by Uphill Athlete writer Laura Larson
Given the recent proliferation of high-intensity, strength-based fitness programs with names like boot camp and SEALFIT, it would be easy to assume that all members of the military train this way: with heavy doses of strength and a token nod to cardio. It’s often true that the service branches pump up the importance of strength at the expense of large-volume, low-intensity base building—that essential foundation of the durable athlete. But not everyone bends to that one-track line of thinking.
There’s a shift happening, small but powerful, with individuals like a recent graduate of the US Army Ranger School opting to cultivate endurance over pure strength. As this Army infantry officer sees it, the push-push-push mentality is losing its toehold.
“I think my generation is doing a better job of trying to train a little smarter rather than train harder,” he says.
To that end, when he decided Ranger School would be the next logical step in his career, this officer tapped Uphill Athlete to help him prepare for the two-month grind of the combat leadership course.
“Embarking on a challenge like this provides an exciting opportunity for an endurance coach because it’s unconventional,” says Elite Coach Sam Naney, who worked one-on-one with the officer for nearly a year.
Ranger School comes at you in four parts, served up one after the other in wham-bam fashion. First there’s Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) Week—four days of physical fitness tests, starting with 49 strictly graded push-ups in 2 minutes and ending with a 12-mile ruck run (a march with a heavy load, in this case a 50-pound pack) in under 3 hours. Throughout the following three phases, one of which is held in northern Georgia’s Appalachians and another in the Florida swamps, the students take turns leading up to a platoon-sized element on graded patrols. These staged missions, which range from raids to recon, test leadership skills in real-world field situations. To get the “GO” to continue to the next phase, students have to pass at least one of their missions as a leader.
All this is done on fumes: students are reduced to two meals and about a half hour of sleep a day, and they’re often humping loads over 100 pounds. If this sounds like a recipe for physical meltdown, that’s the point—to throw the body’s systems into disarray and force the soldier to, well, soldier on. “Ranger School puts you under a lot of stress and teaches you how to lead in what the Army calls an ‘austere environment,’” explains the officer.
Sam designed a training program that would first and foremost get the officer through RAP Week—especially the dreaded push-ups—and then help him gut out the three ensuing phases, all while dealing with the unavoidable hunger and sleep deprivation. Sam recognized Ranger School for what it is: an endurance event.
“The demands of Ranger School entry and successful graduation demanded that he train like an endurance athlete,” explains Sam. “Long-duration weighted hikes, middle-distance running economy, and muscular endurance all played into his training plan as we worked to tune him up for both the entry fitness exams and the rigors of Ranger School itself.”
In April 2017, about one year before the officer was due to start school, he embarked on a two-month base-building period with Sam that involved a high volume of low-intensity running. Then in June, they introduced circuit training, track work, hill sprints, and long uphill hikes with a heavy pack, usually in the 3-hour range.
“Military operators are effectively professional athletes,” says Sam. “Their time and energies are devoted exclusively to being the best-prepared soldier they can be. This officer was no exception, and his dedication and commitment to the training showed in the progressive performance gains he saw over the course of the program.” By the end of summer, the officer’s 2-mile running time had dropped from 14:30 to 12:30, and he’d cut his 12-mile ruck time from 3 hours to 2:15.
Starting in September, during a demanding block of Army training, the officer took a few months off from working with Sam. When they resumed the program in December, it was fine-tuning time. The officer ran, rucked, and segued into a max strength cycle, doing low reps of weighted push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, and sit-ups.
The goal, according to Sam, was to make sure the officer came into the RAP Week fitness tests overprepared. “Similar to how Uphill Athlete approaches coaching mountaineers and other ultra-endurance athletes, we looked at the maximum score possible for each marker—5-mile run, Ranger push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, all in consecutive fashion—and then sought to prepare him for 110 percent of it, allowing for a buffer of strength to accommodate inevitable fatigue,” he explains.
Once school got underway in early February, the officer found he held up surprisingly well. He didn’t have any injuries, his feet didn’t mutiny, and despite losing 20 pounds he didn’t have to spare, he was able to shoulder the heavy loads. And he wasn’t one of the 75 or so people who failed right out of the gate on push-ups.
“I was always known to be the oddly happy and oddly energetic person during Ranger School. I would say 50 percent of that is my personality, and 50 percent of that was that my body was doing OK,” he says. “I think because of how I was feeling, I was able to contribute a lot more, and I was able to keep going when other people were mentally exhausted. I was mentally tired too, but my body helped pull me along from time to time.”
He underlines that it was primarily solid teamwork—the help of his fellow cohort—that carried him from day to day, week to week, phase to phase. But his endurance played an undeniable supporting role in getting him to graduation.
“It wasn’t so much in the first phase that I was so much more physically prepared than other people,” he says. “It was a long-term kind of thing to where I was able to keep going throughout a lot better than other people were.”
As a result, the officer is firmly convinced of the value of Uphill Athlete’s overall approach to training—and the potential broad benefit it could have if popularized among the service branches. “I find it important that other members of the military understand that I and other military athletes believe in the training Uphill Athlete provides and how effective it can be in the rigorous schools the military has to offer,” he says. “My goal is to see their training philosophies spread across the military, so as a result we have a more physically ready force.”