Regardless of what selection program you’re training for, you’ll spend countless hours walking around with a heavy ruck on your back. In some special operations selection courses (SFAS, RASP, British SAS, CANSOF), rucking is the primary physical task you’ll have to do day after day. If you want to be successful, you need to be comfortable walking long distances, at quick paces, with heavy loads. Like any skill, an intelligent approach to training leads to much better outcomes.
Rucking can and should be a driver of physiological changes. It should always align with your overarching energy system development plan. For example, long-duration rucking to develop aerobic capacity should be guided by heart rate zones while building a foundation.
Heart Rate Zones
Use a 30-minute threshold test to set the heart rate zones we use to dictate your rucking pace. You’ll use the same test outlined in our Programming for Running article to assign heart rate zones. Running and rucking are slightly different modalities that will result in different thresholds. But, doing a threshold ruck is a terrible idea unless you enjoy paying your physical therapist’s mortgage. Moreover, the data from running is accurate enough to set useful parameters for rucking intensities.
For more information on this topic, we discuss why and when we use heart rate zones and the specific adaptations for each zone in our book.
Once you have your average heart rate over your 30-minute run, setting heart rate zones is simple using the calculations below:
Average heart rate over the 30-minute run = threshold heart rate = THR
For example, if your average heart rate over the 30-minute run is 165, this is what your heart rate zones will look like:
Technique plays a role in rucking efficiency, but less so than running. Rucking is really just walking with weight on your back, so how you move at rest is the primary predictor of how well you move when rucking. There are some specific breathing and technique cues to be aware of. These are covered in the video below:
Recommended Rucking Training Frequency
Depending on the program you’re training for, you should be rucking one to three times per week. If you’re prepping for a ruck-intensive selection course like RASP or SFAS you should be rucking at least twice per week and up to three times per week. If you’re preparing for a maritime program like BUD/S where rucking comprises a smaller percentage of the selection selection, we suggest that you ruck once per week.
Regardless of which program you’re training for, you should do at least one long-duration ruck (60+ minutes) per week. Before you ship for any selection, you should be doing 2+ hour rucks with at least 40 pounds each week.
Rucking with heavy weights is hard on the body. For this reason, we do just enough rucking to ensure fitness, but not so much that you get beat up. If you’re training for a more rucky-heavy selection your second and third ruck each week should be limited to 60-75 minutes.
Heart rate guidelines should be used to drive pacing during your initial training phases. In your initial aerobic foundation phases, stay in zone 2 during rucks. If you’re rucking on varied terrain your heart rate will rise into zone 3 from time to time – that’s normal. As long as your average heart rate is in the zone 2 range over the length of the ruck, you’re getting the most bang for your buck
Rucking rewards volume. Initially, forget your pace per mile, and put in the time with heart rate guided, lower intensity, longer duration rucks. Over months, your pace will improve without higher levels of exertion. Eventually, a 15-minute pace will feel doable even when you’re completely exhausted.
If you stick to heart rate zone 2 as you build a foundation over months (4-6 months), your pacing should slowly improve until you can do a 2.5-3 hour ruck with 50 pounds at a 15 minute-per-mile pace. This is assuming relatively flat and hard (not sandy, muddy, or icy) ground.
If you’re less aerobically fit or have a strength deficit, it may take longer than six months to reach that pacing. If you’ve already been rucking, it might only take a few months to hit these paces.
As you get closer to your selection course, it is useful to do some timed rucks with strategic ruck-running to build a mental model of what a really fast (12-13 minute / mile) pace feels like. But do not start this too soon. If you don’t have the underlying aerobic foundation, you won’t be able to hit the necessary ruck times when fatigued and/or in poor conditions. In other words, you’ll be spinning your wheels while needlessly risking injury.
Rucking Equipment, Weight, and Vertical Gain, and Surface Considerations
Buy a decent pack. You don’t need to spend $500, but your Jansport isn’t going to cut it. If you’re looking for brands, consider Tactical Tailor (their Malice packs and Rhino Rucks are excellent), Eberlestock, or Tasmanian Tiger. Keep in mind that in many courses you’ll be required to use an issued pack and can’t bring your own cool-guy gear.
Also, you don’t get bonus points for using terrible shoulder or hip straps. Your hips and shoulders will get used to the weight even with a nicer pack. And, instead of fixating on how much your traps hurt, you’ll be able to focus on rucking with good technique while practicing other mental skills. You’ll get enough time under ridiculous loads in selection; now isn’t the time to make it harder than it needs to be.
Ruck weight should be increased slowly. If you’re new to rucking, start with 25-30 pounds and no more than 60 minutes of total ruck time in a single outing. Increase time by 15-30 minutes per week with a deload every 4-5 weeks.
*The progression above is just an example. You should adjust starting volume, weight, and changes from week to week based on your response to training. Just because you hypothetically should be able to extend your ruck time, weight, or pace doesn’t mean it’s the best choice in a given moment. Individuals adapt at different paces.
Once you can do 2.5-3 hours at a given weight you can increase in intervals of 5-10 pounds every four to six weeks. Even if you’ll need to carry a 70+ pound ruck at selection, you’re better off not training with more than 55-60 pounds including your water, or you’ll enter selection already beat up.
Decent boots are also crucial. You can look up approved boots for any given selection course. Figure out how long it takes to break in new boots (you’ll have to do this several times) and make sure you know how to layer socks, foot powder, etc. to keep your feet healthy. There are plenty of brands out there, so as a general rule look for:
(1) a wide toe box that allows your toes to splay,
(2) minimal heel rise, and
(3) a solid heel cup that provides good lateral stability.
As you start training, your initial rucks shouldn’t be done in terrible conditions (extreme heat, wet, cold). But, before you leave for selection it’s important to know how and when you’ll need to trade out socks in order to keep your feet healthy in various conditions. For this reason, spend some time researching and experimenting in inclement weather during the training process.
Vertical gain isn’t something you need to train for. Almost all selection courses will include some hilly terrain, but not enough to throw you off if you’ve done the work with long-distance rucks. Rucking on overly steep terrain also doesn’t allow you to improve efficiency at higher cadences necessary for fast ruck times.
Surface conditions are worth considering. If you’re going to an extremely sandy area for your selection course, it would be good to have spent at least some time in this environment. This is the least important factor, so if you don’t have similar conditions in your area, you don’t need to book a plane ticket to Los Cabos so you can train on the beach. If you’re adaptable and resilient, you’ll figure it out.
Ruck running should be avoided until the final phases of prep for a selection course.
We’re going to say that again because it bears repeating.
Ruck running should be avoided until the final phases of prep for a selection course.
And even then, it should be applied sparingly. It’s much more of a display-oriented practice than a developmental one, so save most of it for testing rather than training. Below are some guidelines:
- Only ruck-run on slight downhills or flats, never on steep downhills or uphills.
- Run (more of a fast shuffle) 20-50 paces and then walk 50-100 paces. Over time, you can condense the ratio closer to a 1:1 ratio of run:walk.
- Avoid ‘blowing up’ by ruck-running to fixed points and then recovering. This will lead to wild swings in pacing and fatigue you much faster.
- Never ruck-run with more than 50 pounds in training.
During rucks where you add ruck-running, your heart rate will increase into zone three often. That’s OK. This type of training is meant to help peak performance before a test or selection.
Weather / Acclimation Considerations when Rucking
If you’re going to selection in a particularly hot, humid, cold, or rainy environment, you should spend some time preparing for it.
If your selection course will be occurring in a hot and humid environment, and you’re not acclimatized to those conditions, you’ll likely see a significant drop in performance. It takes about a month for your physiology to become fully heat-adapted. 90-120 minutes per day is enough to provide a significant head start on these adaptations. So, even if you live in a colder climate, spending an hour or two in a sauna daily (100-120 degrees) while doing light aerobic activities can help prepare you for the heat.
Regardless of the physiological adaptations, spending time in uncomfortable situations is valuable. If it’s snowing, raining, cold, hot, etc. that’s a good reason to do your ruck. Learning to manage difficult and uncomfortable situations is what you are being selected for. It’s best to practice developing these skills when you have the luxury of mistakes serving as learning opportunities and not the end of your career in SOF.
Being patient and following the guidelines in this article will help you improve your rucking week after week, month after month. If you’d like to learn more about how we implement rucking into our overall training structure, make sure to check out our book, Building the Elite.
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