Notes of a High-Mileaged Tactical Athlete: Stronger, Almost as Swift and Durable

 

By Todd W. 

 

…after two decades in SOF, second to the accomplishments and successes of my units, teammates and subordinates, I pride myself with the level of fitness and the career durability I have sustained.  Moreover, as an ODA member (14 yrs), Team Sergeant (2 yrs) and ODB/ AOB Sergeant Major (2yrs), I was fortunate to have leaders, peers and subordinates who humbled me daily and set the bar high.   They trained hard, believed in their mission and demanded the best of themselves daily…

…I have shared my training experiences, methodologies, and practices (successes and epic fails) with many of my peers, subordinates, fitness professionals and leaders, not as a model of what “right/wrongs” looked like but as a fellow Soldier whom never wanted to just survive the “cut” or meet the standards and knew the value of sharing knowledge and lessons learned…

…I wanted to be the consummate quiet professional, the one that is marketed in the stanzas of our creeds and ethos, a soldier that our Nation deserved.  None of this is earth-shattering information but it may be beneficial to those who will continue to train as a tactical athlete for years to come… 

 

Thanks to my leadership, teammates and most of all my Mom and Dad!

Without a doubt, my endurance/stamina were a gift of genetics. I could never thank my parents enough.  I capitalized on this “natural ability” for many years through scholastic sports, endurance racing, and some of the most rigorous schools and training evolutions the military has to offer.

But my levels of strength, work capacity, mental toughness, and durability were all earned from years of fitness training, application and experimentation.  Fortunately, I have always had an innate desire to reach my full capacity, both mentally and physically so I enjoyed to suffer in a weird way.  Notwithstanding, I was never the fastest, strongest nor most durable tactical athlete in the inventory, not even close.  However, comparatively to myself, my overall fitness level over the last few years has not only increased but it is more balanced and mission focused than ever before.  I blame this on the persistent mentorship, creative resourcing, and mission focused programs and support by my coaches, teammates and leadership.   

The transference of athleticism from hobbies into tactical application.

Early in my career I was introduced to the sports of running, biathlons and triathlons by a classmate. I discovered that I was relatively pretty good at them and possibly with a little training, I could be fairly competitive in my age group.  I began training and racing at all distances from the local 10Ks to the Boston Marathon, from Sprint triathlons and small adventure races up to the Ironman Triathlon.  I loved the demand of the hard training, the commitment to the programs, the logistic and nutritional planning and the transference of the athleticism to my career.

In 2000, at the Ironman Triathlon, I was 6’2 and 178lbs, fast over distance, had a huge aerobic base but was relatively weak from a tactical athlete perspective. Looking back, I was a professional tactical athlete putting my hobby ahead of my teammates and our mission.  I would perform well at all of the required evaluations, however when equipment weight was added, I would struggle more than I should have.  Not long after 9/11, that concern became a daily reality as I would entered a new arena to be tested in the contact sport of combat and the terrain of Afghanistan.

Understanding and appreciating the requirements of tactical athlete.

After a couple of months in Afghanistan, I quickly began to question my fitness capabilities. I had the lungs and legs for the terrain but I did not have the strength and sheer work capacity for the payload that the mission required. Soldier loads often were over 100 lbs and would punish my body after a few hours of foot movements, especially in the mountains.

20150122-_MG_2922At the time, multimodal programs like Gym Jones and Crossfit had not surfaced, so I began to implement my own program mix while deployed. Simple formula: More strength, less endurance. There were 3-4 days of old school weight training with some of my “gym rat” teammates and a couple days of endurance/ stamina training. This was my first attempt at programming for myself.  Epic failure but I learned a lot.

Uneducated and unappreciative of the world of strength training, I began sharing my notes with some of our gym rats.  My intended outcomes were to improve my relative strength to a Soldier load in excess of 100 lbs, increased work capacity with heavier loads in mountainous terrain, sustain my current state of stamina and remain durable to stay in the fight.

I had increased my caloric intake as recommended by the “gym rats” as I was “too lean” and morphed their program methodologies in to mine.  Their plan worked.  In eight weeks, I was now 6’2 and 215 lbs!  Sounds badass right?  Not really, when I ran, there was not enough oxygen in the atmosphere to keep the combat chassis moving, slower speeds and less stamina. I did get stronger but I was also heavier so it was really a moot point at best.  With my natural abilities compromised and my requirements still not met, I went back to drawing board of trial and error.  For about two years, I toiled with concoctions of physical training cycles to morph from an endurance athlete into a tactical athlete until one of my web-toed brothers from Southern California introduced to a new fitness craze…Crossfit.

We were doing Crossfit +/- but with a scoop of military.

In the late portion of 2004, the advent and craze of Crossfit blew in to the team rooms like a tsunami; Olympic lifting, high intensity, relative strength, mobility, and constant of competition were the new normal.  It was great and I couldn’t get enough it!  Free access to the Workouts of the Day (WODs), tutorials, videos and pictures of athletes in motion, it was a plug and play application…It was my Easy Button…pure brilliance!  I was now 6”2, @ 190 lbs and I was finishing with the top guys.

But was this an accurate measure of my success? Was I meeting my training requirements? Was my sport Fitness? I found myself tailoring the “WODs” for transferability to my career, more volume and often throwing out some of the exercises, the prescribed weights and rep schemes as they just didn’t make sense, were unattainable or to be honest, I just plain out wasn’t good at them.

I incorporated training tasks into the sessions, often while donning kit or designing sessions as collective training not just individual efforts. We were doing Crossfit Plus or Minus with a large dash of military.

Develop metrics to validate your success. Assess, Train, Re-Assess, Adjust as needed.

The geek in me began to measure my performance against my own previous data points.  My physics professor once quoted, “If it isn’t measurable, it is possibly worthless.”  Thus I developed some assessments against my requirements using a simple military format: Tasks, Conditions, and Standards with the least amount of variables allowed. Some of the events were a shuttle run with kit (packing list minimal) with a dexterity drill at each turn, pull ups, dead lifts, multiple dummy drags/carries, two mile run in with kit (packing list minimal and weapon), ect.

I began to sort the CF exercises into two bins: 1. Transferable to the facets of my profession and 2. Applicable based on past mission experiences.  Randomly, I put together WODs in Five-day blocks over an Eight-week training cycle. Cycle in general followed an Assess, Train, Re-Assess, and Adjust as needed format. Day One and Two of Week 1 were the initial assessment days. I conducted my events and established my initial starting data points and the assessed against what I considered “good” to be. Weeks 2 through 7 were training weeks and Week 8 was a rest/taper and then the Re-Assess.

This was late 2006, after 15 years in the military and I had just found my transition point to training like professional tactical athlete. Crossfit was incredible significant to my overall fitness transformation, but it was generally designed for my profession. I needed to train specifically for my career not just workout for general physical preparation for life.

Create the conditions to train for the actual conditions.

For years, my metrics-driven cycles were moving me in the right direction but I struggled with preparing for the elevation and altitudes of the mountain ranges while living and training at sea level. I needed to create the conditions to train for the actual conditions I would be performing under. I didn’t have the funding for acclimation tools like a hyperbaric sleep chamber, so I began to experiment.

I began lifting weights while holding my breath, running with snorkels, and long arduous evolutions on the Stair Master. This was comical at times, however the increased benefits were marginal other than the Stair Master. Two-three hours on the Stair Master, two to three times a week was brutal mental fitness training!

In 2007, one of the most competent and capable officers I had ever worked with, introduced me to the training site of Mountain Athlete and Coach Rob Shaul. I was intrigued by the sport specificity of the program; athletes were specifically training for the outdoors, in the gym!  The program volume was intense but the athletes did not appear frantic in competition as I was accustomed to with CF. The combination of actual mountaineering/climbing skills coupled with strength/ stamina and work capacity efforts was what I was struggling to create with my eight week program.  But this was not military mountaineering or combat oriented. Could this model be used for training tactical athletes? I convinced my unit to bring him out for a programming session later that year.  I gained an enormous appreciation for his programming approaches and began to implement it in training plans for my organization and myself.

Fast forward six years later, I am 42 years old, recovering from another Operator Session as more balanced tactical athlete than the years past. One of my subordinates recently called me a high-mileaged athlete.  I have had a few bouts with operational injuries from the physical contacts of the profession but thankfully nothing that has really hindered me from performing in the gym or on the field….so I take that as a complement.

Notwithstanding, without the training experience I have accumulated over the last 40 years, I’d be at best, on the team’s “injured list”.  I still use metrics such as the Operator Ugly to validate my current state of fitness. Today, at 6’2’’/ 205Lbs I scored a 126 which is (+/- 3) from my average range on the Operator Ugly Assessment over the past 5 years, not a great score but good across the board,  something I was incapable of doing  when I was training to be great at my hobbies and not my profession. 

Know your current state of readiness, know the requirements and be ready!

Today, the word “Combat” does not necessarily mean combat action in a classic sense. Throughout the military ranks, the word has become synonymous with overseas deployment and some sort of validation as “tested” as a Soldier.

But every combat experience and deployment I have had, none have been the same. Some involved trauma, acts of valor and courage, violence of action, personal risk, and so on. For others it means long hours managing those actions or engagements with terrible coffee and volleys of emails.

It may be debatable which is harder or more important but having “X” amount of combat deployments does not mean one is ready for the current or next fight. It means they have been fortuned with experience in those past capacities.

A soldier should never confuse his/her current state of readiness with the amount of experience they have nor should he/she train for what they did “last time”.  A professional knows their current state of readiness and the requirements of their next “combat”.  Do the gap analysis of the capabilities, formulate a plan to meet that mission, train hard, and be ready! Your life or others’ may depend on it.

Lesson #1If you have natural talents, capitalize on them and thank your parents! Don’t focus on training what you are great at, focus on what you should be good at.

Lesson #2: Transference of athleticism from hobbies into tactical application should be considered. Competition in personal arenas is a fantastic way to test one’s self.  Have a sport, event or a specific goal that invigorate you to push through the staleness and the tough programming when the call of battle is quiet.  Just be cognizant of the transference or lack thereof in your professional life to answer your call to duty.

Lesson #3Understanding the requirements of tactical athlete is paramount. There is no cookie cutter Operator. Some are offensive, some are defensive but all are equally of value to the team’s win. There is an enormous amount of resources available to the Operator in today’s force. Validate that they are what your requirements need and use them to gain the advantage.

Lesson #4: Mission readiness should be the primary focus for all fitness training and events for a tactical athlete. Preparing for a known is easier than preparing for an unknown. Training for combat prior to the attacks of 9/11 was harder than after the call to battle was made. The “war” in Iraq and Afghanistan has and will transition for the right reasons.  But our history tells us that peace is only an interval of wars; there will be a next.  Put your Trust in God, my boys, but keep your powder dry”.

SOF Truth #2: Humans are more important than hardware. Develop a maintenance plan for your body over time, daily, weekly, monthly and annually. Consult with your medical staff, human performance coordinators and coaches for their input to develop your plan and follow it.

Believe in your training program and it will work. Train hard, validate the training, and make the required changes as needed and then repeat. A conditions based training program can be very beneficial to the any athlete. It will enable the fitness to become training for the profession, not just another workout.

Strong, Swift, and Durable. Simple statement, huge dividends for the tactical athlete, even when they hang up the uniform for the last time as a high-mileaged athlete.

 

 


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