC’s Family & Relationships section.

Sleep: Achieving a restful pattern of sleep can help improve control over modulation efforts. Lack of sleep can compromise muscle control and contribute to faulty threat assessments and activation. Lack of sleep also heightens sensitivity to Yellow or Red Zones (see OSOK's Recharge Module and HPRC’s Sleep Optimization page).

Performance Based Nutrition: Regular use of stimulants, especially as substitutes for sleep, can distort interpretation of body cues and lead to difficulties in disengaging Overdrive and modulating out of the Red Zone. Nutrition fuels performance, so eating a well-balanced, healthy diet is key to preparing your body to respond optimally (see HPRC’s Nutrition section).

Mind Tactics: The mind is the control center that influences how physical resources are used. Internal thoughts and images can either enhance or detract from your ability to regulate your CR System and control your Zone modulation. Learning how to use these techniques to your advantage can be a significant resource in optimizing your body’s response (See OSOK’s Mind Tactics Module and HPRC’s Mind Tactics section).