I am currently assigned as an Infantry OSUT commander (Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, rolled into one 14-week course). As such, I manage the training for between 600 and 800 new trainees over the course of the year and ensure that they meet the standards for and are validated to become Infantrymen in the US Army. I plan and conduct a lot of ruck marches with civilians hoping to become soldiers.
There has been a lot of attention brought to rucking, foot marching, and generally travelling while under load for physical fitness and physical readiness on the Primary and Secondary MODCAST chat. This is not an easy undertaking for people who aren’t used to carrying weight on their back and shoulders, and it is very easy to get hurt by either taking on too much weight, too quickly or through improper techniques and form while moving. Rucking isn’t just walking with a backpack, it is sustained movement under load. There are a few tips for those interested in beginning their own ruck-march training regimen. This is not an all-encompassing list, and I encourage you to discuss any of your own findings and recommendations on the P&S forum and facebook pages.
1) Select the proper ruck.
A good ruck is more than just a backpack. You want to select a pack that has some sort of rigid frame (internal or external is irrelevant at this point based entirely on personal preference. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages to each, but that’s another discussion). The rigid frame will allow you to better distribute and manage the weight of the pack and its contents and keep it from shifting and settling over time. It will also help take direct pressure off of your spine.
A surplus Medium ALICE pack and frame is probably the easiest and best FIRST rucksack available. They’re readily available, cheap, and as long as there are no cracks in the frame or tears in the ALICE pack it will work with just about any body type. I do not recommend a current-issue MOLLE type ruck, as the plastic frame is fairly fragile and is really one-size-fits-none. It is significantly more difficult to fit this pack to your body than the ALICE system unless you are a 5’11”, 180lbs male with the shoulders of a Norse god. I use an Arc’teryx Khyber 50 for work if I’m not required to use a MOLLE, and it is a solid intermediate between a three-day pack and full ruck. I use a Kelty Red Cloud backpack for camping. Higher-end hiking packs like the Kelty are great because they are easily adjustable to your body, and if you are willing to spend the money and do not have restriction of equipment types or colors, I recommend you take a good look at the civilian packs on the market.
You will NEED good kidney pads (a waist strap with padded “wings” coming from the pack). These will distribute a portion of the weight onto your hips and take pressure off of your shoulders and back, which will drastically increase your endurance and comfort. You NEED a good chest strap. This will keep the pack tight against your upper body and help prevent the pack from shifting and sagging while you move, drastically increasing your endurance and comfort. You NEED thick, padded shoulder straps. How thick and how padded will depend on the size and weight of your ruck.
Load your ruck with the weight as high in the pack as you can, and as close to the frame as you can. You want the heaviest portion as high on your back and as close to your shoulders as you can get it. If you need to pad the bottom in order to get the weight higher, do so.
2) Design an appropriate regimen
Start light, short, and slow. That is, start with a relatively lightweight load (15-25lbs) and short, slow movements. Depending on your fitness level and health, a 15lbs pack for two miles in 40 minutes may be a good start. For others, a 25lbs pack for four miles in 60 minutes will be more appropriate. Err on the side of caution and start easy, then work your way up. Set goals ahead of time and adjust as needed. Never increase weight, distance, AND speed in the same session, as this drastically increases your chance of injury and heavily limits your ability to determine your areas of limitation, or points of failure. Eventually, you can get to 50lbs for twelve miles in under three hours (I usually cross the line around 2:45), but you’ll never get there if you hurt yourself by being overzealous.
When you are complete with your movement, assess your performance: Were you breathing hard the whole time? Are your shoulders more sore than your legs or vice versa? Was this an absolute smoker and do you need to scale it back and build up? Was this (literally) a cake walk and do you need to make a large change?
A great tool to determine where to increase the challenge is with a heartrate monitor. You want to be in your zone for aerobic improvement without overtaxing the rest of your body. People are almost universally terrible at gauging their cardiovascular output and this will help keep you from doing too much too soon. Or too little, for that matter.
If your back hurts, you need to adjust how you carry your load. Tighten your shoulder pads, tighten your chest strap, adjust kidney pads to put the weight more on your hips, adjust the fit of the frame to your body, and adjust where the weight sits in the pack itself. You should not be fighting to keep the weight from dragging you back, it should naturally settle against your body and help to propel you forward as you lean into the movement.
If your shoulders are sore (and your equipment is properly set up) consider reducing or staying at the current weight until you are stronger and more used to the load. Add distance or go faster.
Bottom line here: Listen to your body and make small, incremental changes. You shouldn’t carry anything heavier than a third of your body weight if you don’t absolutely have to. If you want an arbitrary goal? My fully-packed ruck, without ammo, with water, with everything I need for three days in the field, weighs between 50 and 60lbs. I can comfortably carry that for eight miles in under two hours. Boom, arbitrary and realistic goal for those starting off.
Wear quality boots with a high ankle and a good amount of support. A very common issue I see is improperly sized boots. If your boots are too large, your foot will slip back and forth, causing instability and blisters. If your boots are too small, they’ll cause your foot to compress and potentially cause some serious injuries to the bones. Get your boots sized professionally if possible, but definitely don’t settle for ill-fitting footwear.
4) Use good form to limit impact on your joints
This is where most people fail. Again, rucking isn’t just walking with a backpack, it is SUSTAINED movement under load. If you cannot sustain your movement, due to difficulty or injury, you are doing something wrong. If your legs are sore, take a good look at your form. Rucking puts a lot of impact stress into your feet, ankles, and knees. You can limit this through good boots and good technique. Do not stomp your feet as you move; you should be slightly roll-stepping from the heel to spread the impulse out. Do not lock your knees as you extend your leg; let your foot hit the ground with a slightly bent knee. Use your hips to extend your stride rather than picking up your pace to a run to go faster. Ruck running is NOT recommended for those beginning rucking, as it puts a huge amount of stress on your joints. Keep a smooth, even stride. A tool I use is to listen for my dog tags jingling: if they are bouncing around, I am not moving smoothly.
When going uphill, I lengthen my stride out to add a little speed and compensate for the incline. When going downhill, I take shorter steps to limit the impact on my knees. Where I see the most injuries is from people trying to run downhill because they are trying to make up lost time from the uphill and think it will be easier going downhill. The increase in impact is no joke and it must be addressed through proper technique.
I recommend against rucking more than once a week, at least until your body, especially the stabilizer muscles, gets strong enough to support it. I also recommend against regularly going farther than about eight miles at a time unless you have to. I find that to be the point of diminishing return on investment for training ruck marches: any farther adds unnecessary stress on your body and won’t help you get to that twelve mile mark (Army annual requirement) any more than adding difficulty to that distance. If you can do more, add weight or go faster (not both). Doing regular twelve+ mile road marches, especially with heavy packs, is asking for overuse injuries.
I do not have any real experience with trek poles, but if they help you, rock on.
5) Water and Food. Seriously, drink water and eat food.
Your body needs water to move nutrients around your bloodstream and to regulate your temperature (“thermoregulation”). Drink it. Your body needs food to provide fuel to your organs and muscles. Eat it.
Ensure that you account for water in your pack weight and ensure that you consume it regularly (it makes the pack lighter and helps you not die. Win, win!). You should be consuming at least one liter of water per hour worked. This need may increase based on your climate and the needs of your body, but I find this to be a useful guideline. Always bring a little extra. I will bring at least an extra half liter of water on any movement I do. Sometime a full liter, if I have trainees with me and/or it is very hot out.
Bring a healthy, calorie dense snack, such as a power bar, raisins, or granola. Your body needs salt, protein, and carbohydrates. Replenish them. I eat sunflower seeds for the salt, protein, and mental diversion. I also find that Jolly Ranchers make for great motivators and pleasant distractions on long movements.
Contrary to popular belief, you easily can drink too much water if you aren’t also replenishing the salts, electrolytes, and carbohydrates in your system. If you flush out all the fuel your body needs, you will enter a state of hyponatremia, which is as deadly as dehydration. In fact, it is the biggest killer of trainees during basic training. Do not skip meals before you conduct a ruck march. Eat something high in protein and easy to digest about an hour before you step off and bring a healthy, salty snack with you on extended movements.
Also, consider the weather conditions during your movement. If the humidity that day is very high, your sweat will not evaporate. If your sweat does not evaporate, your body’s ability to thermoregulate is compromised and you can overheat. Wear appropriate clothing and have a method to cool off (another use for that spare half liter water bottle, in a pinch).
Ruck marches are excellent aerobic workouts, but not without risk. Use the proper equipment, good form, and take care of your body with appropriate nutrition and difficulty. Be safe out there and have fun with it. If you have any questions or tips of your own, head over to the P&S forum or Facebook pages and join the discussion.