When it comes to combat athletes the aerobic energy system is the most important – hands down.  Even though this is the case, many athletes preparing for special operations selection turn towards training that pushes them well past their aerobic threshold.  The reason for this is that people believe that harder work is more meaningful work.  This is simply not true.  When training, the program should be based on the individual’s goal – not by what exercises make you want to puke.

The Main Energy Systems[1]

Oxidative (Aerobic) System: This is the primary source of ATP (energy) at rest and during low-intensity activities.  This uses primarily fats and carbohydrates as sources of energy.

Glucose and Glycogen Oxidation: When the exercise intensity increases above low intensity exercise the next step along the way is glycolysis.  This is where the body breaks down the carbohydrate stores in the muscles.  The process looks a little something like this.

(Image courtesy: wikipedia.org)

Anaerobic Glycolytic: When the exercise intensity becomes too great and exceeds the energy supply of the Aerobic System then Anaerobic Glycolysis kicks in.  This creates a large bi-product of lactate.

Phosphagen System: This is the most readily used and fastest producing energy system.  The readily available stores of creatine in your muscles runs out between 8 and 10 seconds.  These can be replenished within 3-4 minutes of rest.  Think of this energy systems as the sprint / strength system.

The Popularity Problem

The reason that this article has to be written is that people, in every field, believe that simply working hard will yield better results.  You could study all night for a test but if you are studying the wrong chapters, it will not help you.  Let’s look at an example: Running a marathon is hard.  Really hard.  Doing 30 Barbell Thrusters with 135# as fast as you can is hard.  However, doing thrusters for time will not make you a better runner.  It will be hard, you will sweat, maybe you’ll puke, depending on your training age it may even improve your aerobic system.  However, it will not help nearly as much as aerobic work will.

CrossFit as a sport is great for those who participate.  As someone who has dedicated their life to preparing athletes for special operations selection, CrossFit has provided us with an obstacle to overcome with athletes.  Because there is a “hard work is productive work” mentality, CrossFit has proven to be a popular training method amongst military athletes and those training for special operations selection.

Don’t get me wrong – I like CrossFit.  It’s fun, it lets you gas yourself,  and special operations athletes do need to train their anaerobic systems sometimes.  But – combat athletes are aerobic athletes.

The Aerobic Athlete

To determine what kind of athlete a special operations selection candidate is, we need only perform a simple needs analysis.  The variables to consider are: Exercise Modality, Exercise Duration, Exercise Intensity and the Individual completing the exercise.

(Image courtesy: defense.gov)

Exercise Modality

Most of the work on selection will require the athlete to perform cyclical movements such as running, rucking, swimming, walking, crawling, etc… Even the resistance training movements that are completed to excess: sit ups, pushups, pullups are enduring in nature.

Exercise Duration

Special operations candidates can expect to perform multiple events throughout a day over a 2-3 week period.  These events can last for hours at a time.

Exercise Intensity

The intensity of the exercise performed is – for the majority of the time – submaximal.  The reason that we know this is that an athlete cannot perform at a maximal intensity for a long time.  Selection is hard.

The Individual

Obviously this will depend greatly on the individual.  For example: a candidate must perform a 20km run.  This task will be easier for a candidate that has previously trained for marathons than it would be for a candidate with a powerlifting background.  Alternatively, a former strongman will have an easier time on grip strength challenges than a candidate with a history as a lifeguard.  What this means is that as an individual you must train to shape yourself to the ideal individual to succeed on selection.

How to Train Your Aerobic Engine

When training your aerobic engine you want to increase mitochondrial density, increase heart stroke volume, decrease heart stroke rate, induce hypertrophy of the left ventricle, yada yada yada.  In fewer words you want your body to get more efficient at bringing in and distributing oxygen around your body.  Below are a few tips on how to do that.

Don’t Go Too Big Too Soon

The biggest issue we see with clients before they come to us is that they run one day a week, then they watch a selection documentary, then they get motivated and go and run everyday until they injure themselves.  Running, swimming and rucking loads must be progressed gradually.  Around a 10% increase per week should be appropriate, although, every person is different and

(Image courtesy: wikipedia.org)

Use Varied Prescriptions

Complete aerobic volume work for time – not distance.  Aerobic power work is usually performed with a 1:1 work:rest ratio.  Aerobic volume is performing cyclical activities (running, rucking, swimming) to get your heart used to working for long periods of time. We do this because an athlete can rush through a 5km run without getting the stimulus we want.

Avoid Over-training

The first step towards over-training is over reaching.  Symptoms include decreased sleep quantity and quality (think taking too long to fall asleep or wake up or waking up in the middle of the night), reduced appetite, weight loss, low libido and decreased performance.[2]  You can avoid this by slowly increasing volume and training intensity gradually over time and periodizing your program appropriately to allow for deload phases of recovery.

Stop Going to Failure

Running until you puke has its rewards – and there is a time and a place for maximal training.  The biggest issue with pushing yourself regularly in your training is that your body is not performing at 100% everyday.  Constantly testing and looking to hit a new personal best will only result in a plateauing of results. You may last longer than others due to training history and genetics, but it WILL catch up to you. You can either listen now, or suffer the consequences later. And remember, the deeper you dig into the hole of adrenal dysfunction, the longer it takes to climb out (think 1-3 years, or more).

Key Points to Remember

  • Hard Work is not Smart Work
  • CrossFit is Good for some things – special operations selection is not one of them
  • Special Operations Athletes are Aerobic Athletes
  • Avoid Adding too much volume too soon
  • Don’t Overtrain
  • Don’t Train to Failure

Featured Image: https://pixabay.com/

[1] Baechle, Thomas R. Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, 3rd Edition.

[2] Hooper SL, MacKinnon LT, Howard A, Gordon RD, and Bachman AW. Markers for 
monitoring overtraining in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 27: 106- 
112, 1995.