For those who know me I’m constantly looking for challenges to test me physically and mentally. I like to test my fitness over various disciplines, time frames, terrains and weather. This challenge was no different.

The Fan Dance is the name given to one of the first fitness and navigation tests for UK Special Forces. It comprises of a 24km long distance march over Pen – y – Fan in Brecon Beacons. You start at the bottom of the mountain, ascend the 886m to the top, go down the other side before turning around and returning to the start. All while carrying around 20kg in a rucksack or Bergen.

During Special Forces selection, potential recruits must complete this march in less than 4 hours and 10 minutes.

So my journey as always started with some crappy travel on public transport to Wales (why can’t I do an event in my back garden?). Once in Brecon, I stayed at the Storey Arms, which sits right next to the infamous red phone box and the start point of the Fan Dance.

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I was in a 6 man room with bunk beds and after enjoying some Fan Dance ales I retired to bed only to be kept awake by people carrying out panic admin and trying to get their packs up to weight. Once the guys had settled I was finally dosing off only to be awakened by guys returning from the high moon edition of the Fan Dance at around 2am. These guys sounded destroyed and were talking about how it was the hardest thing ever. These words echoed in my head as I finally fell asleep.

5am and I was up ready for breakfast and doing my final checks before heading out to the start. The weather was really good, however there was still a lot of snow on the ground from the previous week. Gathering at the start you are immediately met with the first incline which is the exact moment I told myself I should have done some actual hill training. However I quickly reminded myself “I’m and MdS veteran, I’ve got this”. I soon ate those words as I began the first climb, slipping and sliding all over the place on the snow and ice. Sweat was immediately pouring off me as I was already thinking this is nails.

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The terrain levelled out after a while and I began to run which took the pain out of my already tight lower back (should have warmed up). Just as I was getting into a rhythm the next incline started and it was at this point I was glad of the poor visibility so I couldn’t see how high or long it was! I slowly made my way up before seeing the first tent and guys being waved to turn right. At last a break! Again it was short lived as I made the final climb to the summit. My time was just over 1 hour, which felt good. Next came the famous Jacob’s Ladder, the steep descent over the other side of the mountain. I could see guys slipping all over the place so I literally sat down and slid down the snow on my arse. As the gradient eased off I stood up and ran down using the deep snow to manage my speed. At the bottom, it was a right turn to start the long journey on the Roman Road to the turnaround point. My strategy of run the flat and downhill worked perfectly up until that point. However at the turnaround point it finally sunk in that I have to do it all again!

I couldn’t muster the motivation to run back and my back was on fire so I cracked on as best I could. After what seemed and eternity I was back to looking up towards the incline of Pen – y – Fan. I quickly learned why everyone was talking about Jacobs Ladder as it absolutely killed me! I was like a penguin waddling up the side of the mountain wishing for the end. When the end was in sight a huge wave of energy came over me, as I knew it was mostly downhill to the finish.

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I ran as much as I could, falling over quite a few times before getting to the final section and seeing the finish. I crossed the line in 4 hours and 38 minutes, which I was more than happy with. I received my patch and hog roast sandwich, which helped me forget about the pain and the cold temporarily. While I was more than happy with my efforts in the conditions and the terrain, I will return next year for the summer edition and some proper training under my belt to beat that 4 hour 10 minute pass mark!

It was a great event and well organised and I would highly recommend to those out for a tough challenge. Was it the hardest thing ever? Unfortunately MdS still sits top for me, my lack of preparation is what made it harder than it should have been for me personally. Avalanche Endurance Events also run a ‘clean fatigue’ category for those fell/ultra runners who want to attempt it as fast as possible.

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What’s next for me? The Rainhill Trials in Feb!

If you remember back to my last article on what was required to join the Armed Forces, you’ll see that I spoke in detail about training certain energy systems and relating to individual activities relevant to being fit for service. If you missed that article check it out by clicking here. In this post I wanted to talk more simply about not only fitness requirements but mental aspects too.

What brought on this random train of thought? Well I have just recently re-joined the British Army only this time as a Reservist or ‘weekend warrior’ as it’s commonly known. Despite the image and reputation that surround the Reservists, formerly known as the TA, there are some good blokes in there, some who I served with in Afghanistan. However there are some that just aren’t preparing themselves adequately both physically and mentally, not only in the Reserves but in the regular forces as well.

I recently completed a 2 week Combat Infantry Course at Catterick which is home to the School of Infantry Training to finish off my re-enlistment training and was disappointed to see the same mistakes being made that I saw back in 2005 when I joined the regular Army. Over the course of the two weeks we covered:
– 1.5 mile run best effort in under 10:30
– Live firing package
– Grenade Training
– 6 mile weighted march w/25kg in 1 hr 30
– 2 mile best effort w/25kg in less than 30 mins (18 mins for a regular soldier)
– Bayonet fighting w/lots of physical exertion
– Exercise in the field with section attacks, casualty evacuation and field admin

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This is just a small snippet of the training a regular soldier will carry out over the 10 weeks of their phase 2 training. This amounts to the most basic requirements of what a soldier should attain in order to progress further with their career later on down the line. So lets look at the physical aspects first.
– 1.5 mile run in under 10:30
– 6 mile weighted march w/25kg in 1hr 30 (15 minute miles)
– 2 mile best effort w/25kg in under 30 mins (18 mins for a regular soldier)
– Ability to carry a 60-90kg (very broad I know) man as part of a stretcher team to evacuate a casualty
– Ability to move quickly in short bursts across open ground when attacking the enemy, again carrying considerable weight on your back

Too many people are placing a huge amount of emphasis on the 1.5 mile run which is done in trainers, with no extra kit and usually on some form of road or hard standing. Since when do soldiers operate in trainers on perfect ground? While I’m not saying you don’t need to train for and pass the run, I’ve seen guys get times of 8-9 mins then completely collapse when given a bergan weighing 20kg which is the minimum you may carry on ops.

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So what should you do? Get outside on rough terrain with weight on your back building up to 8-10 miles with 15-20kg on your back walking at a brisk pace or even at the required 15 minute mile pace if you can which equate to 4 mph. Just take your time and build up top it as it will make life a lot easier once in training. Get used to doing that over hills and inclines as again it appears to be a stumbling block for a lot of guys. It doesn’t end there, foot admin seems to be really underrated. Get outside as mentioned above and find out what happens to your feet, do you get blisters/hot spots on the same place every time? Do you need specialist insoles to help with things like shin splints? You should know all this before joining so you can deploy preventive measures such as taping to ensure you are covered come test day. Getting used to moving with weight and looking after your feet will also carry over to working in the field and moving casualties.

Moving your own bodyweight is also important and don’t forget you can get your free copy of my e-book, Mastering Your Body to get ready for all those press-ups and sit-ups.

Finally I want to touch on the mental aspect. Unfortunately people like to complain, especially the British and especially in the Armed Forces. However, guys again aren’t preparingmentally for what’s in store, even things like sleeping outdoors in the cold and rain seem to be underestimated by many. This means that this inherent complaining and dip in morale takes over, affecting guys ability to perform basic tasks such as taking on board information from commanders or carrying out low level admin. So what should you be doing? Get out in the field! Get used to how your body reacts to uncomfortable sleeping stations, exposure to the elements and bad weather. Build mental toughness and become proficient in how to manage getting wet or cold and taking the appropriate steps to combat these elements rather than just sitting there feeling sorry for yourself. Accept it will be difficult and focus on getting through it with the mentality that you need to be able to carry out arduous tasks and not be a burden to the rest of the blokes.

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What I’ve outlined is so simple its really frustrating seeing guys struggle for simple reasons like poor foot care or poor field admin. Remember what I said in my last post about how the Armed Forces will give you all the training you require, but having that baseline level BEFORE you go, knowing your body and being mentally prepared is down to you and will really make your time in training so much easier.

Still not sure what you should be doing? Our Fit for Service programme will get you ready whether it be through personal training or via our online platform. Don’t hesitate to get in touch about anything related to the Armed Forces and preparing for Service. info@warriorstrength.co.uk

Physical fitness is a crucial component to a soldier’s ability to carry out their duty effectively and efficiently. However physical fitness standards seem to be dropping and more and more soldiers aren’t carrying out the correct preparation before joining up. This doesn’t just affect the individual, but all those around them, all those who are relying on that person to perform.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the fittest people I know are current or ex-servicemen and women and I’m definitely not saying you need to be an elite athlete to be a good soldier. The reality is though that the times when your ability to solider is at the most crucial is when you are under some form of physical stress.

So what does a potential serviceman or servicewoman need to do to ensure that they are physically prepared? The easiest way to determine this is to look at some scenarios and talk about what type of fitness will be required. I have tried to keep this as simple as possible but will briefly talk about energy systems, force generation and a couple of other basic technical terms, don’t worry if you don’t understand these as I will lay out the practical implications very clearly.

Strength
Soldiers, especially those on the front line have to carry a lot of kit and equipment to be effective. This can range from food and water to ammunition and medical supplies. This gear can weigh up to 35kg regardless of the height and weight of the individual carrying it. I’ve seen big guys and small guys alike crumble under loads when carrying it over long distances. So what can you do to make this easier? Get stronger to begin with. If you think about all that weight bearing down on you what is keeping you up? Strength. Now add to that muscular contractions having to apply force to the ground to move the load you are carrying i.e. walking, this is the classic definition of strength, the ability to apply maximum force to an object.

Solution: Work on the classics lifts – squats and deadlifts to build a strong lower half and also a strong core which, despite popular belief, doesn’t require 1000 crunches a day. Work on bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, press-up and dips to develop a strong upper body which will also support the heavy loads you are carrying. Make sure you learn how to carry out these movements correctly before starting, to avoid potential injury. Work within the 6-8 rep range as you get a balance between building muscle and developing strength.

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Speed/Power
Now we have a good strength base and we can carry these heavy loads, sometimes we are required to move these loads as quickly as possible over a short distance i.e. a sprint. When I was serving in Afghanistan there was a time when enemy rounds were landing at our feet, however there were already friendly forces between us and the enemy engaging them. This meant we could not return fire and our only option was to sprint through open ground to cover without getting hit by stray rounds. A simple task. Two of the guys had to stop half way! We are talking a run of around 300m and two guys had to stop with rounds whizzing around them! Granted we were carrying some heavy equipment but what if one of them had been hit? Then we would have to go back for them, carry them and their kit to safety putting more lives at risk and we weren’t even in a proper contact. So imagine that in a full on enemy engagement when having to move from one fire position to another or from open ground to cover and stopping dead for a few seconds to catch your breath? I’m not trying to scaremonger here but these situations happen and lives are on the line and all because someone didn’t take the time to prepare.
So what we are talking about here is speed and power, to be able to apply that force as we did previously but as quickly as possible. We are talking about utilising our glycolytic and creatine phosphate energy systems which fuel short bouts of physical activity.

Solution: Work on plyometrics such as box jumps and broad jumps along with lifts like the power clean to develop efficient force application. Utilise speed training such as sprints and hill reps to build endurance within these energy systems ensuring you train in varying time domains to develop both systems, especially the CP system as this often gets overlooked or is seen as non-beneficial to endurance athletes.

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Endurance
We now have the strength and power to move some heavy gear and generate high amounts of force when required but what about when carrying these loads for long periods of time? You’re CP and glycolytic energy systems will struggle to re-produce energy quick enough to sustain longer periods of activity past a couple of minutes meaning your oxidative or aerobic energy system will take over. When out on patrol you could be out for 1 hour, you could be out for 3 hours, depending on the task you could be out all night! Your ability to deal with these longer bouts of physical activity and still be fresh enough to perform when it counts are crucial. There were times when we would return from a 3-4 hour patrol and the enemy would wait until you were in close proximity to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) to engage, a point where you are at your most fatigued. Then you would have to tap into sprints and moving quickly, climbing over objects or walls.

Solution: Working on your endurance can take the form of running, cycling, rowing and even walking. Get used to running for 40-60 mins comfortably. Get used to walking with weight on your back for 2-3 hours. These only need to be steady efforts and utilising certain heart rate zones can make this work even more effective. With these bouts you should be able to hold a conversation with someone, if you struggle to say a sentence then you are going too hard!

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In summary a soldier requires a lot of different aspects of physical fitness and having first-hand experience I can attest to how important fitness is in the field. People think that basic training will get you fit and whilst it will increase your fitness, you need to get fit beforehand. There are basic tests you need to pass on arrival such as the 1.5mile run in under 10 minutes and 30 seconds. If you fail this test then you are a target straight away for the training team, this means your focus is on passing these basics fitness tests instead of on learning crucial soldiering skills that are taught during this phase. Save yourself the stress and prepare!! Unfortunately hours and hours on Call of Duty won’t get you prepared for Military Service.

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Don’t know where to start? Get in touch and I will gladly help and answer your questions, having just re-joined in to the Army Reserves I’m in a good position to talk about the joining process and physical requirements. I also run a 6 week or 12 week ‘Fit for Service’ programme to get you ready for joining the Armed Forces, to find out more drop me a line to info@warriorstrength.co.uk

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