Preparing Your Body and Mind

The Body

There are two primary tools used to in every situation ever encountered; the mind and the body. Despite the body being such a crucial aspect of survivability, preparing the body for the unknown remains one of the least addressed topics in survival books and on-line forums. It is also one of the areas of survival that necessitates the most maintenance, and requires the most amount of dedication and consistency. Though most survival manuals fail to address the importance of preparing the body, the fact remains that there are no military units in the world that do not have a physical fitness requirement, nor would you find any law enforcement or fire and emergency services department that do not have documented physical fitness standards. Field journalists, adventure travelers, and anyone else who has spent time in a hostile environment all know the value of being fit, and have an understanding of its necessity when the odds change and the environment becomes hostile. The reality of life is that in a moment the environment can change and unexpected, and often grueling, demands can be placed on the body. The first step for anyone who is tempting the forces of nature, subsisting in a hostile environment, or simply preparing for the unexpected, is to ready the most effective tool in any survival situation; the human body.

Fitness training for survival requires a different kind of mindset and athlete. Because of the unpredictable nature of a survival situation, the key to an effective physical fitness routine is balance. Balance, in this respect, can be defined as maximizing the body’s ability in the areas of strength, speed, endurance, and flexibility, to the point where any single area doesn’t detract from another. For example, weight lifting strength is an excellent characteristic, and one that has a diversity of use in survival situations. However, weight lifting, and consequently gaining size, to the point that is begins to detract from the body’s ability to maximize its speed or flexibility would be inhibiting for the purpose of survival. To truly maximize the body’s ability to perform at its peak requires a constantly changing exercise routine, to include stretching, strength training, cardiovascular training, interval and circuit training, endurance training, and mixed sports. Varying exercise routines develops muscles in a more effective, more natural, manner. Contrary to those who continually utilize the same exercises, varying exercises and techniques ensures that all individual muscles and all muscle groups are being worked, that all muscles are being contracted from all angles, and that the overall efficiency of the workout is being capitalized on.

In addition to varying the exercise routine itself, consideration should be given to diversifying the environments in which the training takes place. Varying the training environment prepares the body, and mind, to adapt to different conditions, and provides an opportunity to better understand how the body reacts in different settings. By diversifying such conditions as geography, climate, altitude, weather, time of day, etc. other inhibiting factors might also be revealed, such as the fear of heights, claustrophobia, or the inability to swim. This creates an opportunity to identify and address such issues prior to realizing them during a crisis. The imagination offers endless possibilities for keeping an exercise routine diversified and interesting, and when it comes to training for survival, an exercise routine for the body is incomplete if it doesn’t include exercising the imagination.

Establishing a better balanced and more dynamic body through a diversified physical fitness regimen has other significant benefits. One of the most beneficial, is it bridges the communication barrier between the body and mind. This communication is crucial during a survival situation. As a person becomes consistent with an exercise program, they become more and more familiar with their bodies limitations, abilities, and signs and symptoms. In time, an understanding is established as to how far the body can be pushed without risking injury, or inhibiting future workouts. They soon understand how to fuel for specific types of work outs, and how to hydrate. They begin to understand how the body communicates that it is overheating, in pain, or needs rest. This type of communication cannot be taught by anything other than experience, and by pushing the body to its limits and exposing it to a variety of extreme environments. Another benefit is increased confidence. As fitness levels improve, and the body begins to continually prove itself in a variety of challenges and environments, confidence begins to breed. Confidence, in this respect, offers reassurance that the body is capable of achievement. This is particularly important during a survival situation, or hostile environment, when the body is heavily depended on. Confidence in the body reassures the mind and spirit, drastically increasing the odds of success during moments of adversity.

Strength Training

The balanced development of the deep and superficial muscles that stabilize, align, and move the trunk of the body, known as core strength, is crucial for maximizing the body’s overall performance and can prove vital during a survival situation. The core muscles located in the abdominals and back are used for stabilization and support for all other muscle groups in the human body. Not only is the development of the core crucial for increasing the strength of other muscle groups, but core strength improves the body’s posture, supports the protection of the back and pelvis, and aids in injury prevention and rehabilitation. In addition, the strength derived from the core of the body is also heavily depended on when other parts of the body are injured, and/or when stabilizing the body is a necessity. For the purposes of building and maintaining a well-balanced and injury-free body, core strength should be the foremost objective of all strength training.
To supplement the strength derived from the core, additional exercises, which focus primarily on the extremities of the body, can be added to increase the body’s overall power and muscle endurance. Keeping in mind that the goal is to achieve the most strength and muscle gain possible without inhibiting speed, flexibility, and endurance, it should be noted that overall strength training programs should only be just one component of a diversified fitness program. Some of the most effective, and most difficult, strength training exercises are nothing more than using the body’s own weight as resistance. This type of exercising, which is ideal for survival training since it closely mirrors those actions most often needed during a survival situation, is called body weight training.

Body weight training is an excellent way to develop both core and overall body strength, as well as add variety to a workout routine. Necessitating nothing but the body’s own weight, body weight training can be accomplished anywhere, at any time, and under any conditions. Another significant benefit to body weight training is its ability to develop smaller muscles within the body. As opposed to most standard gym equipment which uses machinery to isolate the motion of the body and focus resistance to a particular muscle or muscle group, body weight training forces the body to use smaller muscles to stabilize and balance the body as it is in motion. As the body develops and becomes stronger, the intensity of body weight workouts can be increased by raising the number of repetitions in each set, by adding to the body’s weight with free-weight, or by making it more difficult for the body to stabilize and balance itself.

Standard fitness equipment, however, certainly maintains its place in developing overall body strength. Its use remains an excellent tool for becoming familiar with the basics of strength training, developing specific muscles or muscle groups, and working around injuries. Additionally, most machinery designed for strength training has safety mechanisms that forbid the uncontrolled descent of the weight being lifted. Though this doesn’t eliminate the risk of injury, it does provide a level of comfort when increasing weight or training a muscle until exhaustion. To understand the safety mechanisms, as well as to become familiar with the uses and functions of any piece of fitness machinery, professional guidance is recommended.

Flexibility Training

Flexibility is a key component to being physically fit. It enables to the body to prepare for exercise by stretching and warming the muscles, prevents injury, and maximizes the range of motion in muscles and in joints and series of joints. It also increases blood supply and nutrients to joint structures, which in turn increases circulation. Like all aspects of physical fitness, to reap the benefits of flexibility during a survival situation, a habitual fitness routine that includes flexibility must first exist. Stretching, which is intentionally elongating muscle groups and/or skeletal muscles, is an excellent way to increase and maintain flexibility, as well as, increase range of motion and increase muscle control. Practicing yoga, martial arts, and/or pilates is an excellent way of integrating stretching into a physical fitness regimen. Such art forms offer an almost endless amount of dynamic movements elongating the different muscles of the body, and can significantly develop the bodies overall core strength and mobility. A secondary benefit of practicing these art forms is developing a better understanding of breathing, and its relationship to the body and mind. Breathing exercises, which are an essential aspect of yoga, pilates, and of martial arts, have been said to revitalize the body, steady emotions, and create clarity in the mind, all of which can prove beneficial in a survival situation. Instruction in any of these art forms is available for every level, ranging from novice to advanced, and can be found in almost any format imaginable.

Endurance Training

The primary goal of endurance training is to increase the body’s ability to withstand stress for an extended period of time. Increasing the body’s endurance is a long process. While differences in the body can be seen and felt relatively quickly from strength and flexibility training, the rewards reaped by endurance training take much longer. Mentally, physically, and even behaviorally, training to expand the body’s stamina is trying. Endurance training takes a significant amount of determination and discipline, as it calls for continually pushing the mind and body beyond its comfort zones, and to new levels of ability. Behaviorally, endurance training might call for lifestyle changes to accommodate the processes of fueling, hydrating, for the training itself, and for recovery.

Before an understanding of endurance training can be attained at the most basic level, the two common forms of endurance must first be explained. Aerobic endurance, meaning “with oxygen”, means that the demands of oxygen by the working body are being met. With the body being supplemented with proper levels of oxygen, it is able continue working. Thus, strengthening aerobic endurance means developing the energy production systems to meet the demands of activity for as long as necessary. Conversely, anaerobic endurance is the opposite, meaning “without oxygen”, and the body is working at a level that exceeds the amount of oxygen and fuel being taken in. When the body is in such a state, it is forced to make use of its reserved fuel, depleting it until the body runs out and stops. Anaerobic endurance can be developed through brief, high intensity interval training. Both aerobic and anaerobic training have significant health benefits in addition to increasing the body’s ability to keep going.

As important as aerobic and anaerobic strength are to ensuring the body can continue working over an extended period of time, strength endurance is equally important to ensure that muscles within the body can perform repetitive contractions as needed. Exercises to increase strength endurance are performed similar to those to build and maintain overall body strength, but with a slight variation. Typically done at the end of a regular strength training workout, this kind of endurance training is accomplished by working the muscle until extreme fatigue, or failure. This is typically accomplished by lowering the amount of resistance being used and increasing the number of repetitions until the muscle is so fatigued it cannot support the resistance, or completely fails. This type of endurance strength training is commonly referred to as “low weight, high repetition training”. “Negative training”, which is another method for developing strength endurance, is done by applying negative resistance to a muscle or muscle group until the muscle fails. In both types of endurance strength exercises, the amount of resistance applied plays a significant role. The lower the resistance, or weight, used during endurance exercises, the less strength is needed to be applied and the longer it should take for the muscle to fatigue or fail. Conversely, more resistance applied places higher strength demands on the muscle causing it to fatigue or fail more rapidly. Taking this into consideration, and to maintain a balance between muscle strength and endurance, many begin strength endurance exercises at their normal resistance level, and subsequently lower the resistance as the muscle fatigues.

Speed and Agility Training

At first glance, the requisite of speed is not as apparent as that of flexibility, strength, or endurance. Though situations can be identified where speed might be of use, such as running from an adversary or escaping a perilous situation, the true value of speed training is peripheral. In addition to the obvious benefit of reducing the amount of time it takes to get from one point to another, speed training improves the body’s agility. Essential when having to avoid obstacles at a high rate of speed or during moments of increased stress, agility increases the body’s ability to change body position intently without losing balance. The range of speed and agility training drills are endless, ranging from flat surface sprinting and hill runs, to shuttle and figure eight sprints. Sports that necessitate the body’s physical reaction to an opposing player are especially useful at building speed and agility.

In addition to the benefits discussed, speed and agility training also increase the body’s aerobic stamina, explosive strength, and confidence, and is a healthy way of learning to tolerate physical and mental discomfort. Developing speed and agility is a long process, and one that comes with a higher than normal risk of injury. It is important that conservative fitness goals are set when developing a training program, expanding the participants comfort zone a little at a time to reduce the risk of injury.


A discussion on preparing the body for survival would not be complete without covering the importance of diet. Ensuring that the body has everything it needs to support its health and produce fuel for an active lifestyle is critical. Diet philosophies differ greatly and derive from all spectrums, but many share a similar foundation or best practices. Primarily, there are three areas of diet that are of greatest concern.

The first, protein, assists in the rebuilding of muscles that have been broken down from exertion. A failure to include enough protein in a diet leads to inability of the body to rebuild these muscles properly. Those attempting to gain significant muscle use a “one gram of protein per pound daily” philosophy, maximizing protein intake thereby providing enough protein to allow for muscles to repair and grow larger. Athletes who aspire only to ensure the body has sufficient protein to repair itself and become stronger, use less protein daily, typically around 0.7 grams per pound. Significant sources of protein are dairy products, eggs, tuna, chicken, lean beef, nuts, beans, and supplement protein sources.

The second area of concern is carbohydrates. Providing fuel for the body, carbohydrates are the key to ensuring that the body has whatever it takes to accomplish the tasks that lie ahead. Glycogen, which is the storage form of a carbohydrate, breaks down during exercise. If the breakdown exceeds the rate of replenishment, the body becomes depleted and is not able to maintain its energy level. This is often referred to as “bonking”. Complex carbohydrates, which are carbohydrates that burn at a slower pace and release a slow, but steady, stream of energy into the body, are excellent for excursions taking place over a longer period of time. Carbohydrate loading is the practice of consuming carbohydrates to provide fuel for the body in anticipation of exercise. Carbohydrates can be found in whole wheat pasta, fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, brown rice, bran-based foods, and rough breads.

The third area is fats. Contrary to popular belief, fats are a crucial element in providing a healthy body. Fats are needed to absorb vitamins, and in fact, sensible fat intake boosts the body’s ability to burn fat. Most athletes consume less that 30% of total calories from fat, and approximately 7% from saturated fat. Fats can be found in beans, nuts, avocados, olives, fish fat, coconut and extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, and seeds. There are fats, however, to stay away from to maintain effective health and fitness. Minimizing preservatives, highly processed food, alcohol, trans fat (unsaturated fat), deep fried oils, flour, white rice, sugar, and fast food is a solid beginning to reducing the negative effects of a bad diet and inhibiting the body’s ability to perform at its optimal level.

The counting of grams and the comparing and contrasting of ingredient labels can be laboring, and time consuming. There are several shopping strategies that focus on a healthier overall diet, and keep the simple trip to the grocery store tolerable. The first can be referred to as the “7 Day Diet”. The practice of the “7 Day Diet” entails limiting purchasing anything from the grocery store that will last more than seven days, and intently purchasing things that will expire within seven days. Generally, abiding by this philosophy increases the amount of fresh vegetables and fruit in a diet, as well as fish and meats. It also strives to eliminate items with a high level of preservatives, and ‘snack’ items such as chips, crackers, cookies, etc. A very similar philosophy to the “7 Day Diet” is the “Outer Perimeter Diet”. This shopping strategy limits food shopping to the outer perimeter of the food store only, eliminating non-perishable and non-refrigerated items. This closely mirrors the “Seven Day Diet” since most foods not necessitating refrigeration and/or are stored on the outer perimeter of a standard grocery store will perish within approximately seven days. As with the “7 Day Diet”, the “Outer Perimeter Diet” increases the purchasing, and consequently the consuming, of all of the major food groups while limiting needless, and unwanted, ingredients. With the emergent of several grocery companies whose primary focus is the selling of healthier, local grown, and organic foods, having a healthier diet has never been easier. Though typically a little more expensive than a standard grocery store, those who embrace the philosophy of primarily shopping at whole markets truly benefit from it. In addition to reaping the rewards of consuming products that are natural, those who shop at whole markets have the opportunity to introduce less chemicals and toxins into their body by purchasing food from a wider selection of organic foods.


Life does not exist without proper hydration, thus, it is crucial that there is an understanding of the relationship between hydration and the body. Hydration is a continuing process. It begins now, and remains a constant practice forevermore. Firefighters, for example, are constantly hydrating in preparation for the next fire, never knowing of course when that will be. Much like exercise and diet, hydration is not something that can be accomplished at the last minute, but instead necessitates a habitual, proactive, lifestyle. The key to successful hydration is never allowing the body to become thirsty, which occurs when there is an abnormally high level of sodium in the body’s blood. A delayed response exists between the body losing fluid and the initial sensation of thirst, thus, thirst is not a reliable indicator that the body requires hydration, but rather is an indicator that it is already dehydrated. Dehydration is a state when there is not enough water in the body to perform normal bodily functions. When the body loses approximately 2% of its water, thirst occurs, typically accompanied by a loss of appetite and discomfort. At a water loss of approximately 5%-6%, the body moves slower, becomes sleepy, aches, nausea occurs, and numbness is sometimes felt in the limbs. Between 10%-15% the body becomes inoperable, vision dims, muscles spasm, urination ceases, and delirium sets in. In most cases, when the body has lost 15% or more of its water, death occurs.

Water makes up approximately 60% of the human body, and is used by every body system. The standard rule for daily water consumption is the “8 X 8 rule”, recommending that eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid should be consumed daily. Despite the many differing philosophies that exist, the “8 X 8 rule” has little controversy and is the most widely used rule for daily water consumption. There are, however, contributing factors to be considered when applying this rule. Consideration to the environment surrounding the body, the level of exercise or exertion of the body, any illness or injury, the level of food intake, any anticipated activity, and other such factors need to be considered when evaluating whether the “8 X 8 rule” is a sufficient calculator for determining how much to hydrate. Common practices to supplement the “8 X 8 rule” include drinking a glass of water during and between each meal, hydrating before, during, and after exercise or exertion, limiting the intake of caffeine and alcohol, and the most common rule among athletes, soldiers, and survivalists alike, is simply always having a method of hydration on hand.


Mental conditioning is a key component of surviving extreme conditions. Training the mind to operate more effectively under extreme conditions is a gradual, never ending process. The human mind constantly seeks to understand itself, and in doing so, allows itself to listen, and analyze its own thoughts. It is in this ability that a survival mindset can be created, and used when needed most. The most effective mindset for survival exists contrary to how many are led to believe. The “whatever it takes” mentality often credited to an individual pulling through a survival ordeal demonstrates more of the individuals will to live, than it does an effective survival mindset. The willingness to do whatever it takes to survive, by itself, is an excellent quality to exhibit during a survival situation. However, basing a mindset on this willingness alone often leads to carelessness and unnecessary risk taking. An effective survival mindset is one that remains able to analyze, objectively, a situation under extraordinary circumstances. The purpose in doing so is to reduce the situation down to facts, by stripping away what the imagination has added, and seeing the situation as objectively as possible. In doing so, the ability to clearly define individual challenges is easier, as is determining the appropriate courses of action to resolve them. Maintaining, under stress, the ability to understand that a survival situation is nothing more than a series of smaller obstacles, rather than a single unconquerable one, is the most effective survival mindset.

Consider this example: A man is running his first marathon with the only objective of crossing the finish line on his own two feet. In doing so, he will have achieved a lifelong dream, validated months of training, and will of course receive the coveted marathon t-shirt. He runs the first few miles with relative ease. However, on the 12th mile of the 26 mile marathon he begins to feel a terrible pain in his right heel. His survival mindset immediately kicks in and he tries focusing on putting the pain out of his mind, and pressing on. The pain continues, and his imagination begins listing the possibilities as he continues to run: Achilles tendon, blisters, bone spur. At mile twenty the pain becomes unbearable, and reluctantly, he is forced to stop. He limps to the roadside where he immediately falls to the curb, fearing the worst. He begins to unlace his shoe as quickly as he can, hoping for immediate reprieve from the pain. Grabbing the heel of the shoe first, he gently pulls it from his aching foot, and upon doing so almost immediately discovers the reason for his agony. He hangs his head thinking of all the training wasted, all of the effort that went into the day, and how embarrassed he is going to be telling his friends that he was defeated by a pebble.

Using the preceding example, consider how detrimental the mindset used might have been had crossing the finish line of the 26 mile race had meant his survival, and how the “whatever it takes” mentality inhibited him from reaching his goal. An effective survival mindset maintains the overall objective as its focus, which in the example given would have meant completing the race. It embraces and accepts that the path to achieving the overall goal might mean accomplishing smaller obstacles along the way, and having to be flexible to changing environments and conditions. The pain in the heel represented a small obstacle. An effective survival mindset would have reduced the information about the pain to facts, eliminating the imagination from clouding an otherwise clear situation. With this frame of mind, the runner would have recognized the pain as a hindrance to the achievement of his overall goal, and would have been open to being attentive to the pain in the heel when it was first felt at mile 12. The “whatever it takes” attitude is an excellent tool, but like most tools, should be applied only to an appropriate problem. The constant drive to the finish line that often derives from this mindset should never be a blinding factor to the obvious, or an obstruction to using simple logic, such as it was for the runner in the example.

A survival mindset often acts in contrast to what feels natural. In many survival situations, the first and most natural instinct is to move. Whether it is to immediately work towards resolving the situation, to create distance from the negative emotions and stress caused by the situation, or simply because it seems logical to do so, moving simply seems natural. Survival situations, however, are not often resolved by acting quickly, but rather by taking the appropriate amount of time to assess the situation, and act appropriately. Assuming, of course, no immediate threat to life or safety exists. Though survival situations are often accompanied by a feeling of urgency, mentally slowing the pace of the situation to assess, plan, and prepare can greatly increase the chances of survival. By having the survival mindset and taking the time to assess the situation, it might be determined that moving is not the best option. Having a survival mindset and the discipline to manage the pace of a survival situation, particularly in the beginning, is critical to ensuring that the chances of survival are increased for the entire duration. The successful beginning of a survival situation, to include the taking of time to assess the situation, locate useful resources, identify an overall objective, note specific risks and inhibiting factors, and outline a realistic and flexible plan, often leads to a successful conclusion.

There is no fraction of a survival situation that the mind is not immediately applied. No matter what the circumstances of the situation are, or the magnitude to which another resource is needed, the mind remains the most valuable, and most needed, resource during any survival situation. Mental conditioning remains the key to developing the mind beyond the “whatever it takes” attitude, and creating a mindset that is able to step back from a situation, even when the situation appears to be all consuming. In the end, a successful survival mindset is one that enables a person to step back from a situation and view it objectively, control the pace, identify resources and risks, adapt to the circumstances, and thrive in the pursuit of a single objective.

The body and mind are the primary tools of any survival situation. They are the ultimate prep. Knock the dust off of them, mold them, sharpen them and ready them for anything.

Michael P.

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