From the Bike Trail to the Battlefield, Two Booz Allen Trainers Are Practicing What They Preach

Jun 4, 2021 9:00 AM ET

While others may balk at the idea of signing up for the Quantico Epic Mountain Bike Adventure “Mini-Mayhem” event with only 5 days’ notice, Irik Johnson and MR Blank signed up for mayhem without hesitation because performance training is a key part of their daily lives. This annual 18-mile race challenges participants with rugged terrain and 1,900 vertical feet of elevation changes.

Both approached the event with confidence and successfully reached the finish line.

The secret? Johnson and Blank are experts in human performance training: tactics, habits, and procedures to improve mental strength and maximize an individual’s physical capabilities.

As human performance director and senior cognitive performance coach at Booz Allen, Johnson and Blank use high-performance training concepts on the job every day supporting warfighters, first responders, and athletes—and for their own readiness when a racing opportunity came up on very short notice.

Cognitive training and consistent habits build a foundation

Physical attributes like core and lower-body strength and cardiovascular endurance are essential for completing an event like Mini-Mayhem, and Blank, an amateur ultra athlete, and Johnson, an avid cyclist, were well prepared. But strengthening mental muscles is equally important, and that’s where cognitive training comes in.

“Cognitive training helps you think faster, learn faster, and develop the mental acuity to stay focused and make better decisions under pressure,” said Johnson.

Two tactics are self-talk and visualization—vital in any endeavor with many twists, turns, and obstacles.   

Blank explained: “You transfer things you work on in an isolated environment like the gym and bring it to the bike. You learn to trust your equipment and know your body position. One example is looking ahead over your front tire, which is very important in mountain bike racing.”

For Booz Allen’s human performance training clients, such visualizations often come to life in simulations and immersive VR/AR environments. This allows participants to execute high-risk tasks without risking harm, so they can gain realistic experience, build muscle memory, and form neural connections.

Readiness is also about developing and maintaining consistent habits. Blank and Johnson cited race-day nutrition as an example.

“We don’t wonder what we’re going to eat on race day or waste precious time at the snack table. We know: two gels, one swig of water, a piece of PB&J every 45 minutes. It becomes part of the routine,” Blank said.

“When a race or a mission happens, you need systems to fall back on, and these come from sustained practice,” Johnson said, citing a quote attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: ‘We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”

Real-time data sharpens progress

Whether preparing for a race or battle, readiness requires information. For this reason, Booz Allen’s training is data-centric, personalized, and built for real-time feedback.

This often starts with trackers and sensors. “Wearables give data-driven evidence that shows an individual’s unique performance and the progress they are making toward specific goals,” Johnson said. “Then you can tailor physical and cognitive training accordingly.”

Leading up to a race or event, Blank gathers information through a sleep tracker, so she can adapt her training to her energy levels. On the job with Booz Allen, she uses data on a broader scale. As she helps an operational brigade size element prepare for deployment, she’s gathering data from its cognitive training activities. “Then when they come back, we can recalibrate and adjust,” she said.

Digital innovation is expanding what’s possible, Johnson said. For example, organizations can use AI to analyze data, yielding insight into the root causes of physical and cognitive challenges. This allows instructors and trainees to target those areas in the next training cycle, creating a continuous loop of improvement.

“There are so many opportunities where analytics and technology generate ROI,” Johnson said. “Military coaches using human performance training have seen improved sleep behavior and a decrease in musculoskeletal injuries, as well as improvement in how they quantify their readiness metrics.”

By testing out tactics and technologies on themselves, Blank said, she and Johnson aim to show the ROI of human performance training to the people they work with. “We’re always trying to test the waters and see how this stuff affects us as well. It’s important to practice what you preach, show up, and be able to walk the walk.”

Read more about human performance training for military missions and operational readiness at Booz Allen.