Updated: Sep 12, 2018
Physical fitness is a crucial component to a soldier’s ability to carry out their duty effectively and efficiently. However physical fitness standards seem to be dropping and more and more soldiers aren’t carrying out the correct preparation before joining up. This doesn’t just affect the individual, but all those around them, all those who are relying on that person to perform.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the fittest people I know are current or ex-servicemen and women and I’m definitely not saying you need to be an elite athlete to be a good soldier. The reality is though that the times when your ability to solider is at the most crucial is when you are under some form of physical stress.
So what does a potential serviceman or servicewoman need to do to ensure that they are physically prepared? The easiest way to determine this is to look at some scenarios and talk about what type of fitness will be required. I have tried to keep this as simple as possible but will briefly talk about energy systems, force generation and a couple of other basic technical terms, don’t worry if you don’t understand these as I will lay out the practical implications very clearly.
Strength Soldiers, especially those on the front line have to carry a lot of kit and equipment to be effective. This can range from food and water to ammunition and medical supplies. This gear can weigh up to 35kg regardless of the height and weight of the individual carrying it. I’ve seen big guys and small guys alike crumble under loads when carrying it over long distances. So what can you do to make this easier? Get stronger to begin with. If you think about all that weight bearing down on you what is keeping you up? Strength. Now add to that muscular contractions having to apply force to the ground to move the load you are carrying i.e. walking, this is the classic definition of strength, the ability to apply maximum force to an object.
Solution: Work on the classics lifts – squats and deadlifts to build a strong lower half and also a strong core which, despite popular belief, doesn’t require 1000 crunches a day. Work on bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, press-up and dips to develop a strong upper body which will also support the heavy loads you are carrying. Make sure you learn how to carry out these movements correctly before starting, to avoid potential injury. Work within the 6-8 rep range as you get a balance between building muscle and developing strength.
Speed/Power Now we have a good strength base and we can carry these heavy loads, sometimes we are required to move these loads as quickly as possible over a short distance i.e. a sprint. When I was serving in Afghanistan there was a time when enemy rounds were landing at our feet, however there were already friendly forces between us and the enemy engaging them. This meant we could not return fire and our only option was to sprint through open ground to cover without getting hit by stray rounds. A simple task. Two of the guys had to stop half way! We are talking a run of around 300m and two guys had to stop with rounds whizzing around them! Granted we were carrying some heavy equipment but what if one of them had been hit? Then we would have to go back for them, carry them and their kit to safety putting more lives at risk and we weren’t even in a proper contact. So imagine that in a full on enemy engagement when having to move from one fire position to another or from open ground to cover and stopping dead for a few seconds to catch your breath? I’m not trying to scaremonger here but these situations happen and lives are on the line and all because someone didn’t take the time to prepare.
So what we are talking about here is speed and power, to be able to apply that force as we did previously but as quickly as possible. We are talking about utilising our glycolytic and creatine phosphate energy systems which fuel short bouts of physical activity.
Solution: Work on plyometrics such as box jumps and broad jumps along with lifts like the power clean to develop efficient force application. Utilise speed training such as sprints and hill reps to build endurance within these energy systems ensuring you train in varying time domains to develop both systems, especially the CP system as this often gets overlooked or is seen as non-beneficial to endurance athletes.
Endurance We now have the strength and power to move some heavy gear and generate high amounts of force when required but what about when carrying these loads for long periods of time? You’re CP and glycolytic energy systems will struggle to re-produce energy quick enough to sustain longer periods of activity past a couple of minutes meaning your oxidative or aerobic energy system will take over. When out on patrol you could be out for 1 hour, you could be out for 3 hours, depending on the task you could be out all night! Your ability to deal with these longer bouts of physical activity and still be fresh enough to perform when it counts are crucial. There were times when we would return from a 3-4 hour patrol and the enemy would wait until you were in close proximity to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) to engage, a point where you are at your most fatigued. Then you would have to tap into sprints and moving quickly, climbing over objects or walls.
Solution: Working on your endurance can take the form of running, cycling, rowing and even walking. Get used to running for 40-60 mins comfortably. Get used to walking with weight on your back for 2-3 hours. These only need to be steady efforts and utilising certain heart rate zones can make this work even more effective. With these bouts you should be able to hold a conversation with someone, if you struggle to say a sentence then you are going too hard!
In summary a soldier requires a lot of different aspects of physical fitness and having first-hand experience I can attest to how important fitness is in the field. People think that basic training will get you fit and whilst it will increase your fitness, you need to get fit beforehand. There are basic tests you need to pass on arrival such as the 1.5mile run in under 10 minutes and 30 seconds. If you fail this test then you are a target straight away for the training team, this means your focus is on passing these basics fitness tests instead of on learning crucial soldiering skills that are taught during this phase. Save yourself the stress and prepare!! Unfortunately hours and hours on Call of Duty won’t get you prepared for Military Service.