Like everything on the Internet, there is an incredible amount of information on various selection processes and different ideas for preparing for these tests. I’m here to provide a strategy that gave me significant success at my various special operations selections, along with a few things that I would have done differently when I was younger (if I had known better).  

Please keep in mind that everyone’s body is different. High mileage brings phenomenal results for some people. I’m just not one of them.

Put the Ruck Down Every Once in a While

There is absolutely zero reason (pending deployment status) to be rucking every single week, much less every day. I thought rucking was the only answer when I was a twenty-something-year-old staring at the concrete as my feet shuffled underneath me.

Did it teach me to suffer silently? Absolutely (once you get into the hills, nobody will hear you anyways).

Did it build bone density? Absolutely.

Did shuffling with a ruck for 30-40 miles a week wreak havoc? Absolutely.

More effective ways exist to achieve these goals; GPP leads to SPP. For example, displacing the weight from your shoulders and hips down to the ground for some interval sled work greatly increases your capability for speed along with your recovery rate and work capacity.

Smart Marathon Training by Jeff Horowitz is a Phenomenal Resource

After beating myself into the earth for the past several years, I was grasping at straws, trying to find a new method that required less mileage. Smart Marathon Training was what I used in my final selection. When I crossed the final checkpoint, I finished first in the night ruck with a significant time lapse between me and the next individual. I believe my mitochondrial density played a huge part in this, but taking this book and applying its principles to ruck marching changed how I looked at tactical physical training.

I was the guy who would ruck non-stop until I found Smart Marathon Training. It taught me about speed barriers and how variety and speed work changes your capabilities. I would run the same splits no matter how far the course was, and I was stuck at around 12:30 miles in moderate terrain with a 45-pound dry pack. Anywhere from four miles to 13 miles, that was my pace. When I learned to switch intensity zones and hit intervals with the ruck (over the same overall distance, i.e., six miles vs. 12 x 800-meter splits), my times skyrocketed to 10:40 miles for anything under 10 miles and 11:00 average for anything above.

RELATED: Utililising Prilepin's Chart by Tim Kontos

Smart Marathon Training also taught me something I had no clue about—race fuel. There was an increase in people swearing by various types of fuel to consume during extended exertion periods across the military. Some gels, some liquids, some weird crazy concoctions that people would come up with like a mad scientist. The concoction that comes to mind is Camelbak filled with water, mixed with a bottle of Gatorade, three scoops of BCAA’s, and three salt tablets. I found that solid foods worked best for me.

We want something relatively easy to keep down whilst on the move. I used baby food and (depending on the distance) one or two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (cut into eighths) that I would consume on a timed schedule. Real food doesn’t just dump sugar into your system but helps replenish your glycogen stores.

Strength Manual for Running by Louie Simmons Should be the Tactical Athlete's Bible

I didn’t find Strength Manual for Running until well after my time attending selections, but I sure wish I had found it before.

In this book, Louie Simmons states that “All special strengths are measured in time.” That was exactly what I needed to hear as a young man going into these selections. He says, “For a longer distance up to a 5k and 10k, one can pull a sled (weighted with at least your body weight) for 20 to 40 minutes or at least the time it takes the individual to run the race. One must use a weight that does not cause the athlete to stagger left or right or cause one to lean forward excessively.” (1)

Louie Simmons provided this more specific example:

“A three-hour marathon runner may start with 6x30:00 intervals with a rest interval that permits one to recover to at least 75% of their resting heart rate. Then as his or her work capacity increases, the 30-minute sled pull intervals should increase to 45 minutes with the same rest interval. It is very possible during a yearly plan to work towards a goal of two 90-minute work intervals.

For sprinting and even much longer distances, greater ground force is crucial to faster running times while maintaining minimal ground contact.”

However, this is not to be misconstrued, as you should be skipping your course.

Barry Ross’ Underground Secrets to Faster Running mentions that given an average stride of two meters, one may use 2500 strides to complete a 5k race. An 11,100th-of-a-second reduction in ground contact would reduce their time by 25 seconds. Twenty-five seconds cut off what is just over a three-mile run is a big deal. The applicability to rucking here is that by keeping your strides shorter, you can minimize ground contact time, reduce injury risk by not overextending and keep your cadence high. Those sound like three very good reasons not to “open your stride.”

There are just too many incredible pieces of information in this book that pertain to the tactical athlete. Explosive jumping is the last piece worth mentioning here because it saves wear and tear while developing integral muscle groups. Louie Simmons goes into great detail here, and I recommend you hang onto every word. Jumping and deadlifting from foam blocks or working with a sand dune is absolutely ingenious. It will save everything, and you’ll be more explosive than ever.

I lied. Last quote; “An NFL agent brought in a lineman and asked me what I was going to do. I told him, and he said, ‘Why aren’t you going to run him?’ I asked him this question, “He ran for four years and this is how fast he is. Why do you think two more months of running with him will make a difference?” He replied, 'Good point.'” (1)

Once you have built the capability to carry a ruck and you’ve hit the speed barrier, it’s time to switch things up.

Understand What Your Heart Rate Says About Your Conditioning

If you’re reading this on elitefts, you’re probably familiar with Prilepin's chart. The same thing can be applied to rucking. Long Slow Distance (LSD) should be low on the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. If you’re rucking in training, there is little to no reason to be above an eight RPE. You are gambling with your health. If you're military, Veterans Affairs disability is not worth it.

Loaded Unilateral Work is Your New Girlfriend

Big compound movements give you the most bang for your buck regarding exercise selection and time. However, you will have thousands of steps, basically conducting loaded unilateral movement while you are rucking. Don’t believe me? Soak one of your boots in water before you step off on your next march.

Front Foot Elevated Lunges w/ Kettlebell, Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats w/ Kettlebell, Filly carry, etc. The list goes on and on.

I count any form of step-up as unilateral work for the sake of simplicity. My favorite chunk of information that I’ve learned about this subject is something I stole directly from Rob Shaul, a military athlete:

"One pound on your foot equals five pounds on your back," is a beautiful rule and one that we should all embrace.

Dabbling my feet in the powerlifting world led me to hear a lot of great information. One of my favorites is from Sam Brown. He said, “We want the muscle stimulated with the least amount of resistance or weight,” and that is exactly it. If we can get away with doing 500 step-ups with 15-pound ankle weights on instead of a 75-pound ruck, you'd be absolutely crazy not to. I understand you must get acclimatized to holding the ruck, but remember, the goal is the most stimulus with the least amount of weight.

Unilateral Bodyweight Work is Your New Side Chick

Pages 99-110 in Louie Simmons' book, Strength Manual for Running, will show you exercises to really get deep into your core and get some explosive power going. The tactical athlete must get things moving in all sorts of directions. The fight will almost never be an evenly weighed-out barbell. You’ll probably be put in some weird positions.

Hill Walking

The body mechanics just make sense here. You are generally not extending your full planting or supporting leg as you drive yourself up the hill. This reduces the amount of impact and wear on your knees. Not to mention the fact that pumping like a freight train up a hill is a phenomenal way to build various parts of your lower body and your mental fortitude. How fast do you think you can get up there? Not fast enough. Refer to Horowitz or any of the great articles here on elitefts regarding general physical preparedness (GPP) and hills.

RELATED: What is GPP and Who's It For by Stefan Waltersson

Get Creative with elitefts Blast Straps

Blast straps are one of the most underrated tools you can have in your arsenal. Removing stability on any portion of an exercise will only bulletproof those body positions. Put your hands in them, put your feet in them, carry with them, pull with them, etc. The only limitation to these is the user’s imagination.

Sub-Maximal Efforts and Aggressive Cross Training Will Build Your Bone Density

On page 148 of Strength Manual for Running, max effort, submaximal effort, and heavy resistance are defined as one repetition, two to three repetitions, and four to seven repetitions, respectively. (1)

For the tactical athlete and first responder, the sweet spot for heavy days is in submaximal efforts. I have recently found enormous success using two or three rep maxes on heavy days. Some of the best marines and soldiers I have worked with were smaller guys. I’m not saying you can’t be big and still be effective, but I wish I had five dollars every time I had to help crossload a smaller guy’s gear. I’d probably be able to afford an elitefts Lat Pulldown by now.

Working in the submaximal range is more about the grind of pushing yourself further than the actual lift itself. When you unrack 400 pounds for the first time, and you’re going for three reps, you have to kill that little voice in your head and focus on execution—just like you will under full load facing an unknown distance ruck.

Small Steps

In marathon training, studies have shown that the optimal steps per minute are approximately 180 in elite-level marathon runners. The skinny of it is they take shorter but faster strides. This approach removes some of the risks of hyperextension and ligament strains.

However, citing Louie Simmons’ Strength Manual for Running, “It is not just the steps per minute that win the race or make you competitive, the real answer is in your turnover, or how quick you can make your “dwell” time on each foot touching the ground.” This is noted in sprinting methods, but the idea remains the same for longer distances. Your dwell time will not be that of a 200m sprinter, but the turnover should match your steps per minute. Louie Simmons says, “All coaches should know that minimal ground contact, or increasing elastic energy, comes from jumping, bounding, and depth jumps.''

Achieve a Distance of No More than 75% of Your Race Total Per Week

Jeff Horowitz states that you can effectively train for a 26.1-mile marathon by running no more than 35 miles a week. This includes speed work, hill repeats, a tempo run, and a long endurance run.

I took this idea and applied it to my training. The ruck run was an unknown distance, so I was generous with my estimate. I applied the methods to a 22.5-mile ruck, meaning that my furthest training ruck was no more than 16.5 miles. It sounds crazy, but when supplemented with other stimuli, it worked.

If you apply these methods to the SOF standard of 12-mile rucks, your training will only require you to move your ruck nine miles per week at the peak of your training.

These methods are not for absolute beginners. If you haven’t spent time with a ruck, go for a walk around the block, the neighborhood, and the city, gradually growing your distances. This will build your traps, shoulders, hamstrings, hips, calves, and ankles to become resilient under load.

To quote Horowitz, “Before you attempt a higher-intensity training program, you need to build a solid base of endurance, muscle strength, bone density, and strong ligaments and tendons.''

I remember a program designed to help those get ready for the Marine Forces Special Operations Command Assessment and Selection Program (MARSOC A&S) that started right out of the gate with a 12-mile ruck for time.  It is my opinion that you can estimate a pace based on a much shorter distance. Similar to how you can estimate your 1RM based on a submaximal set using weight x reps x.3333 (Jim Wendler, 5/3/1). Preventing more unnecessary rucking mileage is the key here.

My rule of thumb for estimating rucking pace is as follows:

If you're an intermediate distance rucker with some training background, you will get your pace for 5km and then take two to four percent (five to six percent for a beginner) off for every 5km beyond that compounded.

If we are estimating your pace for a 12-mile ruck, we convert 12 miles to kilometers (because kilometers are way easier to work within your training, trust me), giving us a distance of 19.32km.

The huge pain in the ass when calculating rucking paces is that you need to translate decimals into seconds. How you do that is by taking your decimal point and multiplying it by 60 (for seconds). For example, .5x60 = 30 seconds, .7x60 = 42 seconds.

Let’s look at an example:

You ruck march your trial 5km in 45:06 (a 14:30 pace).

We then take four percent off of that pace (45.1 x 0.04 = 1.8 = 1:48). So, your second 5km pace (going from 5km to 10km) will be 46:54.

Your third 5km pace (taking you from 10km to 15km) is 47:47 (46.9 x 0.04 = 1.88). Your fourth will be 48:42(47.78 x 0.04 = 1.91), and so on.

(You can get really specific and factor in the fact that the last 5km is, in fact, 4.32km, but rounding up for these purposes is perfectly acceptable).

15:00 miles is the golden standard in SOF, but to be competitive, you want to be in the 13s. There are those that advocate dictating your splits by what you *want* to be, but I’m not one of those people. That could lead to serious injury. Imagine going into your first squat workout of your training cycle and basing your percentages off of 450 pounds just because that’s what you want to hit at the end of your cycle.

Here’s what a rough three-week sample program could look like for someone beginning their tactical training:

3-Week Tactical Training program

Weeks 1-3

SubME Lower / Sled Work

Front Squat - Ramp to a 5RM

Light Banded Hamstring Curls - 300 total reps split across as few sets as possible

Backwards Sled Pull @ Wet Ruck Weight (approximately 75lbs) - 3 x 200-meters

Active recovery day

Spend 45 minutes in Zone 2 HR on a low impact exercise. I recommend an exercise bike or just walking.

SubME Upper / Hill work

Seated Shoulder Press w/ Dumbbells - Ramp to an 8RM

Chest-Supported Row - ramp up to one heavy set of 5 with a 2-second hold at the top of each rep

Find a nice hill that would take you about 1:00 to run up. Bring your ruck and perform the following:

  • 5 sets of Jog up, walk down.
  • 5 sets of Dead Sprint Bottom to Top, 3 No Push-Up Burpees, Walk Back Down
  • 5 sets of Bear Crawls at a moderate pace up the hill with your ruck on

Speed Work

Hit the track in your PT gear - Sprint an 800m, a 400m, a 200m, and a 100m. Note your times, and then calculate 80% of each of those times. Now run 1x400m, 3x200m, and 7x100m using a 1:2 work rest ratio.

Ruck Loading

We will grab a baseline - Ruck March at a moderate pace for 4 miles. Recover to 75% HRM and do it again. Record your times.

LSD-R (Long Slow Distance [Timed] Run)

The key here is to work on your cardiovascular conditioning. You need your heart to work easier when it’s not in a stressed state. How we do this is by improving its efficiency. We want to have it do the same amount of work but with less effort, also known as lowering your resting heart rate. Try and keep your heart rate between 140-150 bpm and run for 60 minutes. Go enjoy the views. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, Pavel’s Talk Test should do you just fine.


I want to take a minute and address a statement I made earlier in the article regarding GPP to Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP) transfer.

Several moments in the Strength Manual for Running mention something like “this book will help you get stronger for running, but this book will not teach you how to run. I am not a running coach, I am a strength coach.” Louie Simmons meant by this that to use your strength effectively, you have to be able to run effectively.

If you don’t know how to run, get a coach and learn. I’m a big fan of the pose method, but others find many other options better suited for them.

What I’m trying to say is that before you start implementing all the things that you just learned, spend some time doing research and learning the methods of how to pack, wear, and move with a ruck. Once you understand it all well, begin working on your general conditioning with the methods listed above (specifically sled work and loaded marches).

Once your GPP is up and your selection or deployment is coming closer, it is a good idea to begin rucking more frequently (SPP) so that your body gets used to wearing and moving with the load. Please feel free to reach out with any questions. And lastly, don’t fuck yourself up. Take pains seriously.

Header image credit: celsopupo ©


  1. Simmons, Louie. Strength Manual for Running: Raising Strength to Reduce Injuries. Westside Barbell, 2017.

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Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Chris Key joined the military to find a life worth living and quickly found his passion in Explosive Ordnance Disposal and supporting the Infantry. After separating from active duty, he ran into a litany of physical ailments —spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis, ligament tears, bilateral meniscal tears, sleep apnea, and mental health disturbances. He then transitioned to support the military and first responders in a different way by trying to increase the health and longevity of military and first responder personnel. His credentials include completing the Special Operations Support Orientation Course (EOD Tech), Marine Corps Instructor of Water Survival, EMT/Advanced EMT, and various other military specialized courses. He is currently working on an ambulance while attending school to become a Physicians Assistant.