3 Questions I’d Ask If I Was An Athlete

We’ve tried, studied, and researched mobility and flexibility work over the years, and found it has little mission-direct carryover.

By Rob Shaul, Founder


Question: How can you train strength, work capacity, endurance, chassis integrity, and perhaps a couple of other fitness attributes concurrently in MTI’s base fitness programming and become very good at any of them? 

Answer: You can’t – and certainly not at an elite level.

There is too much cardio and endurance and not enough focused strength work in our base fitness programming for athletes to reach high levels of strength in Olympic or powerlifting.

Likewise, there is too much strength work in our base fitness programming for athletes to reach elite levels of endurance performance.

However, the mission-direct fitness demands for mountain and tactical athletes are a hybrid mix. An elite powerlifter would quickly gas during a long ruck or high alpine approach. Likewise, an elite endurance athlete would soon buckle under an 80# pack.

The aim of MTI’s base fitness programming isn’t elite performance in any one fitness attribute, but rather mission-direct performance outside of the gym.

As well, unlike team or individual sports athletes, the fitness demands mountain and tactical athletes will face in the field are not always predictable. We know that a football game lasts 60 minutes in playing time and the average play is 7 seconds long, followed by 40 seconds rest. We know that the soccer game is 90 minutes long, and much research has been done already on the game total distance, average velocity and average heart rate of each playing position. An alpine ski racer ski run is going to last 1-2 minutes.

The position-specific fitness demands for team and individual sports can and have been closely measured and determined, and as a result, strength and conditioning coaches can use this game/event-specific information to design sport-specific fitness training protocols.

To some extent, the same approach can be completed for tactical athletes and mountain professionals. Military researchers put heart rate and other physiological monitoring devices on personnel going through Close Quarters Battle courses, for example, and from that data, can develop fitness demands and training plans.

However, mountain events and tactical missions don’t always go as planned. The quick 1-day peak bagging trip can turn into a 3-day event if the mountain athletes get off track, become lost, or someone suffers an injury.

The routine tactical patrol can devolve into a long succession of run and gun firefights.

MTI’s base fitness programming seeks to find a balance between the known, hybrid fitness demands of mountain events and tactical missions, while at the same time programming for the unpredictable.


Question: Well known sports performance programming includes prehab, rehab, and much more flexibility, mobility, and patterning work than MTI programming. Why don’t you include this stuff as well?

Answer: Nothing I’ve experienced or read has shown that this stuff has a mission-direct benefit. 

Believe me, we’ve tried much of it – extensive foam rolling sessions, blocks of extensive stretching, studies on mobility techniques for effectiveness – all to either none or questionable mission-direct performance improvement.

I’ve come to believe that most of this stuff is added complexity for no reason, or worse, time spent not going fitness training. I would add to this the many “recovery” products marketed these days – ice baths, cryo-baths, massagers, stress monitoring, all supplements, etc. All this stuff, for the most part, is junk.

“How can I improve recovery?” I get asked frequently. My answer? Get more fit. Your recovery will improve with fitness.

Want to make your athletes more durable? Spend less time stretching, doing mobility drills, and foam rolling, and more time building sport-specific fitness.

This issue comes up a lot in the military regarding heavy rucking. I receive questions from both individual soldiers, military PT’s and other strength coaches who see or are concerned about injury from heavy rucking.

My short answer – make sure your athletes are doing heavy rucking in their train up for the event. The best way to prepare for heavy rucking is to ruck heavy!!

Will stretching help prevent injury? Will better mobility? I have no idea …. maybe, but at some point in the stretching protocol, the transfer to rucking durability will stop, and the athlete will only get better at stretching. I know that actually rucking makes athletes not only better at rucking, but also more durable when it comes to rucking.

Certainly, long mobility sessions, long foam rolling sessions, and deep tissue massages are more enjoyable than strapping on a heavy pack and heading out in the cold for 6 miles, but that’s the point, isn’t it?

My anecdotal experience has been confirmed by research. Most this stuff has negligible effect and is a distracting waste of time, money and effort.


Question: What are the biggest weaknesses in your base fitness programming right now?

Two keep me up at night. First is work capacity macro and meso programming progression. I’ve written about this before and have worked on it for years, but haven’t found a solution yet. In general, right now we design work capacity events around duration. We have developed over the years 3 primary durations of work capacity events: 5+5 (5-minute event, short rest, 5-minute event), 10-minute events, and 20-minute events.

This duration-based programming has worked well for us, but I would like to do better. It would seem that designing work capacity events around power would be an improvement – for example, a 100-watt event, 300-watt event, and 600-watt event. However, in practicality, this has proven very difficult and complicated to do, especially with multi-modal events. For example, I’m 5′ 7″ tall (on a good day), and the power it takes me to do a 5 reps of power clean + push press using a 135# barbell is less than it takes a 6′ 3″ athlete to do 5 reps at the same weight … if we complete the reps in the same exact time. If I do them slower, my power generation drops, so going into the power equation is my height (how far the barbell moves), the barbell load, and the time (how fast it moves) …. all of this can get really complicated very fast.

So …. I’ve begun wondering if power isn’t the way to go, and I need to look for another work capacity event progression metric. I haven’t found one yet.

Second is volume – esp. in our gym-based sessions. Could we cut back on volume, have shorter sessions, and still achieve the same results? This would be more efficient training, help with recovery, and decrease long term wear and tear on the athlete.

The Busy Operator plans in our plan library do this already – though the incentive for decreasing volume was simply to make shorter training sessions (45 min. vs our regular 60 min). I’ve been having my long term tactical lab rats complete the Busy Operator III plan for the past 5 weeks. They report feeling more fresh and more fit. Know that I haven’t put this to a mini-study yet – but hope to do so soon. I could decrease volume either by shortening sessions or simply cutting back on longer sessions – i.e. train less often.

We always have work to do and can improve.


Questions? Email coach@mtntactical.com
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