Balancing Work-Related Demands and the need for Durability and Longevity for Tactical Athletes: What a Total Hip Replacement at the age of 39 taught me


For the past 2 years, I have experienced a nagging and persistent dull pain in my left hip flexor and leg.  Additionally, sporadic back pain and spasms throughout my thoracic and lumbar spine had become the norm.  Having nearly 22 years of hard fitness training (weight-lifting, long distance running, Crossfit etc.), I paid little attention and simply assumed it was muscle soreness.  Finally, at the behest of my wife, I visited several doctors and underwent several MRI’s and X-rays only to discover that I had numerous bulging and herniated discs throughout my back, as well as a severely torn labrum and degenerative arthritis throughout my left hip.  After discussing options with several doctors, I decided the best and most prudent course of action would be to undergo a total hip replacement.

This was shocking and distressful. I’d devoted hours per day for two decades to maintain a peak level of physical condition.  How could I now be so broken that I could lose my job?  Would I now become a liability to my family and my teammates instead of the asset that I had always sought to be?  Attempting to answer these questions forced me to clearly reflect on just what had brought me to this point in my life and fitness training career.

I’m a 39-year-old Federal LEO, former collegiate football player, and Green Beret. Hard fitness training has been a priority since I was a teenager.  At 17, I left for the U.S. Marine Corps and was amongst the most physically talented and capable in every unit in which I served.  Being a smaller guy, I was always excellent at running and bodyweight type calisthenics. I could easily hit 18:00 3 mile runs and perform pullups and pushups for hours.  I lifted weights and performed some strength training as well, but my knowledge of physical fitness training was limited early on.

As my first tour in the military was ending, I turned my attention toward a new goal.  Becoming a collegiate football player at a FCS University near my hometown.  I had wanted to play college football since my childhood, but my smaller size and stature led those dreams to fizzle as I neared high school graduation.

I was strong, and had tremendous work capacity and endurance potential.  However, my small size didn’t help when I competed with bigger guys for scholarship spots.  After months on the practice squad, I won a scholarship to play Free Safety and found myself getting significant playing time.  However, I knew if I wanted to succeed and improve, I would need to place a serious emphasis on size and strength.

I fully committed to the football team’s strength and conditioning programs, and also added my own supplementary workouts before or after our designated training time.  I had always been a workout junkie, and my time in college only intensified my commitment to weight training and fitness.  I made significant gains for my size (benching over 300 and squatting over 500 at just 170 lbs.) while maintaining my innate ability to run fast, and far.

I devoured every football training program I could find.  I added elements from various coaches and programming to our very specific and intentionally designed team program.  The concepts of overtraining, periodization, and specificity didn’t mean much to me.  I figured the more that I lifted, the stronger I would be.  At 22 years old my body could handle the volume and I made consistent improvement.

After college graduation, and with the onset of the numerous GWOT conflicts, I re-enlisted with the goal of becoming a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces.  I maintained my high level of fitness, but I knew that SFAS and the SFQC would require that I become much more adept at job specific demands, primarily rucking.

During my time in the Marine Corps, I despised rucking.  My smaller stature and short legs were not particularly adept or suited for moving fast under heavy loads over long distance.  I devoured any information on “Tactical Fitness” and Special Operations based programming.  Crossfit had become the rage, and I fell back upon my penchant to pick and choose elements from various programs to create a “hybrid” program that would ensure I was excellent across all physical domains, without paying attention to the need for specificity, periodization, longevity, and mobility.

I did not dare to forsake my bodybuilding/strength type programming, because I feared losing size and strength.  However, I knew I had to become good at rucking and moving quickly over distance, so I added in weekly 3-4 long distance rucks, as well as ruck runs on top of my basic strength programming.  If I had some extra time, I would add in weighted step-ups for 1-2 hours as well, just to ensure I wasn’t being lazy or going into SFAS unprepared.

Convinced that Crossfit was the way to succeed in “Special Operations,” I had to throw in a few arbitrarily chosen metcons throughout the week to ensure I was maintaining a high level of fitness across ALL domains simultaneously.  Being in my mid and late twenties, I was able to tolerate the stress brought upon by such programming with no major issues or injuries.

I was fortunate enough to pass SFAS and the SFQC.  My ruck times throughout SFAS and the SFQC were outstanding, and my work capacity allowed me to withstand not only physical assessments, but the long grueling movements under load as well as the physical demands that accompany being a member of the SOF community.  I constantly scored well above 300 on all Army PT tests, and my UBBR scores were consistently above 1500.  I was strong, fast, durable, resilient, and felt great.

Not wanting to lose my fitness, I continued to combine elements of various programming for years during my time in SOF and eventually when I would transition to a career in Federal Law Enforcement.  I combined elements of Military Athlete (Now MTI), Gym Jones, various bodybuilding programs, ultramarathon programming, long distance rucking, etc.  Losing an element of fitness in any of the domains was (and continues to be) one of my biggest fears.  I had to ensure I was pushing myself to exhaustion in all domains daily, lest I regress and become a liability to my teammates and myself.

Following my time on active duty, I was fortunate enough to land a career in Federal Law Enforcement, and a spot on my agency’s tactical team.  Now in my mid-30s, I did begin to experience some more severe aches and pains but paid little attention, as they had become my new normal.  I continued to train and combine elements of bodybuilding with arbitrarily chosen metcons from various Crossfit affiliates.  I figured this would ensure I at least maintained my levels of strength, endurance, and work capacity as I transitioned into my 30s and eventually my 40s.

At times, I would try to dedicate myself solely to one program, and NOT add additional elements or modalities.  However, after 3-4 days, I would quickly become discouraged and feel I was not doing enough or losing my ability in a specific modality.  I would quickly abandon such specificity and return to my ways of combining programming and engaging in soul-crushing workouts.

Having always been a decent runner, a buddy of mine soon persuaded me to enter the world of ultramarathon running.  With my running background, I figured this would be an intriguing new challenge and something that I could add to my already overburdened programming.  Mileage became the name of the game.  Prior to entering the world of ultramarathons, even as I combined various elements of programming and was probably overtrained for years, I might accumulate 16-25 miles a week at most, including running and rucking.  Now, being convinced I needed to simply add mileage, I began running anywhere from 40-60 miles a week on top of hours of bodybuilding, metcons, interval training, and work-related training evolutions on a weekly basis.  Furthermore, most of the mileage was what would probably be referred to as junk mileage. Mileage merely for the sake of mileage, with little to no attention paid to heart level zones, tempo runs, and periodization.

The results were predictable. The damage caused to my skeletal structure, endocrine system, neurological system, tendons and cartilage, and joints should come as no surprise. It is a reality in the SOF community that we are constantly seeking to push and challenge ourselves and ensure we maintain that much-needed edge that we so often seek, often times to the detriment of our health and longevity.

Becoming a liability for many of us is our worst fear, as is the thought of failing or letting down our teammates.   Most who enter the SOF community do so because of a very driven and goal-oriented mindset that pushes us to seek personal growth and to ensure we are always an asset to our brothers and sisters.  We seek to become the person who is counted upon when times get challenging, and adversity becomes a reality.  However, if not tempered, that mentality can often be detrimental and cause us to become a liability, not an asset.

What my need for a hip replacement at this young age has taught me is that longevity, durability, and focusing on long-term health through holistic and proper programming, is crucial.  If we are only able to maintain a high level of fitness for a short duration of time, while admirable, we are not able to maintain our effectiveness into the latter decades of our career.

So often, we as SOF members forsake our ability to remain durable and healthy in the long term due to our propensity to push too hard.  We fail to adhere to a balanced and more holistic approach that includes incorporating rest and not pushing ourself to the limit on a daily basis.  As fitness enthusiasts, we are bombarded with programming geared toward Special Operators, or Tactical Athletes wherever we look.  The Tactical Fitness Industry has grown significantly over the years, and many of us have made the mistake of forsaking proper and intelligent programming for sheer volume and the momentary satisfaction of completing a soul-crushing workout that may or may not elicit the response that we truly desire.

The term “functional fitness” gets thrown around with regularity and tends to skew toward free-weight and barbell-type movements.  What I have learned over the years, is that as our bodies succumb and adapt to the various traumas caused from years of training and work-related demands which we all face.  Our bodies adapt and oftentimes use poor neuromuscular patterns and form to ensure we are able to continue barbell squatting, snatches, cleans, deadlifts, simply for the sake of performing functional movements.

Globo Gym machines have become anathema to the Tactical Fitness world, even at the sake of foregoing traditional hypertrophy training and proper movement patterns which in turn could prove more functional than performing a squat or deadlift with poor form.  While it is true that these free weight exercises are oftentimes the most conducive to real-world strength application, if we as broken humans execute these movements in an improper way, simply for the sake of functional training, we induce further damage and ironically become less functional and more of a liability to ourselves and our teammates.

For years, I avoided the leg press and any gym-based machine at all costs.  I was a member of the SOF community, and those machines were for soccer moms and non-serious gym-goers.  What I have learned since my hip replacement is that all forms of strength training have their proper time and place.  Functional fitness could entail relying solely upon machines and leg presses for a year while you rehab an injury and build sufficient muscular and tendon strength to remain an asset to yourself and your teammates.  Progressive overload, planned rest periods, heart rate training, zone two type activities, and many others all have their time and place in proper programming.

We as SOF members, particularly those of us in our 30s and 40s, must make the difficult choice to break free of the propensity to crush ourselves daily, using solely traditional barbell movements that we may no longer be able to perform successfully.  Strict, unwavering adherence to what may have brought us success 10-20 years ago may no longer be appropriate as our bodies evolve and adapt to the traumas and stresses that a career in the military and Law Enforcement often cause. Functional Fitness or Tactical Fitness for many may now be understanding how and when to implement machines, substitutions, or previously neglected movement patterns to remain robust and durable for years to come.

It’s been 4 weeks since my hip replacement, and the lessons I am learning continue to guide my training.  Despite the success in hip replacement surgery, particularly amongst younger individuals, there is little and disparate information as to the long-term effects, and what is allowed/prohibited for patients.  A simple google search will yield anything from “bedrest for 4 weeks” to “walking without a crutch the day of surgery.”  With the gap in data and information, surgeons and Physical Therapists offer differing advice as to when it is safe to resume normal activities(and even that is an ambiguous term) and to what extent an individual can return to the activities they participated in prior to the operation.

There are cases of individuals undergoing total hip replacements who have returned to ultramarathon running, and also individuals who are never able to squat past 90 degrees for the remainder of their lives. I would imagine there will be many new cases of younger individuals undergoing hip replacements (as well as other joint replacement operations) in the coming years, as many of us who came of age and served during the GWOT and Crossfit age are left to deal with the realities of the less than intelligent personal physical training, and the traumas caused to our bodies by work-related demands.

The anticipation of having my hip replaced at 39 did in fact cause me tremendous anxiety.  Fortunately, the operation went well, and I was able to walk and return home the very same day.  I did use a walker for 2 days or so. Even during the first 2 days, I made a point to get off the couch every hour or so and walk back and forth in my living room for 10-20 minutes (with the assistance of the walker) to ensure I was remaining active and mobile.

I attended my first PT session four days later and was able to begin walking on my own following the first session.  The goal of the session was to test my range of motion and gauge what my goals and expectations would be in the coming weeks.  My Physical Therapist was outstanding, and very understanding of my personal and professional goals and expectations.  He provided very few restrictions (no extreme extension or abduction), and basically allowed me to participate in strength training activities that could be performed in a safe manner (leg press, leg extension, bodyweight squats, leg curl).

 As badly as I wanted to get back into training as soon as possible, I was also worried that a quick return would jeopardize the integrity of the implant and/or prolong my recovery or ability to make a full recovery.  I decided to join a Globo Gym the very same week, and just 4 days after the operation, I was performing machine-based exercises, and walking as much as possible.  The first two weeks I went very easy, never exerting too much effort to maintain the integrity of my incision and let the sutures and hip capsule heal properly.

I would walk on the treadmill at an incline for 3-4 miles a day and ride the Assault Bike for 20 minutes or so, while throwing in some bodyweight movements for my upper body.  At about the 2-week mark, I began adding leg-based machines (leg press, leg extension, leg curl) and increasing the mileage and intensity on the treadmill (Incline 15.0, Speed 3.0).  There were the expected aches and pains from the operation, but I found the more I moved, the better my hip and leg felt.  I attended PT 2x a week, in addition to my daily gym and walking sessions.

What I quickly realized was that the generic PT exercises are designed to elicit a growth response from oftentimes untrained and somewhat weaker individuals.  Most hip replacement patients are older, untrained, and not accustomed to a structured workout or physical training program.  While the PT exercises were good in terms of reacquiring mobility and range of motion, to elicit the needed strength response, I needed to perform many of the exercises and movements on my own, while being careful to not over-exert or cause potential damage.

At the 4-week mark, I feel great and was recently cleared by my PT to no longer attend his sessions.  He has allowed me to train on my own while avoiding any type of severe hip extension and/or abduction.

Overall, I’m optimistic and have no doubt I will return to the activities I love and hopefully remain an asset with my teammates for at least another 15-20 years.

I was fortunate enough to have discovered my physical injuries with enough time to shift and refocus my training ideology and mindset to focus on not only performance, but also longevity and durability.  I believe it is vital for all of us who have fallen victim to many of the same mistakes I have made along my training journey to refocus our mindset and efforts on ensuring we are healthy and able to provide for our families, our teammates, and ourselves as we enter the next phase of our lives.

The author is a military SOF veteran and current member of a Federal LE tactical team.

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