I was a young midshipman at the US Naval Academy in the summer of 2006 conducting my "interview" to be a Marine Officer at a program called "Leatherneck" in Quantico, VA along with other fellow midshipmen. We were preparing for various field exercises and my Staff Platoon Commander was salty Captain Shane Groah, a prior enlisted officer with a drill instructor and military police officer background. He said words I'll never forget: "officers never fall out of a hike...ever..."
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I was a young midshipman at the US Naval Academy in the summer of 2006 conducting my "interview" to be a Marine Officer at a program called "Leatherneck" in Quantico, VA along with other fellow midshipmen. We were preparing for various field exercises and my Staff Platoon Commander was salty Captain Shane Groah, a prior enlisted officer with a drill instructor and military police officer background. He said words I'll never forget: "officers never fall out of a hike...ever...". Shane went on to talk about his own experiences conducting various hikes (also known as humps, rucking, or road marches) where military professionals particularly on the ground side put their field packs on weighing generally anywhere from 40-100 lbs and then march forward in columns of individuals arms length apart at a general rate of at least 3 miles per hour for distances ranging from 3-20 miles depending on the evolution in a given day. Shane in particular told a story of being on a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation (MCCRE) where he was the unit leader of a military police unit leading a grueling 20 mile hike. Given the standard rate of march, this can take up to 7 hours if not longer and will usually start in the early morning hours to beat the heat if possible. He went on to explain how during this event his feet were blistered and hurting bad, but he knew that despite the physical pain he was in, dropping out was not an option because if a leader like himself dropped out to get in the safety vehicle, this could cause many of the Marines he was leading to conclude that they too could drop out based on the example they saw from their officer. Officers, particularly commanders, typically are in the front of their units during these evolutions and are very visible. Furthermore, the enlisted members of the unit are looking to the officer and other senior enlisted leaders for inspiration and an example. Having a poor performance in a grueling physical event like this demonstrates that it is "ok" to feel inclined to drop out when one feels some pain. A mentality like this especially in combat is not good and can completely bring about chaos. Hikes in general are very chaotic physical evolutions with the slinky effect going on where people move up and down in the formation. Furthermore, as people drop out or drop back, it causes command and control of the unit to really being difficult as the unit spreads out over a long distance.
As I began my Marine Corps career, I have to confess that hikes were not my favorite evolution as they were physically grueling and there were many times I would have rather quit given the loads we were carrying, the heat, hilly terrain, or distance, pain in my shoulders from the pack, legs and lungs burning, etc. In my early officer training at The Basic School, I remember one particular evolution very vividly that was only about 3 miles...the distance of a typical Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test. However, this event took place during the hot summer months in Quantico somewhere on an infamous road called "Washboard" which was a roller coaster of a road. Our platoon commander was leading the charge and he was a motivator to say the least pushing a very fast pace for us officer students looking to soon join the Fleet Marine Forces as the latest batch of junior officers. One of the other Lieutenants in my platoon was struggling and so we spread loaded gear so I was now more weighed down in the back of the formation not to mention a bit disadvantaged with my short legs given my height at 5' 7" compared to my taller platoon mates. So I started to drop back as I struggled to keep with the pace or run just to catch up (although usually this was discouraged because it could exaggerate the slinky effect) and in the end didn't keep up with at least what I thought was the bulk of the platoon (it was hard to see given the hills and my place in the rear of the formation). I remember finishing even though I wanted to quit thinking of Shane Groah's words. However, I was greeted by another snarky Lieutenant who had it out for me whenever he got a chance who said, "you f*** suck Reardon" which really made me feel bad although I tried to brush him off. When I got back to my room feeling pretty ashamed of myself for not having kept the pace with everybody else even though I didn't quit, I remember my room mates urging me to take off my pack and rest a bit as they laid their sprawled out. I would later learn that only 5 of the approximately 40 personnel platoon would ACTUALLY finish with our Platoon Commander and some Lieutenants were heat exhaustion cases with one of my roommates urinating on himself when he got back. The heat conditions were actually close to the type where outdoor physical evolutions like hikes should be secured from what I recalled. So I realized I actually did pretty good overall and felt better about my performance.
Another hike early on in my career that I vividly remember was with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines where I was the Intelligence Officer from 2011-2012 out in Camp Horno, Camp Pendleton, CA. If you have ever been to Camp Pendleton, you will know that the area is known for its mountainous/hill terrain which can make hikes interesting. I always loved training at Pendleton though because it is a ground combat training area where it was very common to see Marines doing warrior type stuff that we well...signed up for. That being said, on one particular hike, the battalion commander wanted the staff to help him along with the Sergeant Major to carry a .50 caliber machine gun on a 12 mile hike along with our packs, M-4/M-16 assault rifles, and M9 service pistol...get some. A .50 caliber machine gun is a crew served weapon with awesome firepower that weighs in about 120 pounds. The commander to his credit would carry the reciever (main part of the weapon) and the Sergeant Major would carry the spare barrel. My office at the time was next to the Sergeant Major and I remember him looking like the Battalion Commander went crazy but he went along with carrying the spare barrel while the Battalion. For my part, I volunteered to carry the tripod which weighs in at 40 lbs and is pretty awkward to carry and usually is balanced on your pack while carrying the rest of your stuff. Having come from the Air Wing prior to this tour and being an intelligence officer, I was not you may say one of the "boys" having gone through the infamous Infantry Officer's Course like my Ground Intelligence Officer counterparts or being an infantry leader so I certainly had to prove myself to be respected if I was going to be respected in the unit as an officer. The first 3 miles went fairly well, but I noticed I started to feel a bit light headed. Remembering Shane Groah's words as if was right there next to me, I knew that falling out of the formation was an unacceptable option and could kill my reputation for the rest of time I was at the unit not to mention be a bad example to the enlisted Marines around me to include my own section of intelligence Marines who are sometimes hit or miss when it comes to physical performance depending on individual motivation and talent. I also foreshadowed that I kept trying to push it, my body might just say "screw you" and I would achieve the same result as quitting. So I made a decision to take a third option, ate some humble pie, and handed off the tripod to another staff officer. Over the next 12 miles, the tripod was shared between myself and a few other staff officers to include the Logistics Officer, the Navy doctors, and a few other guys. We made it together as a team and I felt proud of all of us that we held our own without dropping out.
I bring these experiences up to make a point of the importance of a military leader's ability to perform physically both in training and in combat. Furthermore, this standard is not just for military officers, non-commissioned officers, and senior enlisted, this is also for chaplains as well and other support personnel. The chaplain doesn't get to shoot weapons due to Geneva Convention regulations, but this is one area he/she can really shine and be an inspiration to his personnel. I can think back fondly of a few examples in this case where the battalion chaplain right before I got to 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, had a reputation for being a "PT stud" and could regularly be seen swinging kettlebells and throwing down heavy weight with fellow Marines which earned him respect to talk to them about deeper spiritual matters. Another friend of mine, Josh Holland, now a Navy Chaplain who just got back from his first deployment on the USS Bataan as the ship chaplain, was asking my then Operations Chief, Master Sergeant Brian White, in New Orleans what were some ways he could build credibility with the unit when he became a chaplain. Unhesitatingly Brian said to PT with the unit whenever possible to build relationships and be an example. To echo Brian's point, most unit physical training aside from hikes and other field evolutions go early in the morning usually before the typical workday starts to avoid schedule conflicts. However, this offers the opportunity to coach and mentor service members after sweating with them as part of the team. There is something to be said about bonding together after a hard workout. That being said, I would like to offer 5 Proven Tips that have worked for me on how to perform at high standards physically in order to lead well from the front:
#1: Train with People as Good or Better Yet, Stronger Than You
If you're not in great shape, it can be tempting to just go it alone on the treadmill or the weight room to avoid the shame of others, but I can tell you that some of my greatest physical gains have come when I worked out with people better than myself which pushed me physically and mentally to greater heights than I thought possible. In turn, there were times I pushed them as well. Back to my time at 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, I realized I was hitting a plateau physically and knew I needed to change my routine up. I knew of a crazy junior enlisted Marine, then Sergeant Tyler Chittick, who was big into CrossFit and was well known as a "beast" among high performing infantry individuals to include scout sniper team members he served with. I reached out to him and asked if I could work out with him and few other Marines and learn from his almost as a personal trainer. Over the next 5-6 months while we were deployed with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa, Japan, I became much stronger although I regularly came in way behind Tyler because he was just that much of a beast. Tyler is the type of Marine who can in a few weeks train to run a perfect 3 mile run time in under 18 minutes and max everything else. I wish I could be as good as him, but it was an honor to workout with him and learn new skills that I've since kept in my current fitness routines. In fact, Tyler offered to speak on nutrition topics for military warriors due to his expertise having helped train olympic athletes, performed with the highest military warriors physically, and competed in many CrossFit events successfully. Needless to say, as painful as it was, I am a fitter Marine and individual in general who also learned how to push my mental limits because of working out with fitness beasts like Tyler Chittick.
# 2 Schedule Consistent Sessions 3-5 x Week That You Have Control Over
This seems like a no brainer, but probably the biggest killer of getting after consistent workouts is not scheduling into your day consistent physical training time. I personally like to workout early in the morning sometime between 0500-0730 before the workday kicks off because I know that my workout won't be interrupted by work or family issues that come up in the day. I'm currently stationed overseas in the Middle East and it is VERY hot even at 0630 so I have decided to start my workout around 0530 when it is a little bit cooler to get some good performance in without becoming a heat case especially in the case of longer runs. Furthermore, I feel better and energized to start the day and know I got my workout in so I'm not worried about it. Lunchtime is not a bad time either, but the hard part here is things come up you may not be expecting. Unless you can really control your schedule or your unit's battle rhythm is such where the lunch hour is generally pretty protected, this may not be as optimum. As far as time working out goes, this all depends on what you are training for. I personally like to get in an hour session anywhere from 5-6 times per week consistently which keeps me in top performing shape from a general sense while working out more would be for specific training goals for a certain event. For example units that are going to prepare for a 15-20 mile hike will typically schedule smaller conditioning hikes 1 x month starting at 3 miles and moving on up to build strength which takes longer in general. If you're super busy and just need to maintain to some degree, you can probably get away with a minimum of 3 x week with 30 min sessions, but I wouldn't go less than this as you aren't likely stressing your body enough to gain and maintain performance gains. If you have a scheduled routine and see gains, you are likely to stick with your program.
# 3 Hydrate Often, Get Good Rest, and Eat Well
Particularly during long endurance physical events, working in the heat, or just in general, it is important to stay well hydrated in order to ensure water is flowing in your system to hydrate muscles and keep you from becoming a heat case or dehydrated. I recall one particular story where a senior enlisted member wasn't taking care of himself during a road march particularly by not drinking not to mention I believe not getting much sleep the night before. As a result, his body crashed and he wasn't able to keep up. He was admonished to take better care of himself which was essential if he was going to lead from the front and take care of others.
Adequate rest is crucial as well to rebuilding muscle, preventing injury, and maintaining energy reserves. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep is a good general rule of thumb. LtCol David Grossman, USA (Ret), an Army Psychologist makes pretty big bones about this in his book "On Combat" as he describes how top performing professional athletes take sleep very seriously and will not take too kindly to athletes not being disciplined enough to get sleep. He then goes on to say how military professionals and police officers are professionals in their own right and need to have the self discipline to get adequate sleep to stay physically and mentally sharp to perform their hazardous duties. For more on this particular topic, check out this YouTube video that I put together regarding LtCol Grossman's insight into this subject:
How Warriors Lack of Sleep Discipline Kills and Best Practices for Caffeine and Nicotine Intake
Having a poor diet and cheating on a regular basis is a sure fire way to gain weight and have sluggish physical performance. That being said, that doesn't mean you have to eat a super strict diet that is not realistic. If you recall my friend Tyler Chittick, I asked him to put together some videos regarding nutrition specially for military personnel based on his experiences helping train olympic athletes, holding his own with the highest military warriors physically, and competed in many CrossFit events successfully. Click on the following YouTube links on our channel, Shoot, Move, Communicate to learn more.
Nutrition Tips for Busy Operators to Achieve Optimum Physical Performance
Nutrition Made Easy at the Chow Hall
#4 Mobilize, Stretch, and Conduct Proper Warmups and Cool Downs
Especially as you get older, you will want to ensure you are warming up, stretching, and mobilizing muscles and tendons using resistance bands and foam rollers. This will go a long way in ensuring flexibility and help prevent injury or undue fatigue on tight muscles and tendons when enduring difficult physical routines. Tyler Chittick provides some insight in the link below on best practices with post workout stretching.
#5 Create or Pick a Training Regime Designed for Combat Athletes
Everybody has their routine physically on what they want to get after usually based on their physical talents whether it be running, endurance cardio, olympic weight lifting, body building, etc. That being said, it is all good to get after your own physical fitness goals, but you will want to ensure you have a plan to achieve optimum performance on regularly graded events along with training and operational events like forced road marches, operating in mountainous terrain for a future deployment, or being able to maneuever with personal protective gear on in an urban environment. The best functional workout programs I have seen and personally use come from Mountain Tactical Institute that has the following benefits for military and first responder athletes:
1) Their training plans are widely recognized within mountain and tactical professions along with the fitness media as proven experts in mountain and tactical athletes.
2) They are mission direct in that their programming is geared towards achieving a certain military mission or training objective. They look at raw demands of a particular mission and then build a training regime to match that. They research and test their programs extensively and toss what doesn't equate to raw performance.
3) They have a library of 200+ sport-specific fitness plans for mountain and tactical athletes. They have fitness programming for tactical special forces selections to general fitness solutions such as running improvement or post-rehab from injury.
If you follow their programming consistently and put in the work based on the particular objective you have, I have seen that results are sure to follow. The cost of a monthly subscription isn't too bad either at $29/month. For more information on this particular fitness program, check out this link:
In summary, we have covered 5 proven tips which include on how to maintain top physical performance as a military leader which is crucial to maintaining your own fitness and leading by example. These include #1: Train with People as Good or Better Yet, Stronger Than You, # 2 Schedule Consistent Sessions 3-5 x Week That You Have Control Over, # 3 Hydrate Often, Get Good Rest, and Eat Well, #4 Mobilize, Stretch, and Conduct Proper Warmups and Cool Downs, and #5 Create or Pick a Training Regime Designed for Combat Athletes. This can be difficult to implement in general especially in your unit, so we would like you to know that we have come up with a program called the Freedom Box where you can integrate all of that as an individual or as a unit that combines these tips to include incorporating Mountain Tactical Institute Programming and providing the ability for unit members to train together. To learn more, click here: Freedom Box.
Land of the Free Because of the Brave,