By Piers Edlund-Field, MTI Contributor
Military fitness has evolved significantly in the past 20 years. Previous generations of soldiers adopted a “one size fits all” approach to PT, prescribing basic calisthenics and long ruck marches for soldiers operating in any theater. More recently, soldiers have begun conducting physical training designed specifically for the area they operate in: arid deserts, urban centers and, increasingly, the jungles of the Pacific.
Despite the recent focus on Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, many military forces have begun quietly bulking up their presence in the Far North. Beginning in the late 2010s, members of NATO – as well as Russia and China – started conducting large scale operations in the Arctic. In 2021, the US Army released its “Regaining Arctic Dominance” white paper, launching an initiative to bulk up its forces in Alaska and ensure more American troops are physically prepared for operations in the extreme cold. Concurrently, NATO forces have begun conducting more arctic joint training, relying heavily on the expertise of local forces such as the Canadian and Norwegian Rangers.
Operating in the extreme cold is incredibly difficult at all levels. In this article we’ll look at some of the more common physical challenges faced by soldiers operating in the snow and discuss ways to train for them.
24 Hours of Winter Training
Let’s look at some of the challenges faced by Canadian soldiers on a fairly typical 24-hour period of cold weather exercise. Although much of NATO trains specialist troops for cold weather ops, every Canadian soldier is trained to operate in these conditions from the beginning of their career. Experiences may vary.
0200: It’s January, and the unit is conducting winter refresher training. Soldiers sleep in section-sized (8-12 troop) tents, buried in heavy sleeping bags and insulated from the ground by pads and pine boughs, if available. A young Private, the newest addition to the section, is shaken awake and begins his fire picket shift. For the next hour, he battles to keep the Coleman stove alive; if he fails, the section will freeze and lose precious sleep. At 0300, his replacement gets up and takes over.
0600: Reveille. As the designated cook heats up some rations, the remainder of the section prepares their kit for a long hike to their objective: an OPFOR position many kilometers away. Everyone’s freezing, moving stiffly around in overall “bib” pants and lobster-claw mittens, but they know they need to be cold prior to stepping off on their mission. If they layer up, they’ll sweat and freeze.After some preventive weapons maintenance, the troops strap on their snowshoes, throw on their rucksacks and take last sips of hot coffee. Two lucky troops climb into the toboggan harness. For the next while, they will be dragging the heavy sled – which carries essential items like rations and water – as well as their personal rucksack and fighting order.
1030: After a long uphill hike, the troops’ lower bodies are burning and they struggle to catch their breath. The incline isn’t particularly steep, but the waist-high snow and heavy loads make everything harder. Moving to flatter terrain, one of the Privates – legs still numb from the the effort of pulling the toboggan uphill – stumbles off path and crashes through the ice into a shallow marsh. Forced to evacuate the freezing troop, the section pauses and tops up on some much-needed calories.
1630: Arriving at their biv (campsite), the section can finally rest for the time being. The tent is pitched quickly and the cook fires up the stove again, heating up rations and warming the inside of the tent. Inside the tent calories are consumed, hot drinks downed and wet layers switched out for dry ones. In a few hours, the section will link up with a detachment of LOSVs (snowmobiles); they will leave all nonessential kit at the biv and ski, towed by the LOSVs, to the objective under cover of darkness.
2100: The section is towed close to the objective and dismounts, moving silently on foot with the rest of their platoon until OPFOR is in view. At H-hour, the raid begins and the troops rush through the waist-high snow, struggling to move from cover to cover. One man, totally exhausted and unable to push himself off the ground after several hundred meters of tactical bounds, sinks into the snow. His section is forced to continue without him. After sweeping through the objective, the troops exfil and link up with the LOSVs again for the ride back to biv. Hunched low on their skis, the troops struggle to keep their balance as their legs and lower backs begin to cramp again.
2300: Returning to their tent, the exhausted section sets their weapons on their rucksacks, strips down and crawls into sleeping bags. Fire picket gets the stove going, but is soon nodding off; freezing as the stove dies out, the entire tent is soon awake. Although the man on the first shift is fit and handles brief periods of activity welll – like the raid – the cumulative effect of the day’s activities wore him down. Additionally, he failed to consume enough calories during the day and lacked the energy to stay awake.
Training for Optimal Performance in the Snow
The 24 hour period described above highlights some of the more common physical challenges faced by soldiers from all nations – even fit ones – when training in cold weather conditions.
Lower Body Stamina
In the example above, a soldier became so fatigued by the effort of towing a heavy load across complex terrain that he totally lost control of his lower body. The result: a dangerous fall through the ice and an evac that delayed the section’s hike towards the objective, prolonging everyone’s suffering.
Every soldier understands that cross-country movement requires a strong and endurant lower body. During warmer months, rucksacks and fighting order can exceed 45kg (100lbs) and must be carried over any type of terrain at high speed. In the winter, personal kit weighs more as warm layers, personal stoves and mobility devices like skis add to the load. Additionally, shelter requirements are much greater in the winter than in the “easier” months: whereas it’s possible to sleep in a bivy bag and ranger blanket (or less) during the summer, cold weather requires bulky sleeping bags, insulated pads, large insulated tents and heavy stoves to heat them. All of this load is distributed across the individual’s rucksacks and the section toboggan. Although troops may sometimes be assisted by vehicles like LOSVs or – as Russians have been observed to do – reindeer, most often they must be prepared to carry the entire load on foot.
Training for this sort of repetitive lower body effort can be done in several ways. Obviously, a solid base of generalized fitness is useful in all scenarios: being good at squatting, deadlifting and running make most physical activities easier no matter the environment. However, dismounted movements last a lot longer than your average set of squats in the gym. Soldiers operating in the snow may benefit from low intensity, high volume training: high rep lunges, long sets of weighted bench step-ups, and light weight-vest runs at an easy pace. These exercises prepare the legs to power through the snow for long periods of time.
Work Capacity & Explosive Power
In the nighttime raid mentioned above, one of the soldiers became so fatigued by pepper-potting (firing and moving) through dense snow that his entire body quit on them. As a result, he fell behind his fireteam and was unable to support his section during the raid.
According to one study, muscular performance during short, fast bouts of activity improves by 2-5% per degree of temperature increase (1). In short: the cold makes you weaker. Doing runs of “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down” on flat terrain is difficult enough as it is, but naturally the snow makes the activity much more punishing. Bounding from the prone to the sprint, and then hitting the prone again, requires a lot of work capacity and explosive power in the entire body; the snow makes it harder to get up as feet get stuck and the arms cannot find anything solid to push off from. Although dismounted ops are particularly hard on the legs, we can’t ignore the role of the upper body in operations like this.
Obviously being “fit” in the general sense outlined above will improve performance for events like this. Getting more specific always provides benefits: plyometric pushups, box jumps and loaded shuttle sprints are all useful ways to get better at pepper-potting in any environment.
Proper Fuelling and Aerobic Endurance
During the section’s return to biv for the night, the first fire picket shift was overcome by fatigue and drifted off, forgetting his main job: keeping the section warm. As a result, everyone’s sleep was interrupted.
As one study indicates, athletes training in the cold can expend between 10 and 40% more energy than they would during warmer seasons (2). This additional expenditure is driven by more challenging terrain, the weight of additional kit, and excessive shivering. As a result, caloric needs are much greater in the winter; although soldiers often do not feel as hungry (or thirsty) in the cold as they would in the summer, they need to regularly eat to stay functional.
On top of fueling performance adequately, a soldier with a strong aerobic base built by long, easy efforts – jogging, cycling, swimming, etc – will have a larger capacity for very long bouts of activity than one who only does short, fun HIIT-type workouts. Whereas a strong “engine” is required for hard bursts of activity (like the nighttime raid), a large aerobic “gas tank” is essential to ensure performance doesn’t dip as the hours drag on. Although some specific activities like rucking or pepper-potting in the snow benefit from very specific modes of training, a strong aerobic base improves performance across all domains and helps ensure that soldiers can stay alert long after the “fun” has stopped. As one cold weather operations manual states, “A sleeping man will not freeze unless he is exhausted. A healthy man will awaken long before he reaches the danger point.”
In this way, winter ops are no different from those in any other environment: being fitter makes everything easier.
Piers is a historical researcher and combat engineer with the Canadian Army primary reserves.
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(1) Racinais S, Oksa J. Temperature and neuromuscular function. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 3:1-18. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01204.x. PMID: 21029186.
(2) Castellani, JW, Young, AJ, Ducharme, MB, Giesbrecht, GG, Glickman, E, and Sallis, RE. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Prevention of cold injuries during exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise 38(11): 2012-2029, 2006.