Combat Fitness and Physical Readiness for Survival, by “HardCorpsBear”

Are you really ready to meet the challenges of a TEOTWAWKI situation?
I think often about what may happen if I have to move myself and my family over a long distance of rough terrain through a hostile environment and in urban combat conditions. I’ve wondered if I’m physically ready to face the challenge. Maybe you’re wondering the same thing. But have you ever actually put yourself to the test to really know what you can do?

Maybe you say, “Of course, I’m ready. I have a basement full of food-stuffs, ammo and weapons, and survival gear. I have a 4WD vehicle in the driveway. All I have to do is load my gear and bug out.” But have you asked the hard questions? Have you put aside your facade of macho pride and actually assessed your physical readiness to accomplish the mission of preserving your family and your own life?

Start at the beginning. How long will it take you to move your stockpile up a flight of stairs? Do you have the endurance to lift all of those buckets, tubs and packs into your truck by yourself or with one other person? All the gear will be useless if you are too exhausted to even take the first step in your plan.
Then what if the vehicle runs out of gas or is otherwise immobilized? How do you get where you’re going? You probably figure you’ll pack what you can in your BOB and huff it on foot, right? Really? How far will you get before you collapse? One, two, three miles? How do you know?

What will you do if you must cross a defended danger area and are engaged against armed hostiles? Can you assault through using fire and maneuver? It’s exhausting.
What if you’re already in a secured retreat? Have you thought of what you will do if your retreat is overrun by a superior force? You may have no other option but a rear-guard movement to another location. Can you hack it?

Do you think you’re in pretty decent shape? I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty fit person. I ran cross-country and track in high-school. I scored a 96% on my Presidential Fitness Test. I did calisthenics and weights for 1-2 hours a day for years. I was a big-city cop and hit the gym after hours, did some martial arts on the weekends, and thought I was a pretty tough dude. But the years of sitting on my butt, consuming donuts, McDonald’s and post-shift beers took their toll. My traditional fitness regimen just wasn’t cutting it.

At 25 years of age, I enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and I barely passed my initial strength test. A mile and a half run, max set of pull-ups and two-minutes worth of crunches had me reeling.

Let me tell you a little about the traditional training our nation’s “Few and Proud” go through. And then I’ll tell you why the Marines have realized that even that is not enough.

We started with mile and a half runs at about a 9-minute/mile pace, a measly five pull-ups, 50 crunches in two minutes, and about 50 push-ups a day. And we were just disgusting First-Phase “Maggots”.

Over the course of 13 weeks we increased these to 3 mile runs at an 8-minute/mile pace. We had a platoon goal of a minimum 10 pull-ups. The hotshots aced the test with 20 pull-ups. Everybody did 100 crunches within the two-minute time frame. In the final phase of boot camp one day I decided to count how many push-ups I did. I quit counting when I hit 500, just before lunch. We felt invincible.

But then came the infamous Crucible, our final graduation requirement. Have you ever rushed a 30-degree incline hill using fire and maneuver (leapfrogging) with a full rucksack, after marching for three or four hours? How about doing it several times a day after marching for 30, 40 or 50 miles in a few days? Have you ever tried to stay awake on a guard post, covering your three or four buddies while they sleep, when you’ve only had four hours of sleep in the past three days? What about carrying a 180 pound casualty on a litter for a half-mile under the blazing California desert sun? And this is only recruit training.

Despite this rigorous regimen, members of the military community of which I am a part have recognized that the traditional fitness models of long-distance running, calisthenics and weight-training are wholly inadequate to prepare a person for the rigors of extended periods of combat. Do you think your current fitness plan (of let’s be honest, complete lack thereof, right?) has you’re ready?

Last year the Marine Corps did a study on “Functional Fitness” concepts. The high incidence of non-combat-related injuries among forward-deployed troops highlighted the need for a change. Guys who could run 3 miles in 20 minutes were collapsing during approaches and assaults. Guys who could do 20 pull-ups couldn’t carry a casualty or climb a wall. If a combat survival situation presents itself, what should you expect? Unless an EMP nuke goes off while you are at the YMCA, I can guarantee you won’t be going for a 5-mile jog in a track suit with sneakers on. You’ll need the endurance gained from this kind of training, of course, and you’ll need the strength gained from push-ups, pull-ups and crunches. But you’ll need more.

Seriously think about what you might be doing. Loading boxes of ammo and food stuffs into vehicles? Jumping in and out of trucks? Climbing over walls, through ditches, sprinting from block to block? Or taking an extended trek across the Midwest as you head for the mountains? What if a team member is injured? What will you do?
What about when you get where you’re going? You’ll likely find yourself digging ditches, earthworks and fighting positions, chopping wood, hauling water and sandbags, and maybe even dragging large game away from the kill site. How do you prepare for this?

The result of the Marine Corps’ study was the implementation of a new Combat Fitness Test. There is much you can learn from in this program. I’ve seen “fat-bodies” and “weaklings” pass the traditional 3-mile run, pull-up and crunches test. But I’ve seen some pretty “tough” guys fall-out vomiting from our new test. The new test consists of a combat simulation based on our recent actions in Haiti, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first element is a Movement to Contact; running to the fight. It’s an 800 meter “sprint” in full utilities and boots.

The second element is an Ammo Re-supply. You lift a 30 lb. ammo can from your chest to an overhead, arms-extended position as many times as you can in two minutes.

The third element is a 300 meter Movement Under Fire. Start in a prone position, as though firing a rifle from a covered position. Sprint 25 meters to another covered position and hit the deck, back into a prone position. Low-crawl on your belly for 10 meters. High-crawl on your hands and knees for another 15 meters. Stand and sprint through a 25-meter serpentine (place cones 5 meters apart, every 5 meters for a zigzag course). When you get to the end of the serpentine, you have a seated “casualty” you must lift up from behind (squat down and grab him under his arms) and drag back through the serpentine. Once you’ve gone back through the serpentine, transition your buddy to a fireman’s carry and sprint 50 meters back to the starting point. You’re now halfway through!

At the start line, pick up two 30-pound ammo cans and sprint the 50 meters to the serpentine. Negotiate the serpentine. Now, pick up a grenade (you can use a baseball as their nearly the same size and weight). Lob it at a 5×5 meter target 25 meters downrange. Hit the deck and do three push-ups. Stand, pick-up the ammo cans, go back through the serpentine, and sprint the last 50 meters to the finish.

I run a near perfect score on the traditional test, and I nearly failed to complete the new course on my first attempt. So how should we train?

First, you need to develop a basic level of fitness. If a flight of stairs leaves you huffing, you’re really going to be hurting WTSHTF. Start walking. Over the course of a few months, increase from a half-mile after dinner, to four miles. My mother did this and lost about 60 lbs in a year. When you can walk 3-4 miles, start jogging. Begin with a mile at a 9-10 minute pace and then build up to where you can run 3 miles. Unless you’re training for a specific athletic event, there’s not a real need to do longer runs than this. The risks of injury versus gains in endurance are impractical and the further endurance can be gained by increasing your walks to five or six miles and maybe a 10 or 15-miler once a month. Do at least a third of your running in clothing similar to what you’ll be wearing to bug-out. Do at least half of your walking with a full backpack on.

Calisthenics are also useful for developing the basic body structure necessary to support a combat fitness regimen while minimizing injury risks. No special equipment is needed to do crunches, push-ups, leg lifts, squats and stretches.

Depending on what kind of shape you started out in, you should be able achieve a basic level of fitness in one to three months. Then you can begin your combat fitness conditioning. Now, I live in an urban environment and due to my job, have little opportunity for the kinds of work I did as a laborer in college. There’s no lumber or concrete to haul to a job site and no hay bales to throw in the back of a pick-up. But there are a few things I do have, that you can incorporate into your daily fitness plan.
First off, get a couple of sandbags from a farm-supply or military surplus store. Fill them and empty them. Repeat. Build up to doing fifty in one session. I dare you. You will build incredible forearm strength and endurance, as well as thickening up your hands, strengthening your shoulders and stretching out your back.
Carry the sandbags around. Do you remember the “shuttle run” from gym class where you laid bean bags on the lines of the basketball court? Put two sandbags on a line 15 yards out. Run out, pick one up, bring it back and drop it. Run back out and get the other one. Vary the set up and repeat. Do this in boots and utilities.
Buy a couple of ammo cans. Fill them with sand (or boxes of ammo, right?). Weigh them out to about 30 pounds. Set up some cones in your yard (or the local park or a parking lot) and run with one in each hand through a serpentine course. Try running with 60 lbs of ammo for more than 5 minutes. You will strengthen your back, shoulders, forearms, knees, ankles and mind.

Lift the same ammo cans. First, as a traditional squat, from the ground to standing, then set them down again. Repeat. 100 times. Next, lift them from your chest over your head and back down. Repeat. 100 times. When you can do this without collapsing, you may be getting close to being ready (at least physically) to handle a dire situation.
Now get a partner. I like partnering with my wife and kids. Put a kid on your back and run around your house 5 times. Don’t pass out. Have your wife lay down “dead” on the ground. Get her up over your shoulders and fireman-carry her around the block three times (3 laps times 4 sides equals 12 city blocks, approximately a mile!) You may have to do this for real some day!

Practice sprinting 15 yards and then hitting the deck and rolling to a covered position. Count to 5, push-up into a run and do it again to the next position. Repeat for a good 5 or 10 minutes.

Load your bug-out bag and go for a hike. Can you do 10 or 15 miles? Are your feet calloused enough to do this for several days in a row without disintegrating? Skip the keg party this weekend and find out. I’ll bet that five miles leaves most of us office-jockeys spent.

These practical drills can help prepare you for the time when you may have to G.O.O.D. in a hurry with a bunch of armed and panicking locals in your way.
At this point you may be thinking, “Well, here’s another military fitness nut. These are ridiculous. I don’t have time to do all that. I’m sure I’ll have the energy and adrenaline from my need to survive if the time ever comes…”

I’ve been there, done that, and failed. Fortunately it was in practice drills that I was slapped awake to the extraordinary challenges of combat survival. Without the strength and endurance I’ve achieved from focused training and conditioning, I would have failed to accomplish my assigned missions in Iraq. Even with the training, there were times I thought I wouldn’t make it through. I was pushed beyond the limits both mentally and physically.

How we train is how we will fight. And failure to plan is planning to fail. “Hope” is not a plan. The two objectives of Marine Corps Leadership are mission accomplishment and troop welfare. Among combat instructors we have a saying: “The best form of troop welfare is tough, realistic training.” All of the drills and exercises I recommend are tough. But more importantly, they are realistic. They will prepare you for the things you may be called upon to do should we face the worst.
Now that you know, are you willing to make yourself ready?