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The Tactical Athlete: Optimizing Physical Preparedness for the Demands of


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The tactical athlete:

optimising physical
preparedness for the
demands of combat
By Jonpaul Nevin,
Help for Heroes, Tidworth

Modern military operations place unique and intense physiological and
psychological demands upon the soldier. In order to help adapt to and cope
with such demands, a high level of physical preparedness must be seen as a
fundamental requirement of all military personnel.3 Indeed, the modern soldier
needs to be more agile, more capable, more able to survive and more resilient than
the enemy in order to ensure victory on the battlefield. Soldiers who are physically
fit can be seen as a critical force multiplier. Not only do they demonstrate improved
mission performance, but they may also be more resilient for both the physical
and psychological demands of sustained military operations.25,61 Furthermore,
physically fit soldiers may be less susceptible to injury and demonstrate better
physical and mental health over the long term than less fit individuals.8,17

Every soldier an infantryman first training programme which will optimise

physical preparedness for the demands
Given the asymmetric nature of modern of combat. However, there are a number
warfare and the growing limitations of noteworthy differences between the
placed upon military resources including traditional athlete and the tactical athlete.
manpower, it can be strongly argued Firstly, tactical athletes often have no
that every soldier must be viewed as an scheduled start or end to an event as such;
infantryman first, regardless of his/her role they require a continuously high baseline of
or trade. The primary role of the infantry physical preparedness. In addition, due to
soldier is to close with and engage the high tempo operational environments they
enemy in order to bring about his defeat must also cope with extended periods of
via either dismounted or mounted close physical activity with unpredictable periods
combat.2 Given the extreme physiological of rest or recovery. Finally, the tactical athlete
and psychological demands of combat, it is is also exposed to a multitude of acute and
clear that the modern soldier must be viewed chronic stressors, which are both physically
and trained similarly to an elite level athlete, and psychologically demanding.
or – more specifically – a tactical athlete.56
The occupational task demands to be
Like traditional athletes, the tactical athlete experienced during combat operations
requires an appropriately designed physical are likely to be varied. Tasks can include

P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K 25

sustained patrolling at relatively slow impair both short- and long-term physical
speeds, over varying terrain, while carrying and cognitive performance, including the
loads ranging from 48-57 kg.12,15,29,48 Contact following: heavy load carriage, exertional
with enemy forces can result in sudden and fatigue, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition,
sustained physical demands such as rapid high calorific energy expenditure,
movement over short distances, negotiating inadequate recovery, exposure to intense
obstacles, engagement of the enemy in psychological stressors and environmental
close quarters combat, ammunition re- extremes.9,24,39,40,41,44,57
supplies and – potentially – the extraction
of casualties while under fire. This may then Castellani et al9 observed that 72–84 hours
be followed by a period of recuperation of sustained military operations resulted
in the field before being tasked to do the in decreases in body mass, combat-specific
same again repeatedly over an extended task performance, and cognitive ability, as
period.12,14,15,16,45,48 well as impaired thermoregulatory function.
These findings are supported by Nindl et
al,44 who demonstrated that eight weeks
Negative impact of combat on physical of intensive military training designed to
and mental health replicate the demands of combat resulted
in a significant reduction in maximal lifting
The very nature of sustained combat strength, lower limb power and body mass.
operations often involves soldiers being Furthermore, Lieberman et al39,40 established
exposed to a multitude of stressors, which that sustained combat operation can result
can negatively impact not only on their in a substantial degradation in cognitive
operational effectiveness, but also on their performance, including vigilance, reaction
long term physical and mental health. times, marksmanship, mood states, memory
Many factors have been demonstrated to and logical reasoning.

Table 1. Components of military physical fitness (adapted from Knapik et al30)


Movement skills Mobility Range of motion achieved at a joint Freedom to move over, under or
or series of joints through varying obstacles
Stability Maintenance of equilibrium while Maintenance of stable firing position
stationary or moving
Motor control Ability to use the senses, such as Bringing a weapon system to bear and
sight or hearing, together with the accurately engaging targets
body parts in performing motor tasks
smoothly and accurately
Speed Ability to perform movements in any Rapid movement between fire positions
given direction as quickly as possible
Agility Ability to change the position of the Repeatedly negotiating obstacles
entire body in space with speed and
Quickness The ability to react to visual, auditory Reacting to effective enemy fire
and kinaesthesic stimuli
Strength Muscular endurance Ability to exert sub-maximal external Repetitive manual handling tasks
forces for a short period of time
Maximal strength Ability to generate a maximal Standing from kneeling with heavy
external force loads
Endurance Power Ability to exert maximal external Breaking down compound doors
force in the shortest period of time
Aerobic capacity Ability to maintain sub-maximal Sustained patrolling with heavy loads
efforts for a sustained period of time
Anaerobic capacity Ability to sustain maximal efforts for 500m casualty extraction
a short period of time

26 P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K

Anecdotal reports from recent conflicts death. The British Army defines military
suggest that soldiers frequently exhibited physical fitness as: ‘The ability to respond
negative alterations in body mass and instantly and effectively to the physical
physical performance as a result of sustained and psychological demands of combat
combat operations.12,15 However, to date only over prolonged periods with the minimum
two studies have investigated the long-term of distress, and return to a normal healthy
effects of sustained military operations on state once the demand ceases.’3 Similarly,
soldier physical characteristics. Sharp et the US Army defines physical readiness as:
al59 reported that a nine-month operational ‘The ability to meet the physical demands of
deployment of US Army personnel to any combat or duty position, accomplish the
Afghanistan resulted in a significant mission, and continue to fight and win.’16
reduction in aerobic capacity, upper body
power, body mass and fat-free mass. Given the nature of these definitions, it is
Interestingly, lifting strength and vertical clear that the modern soldier requires a broad
jump performance was maintained over the spectrum of physical capabilities in order
period of the deployment. to ensure optimal combat effectiveness.
Table 1 gives the reader a brief overview of ‘The very
Conversely, Lester et al41 demonstrated that the various movement skills, strength, and
after a 13-month deployment to Iraq, soldiers’
body mass and strength increased, while
endurance fitness components required by
the tactical athlete, with practical examples
nature of
aerobic capacity declined substantially. The
authors suggested that the lack of change
of their application within the context of
military specific tasks.
observed may have been due to the fact
that the soldiers used in this study were In addition to a high level of physical combat
not frequently involved in combat due to preparedness, the modern soldier must also
their unit’s operational role. As such, these be resilient to the psychological demands of operations
findings must be interpreted with caution. combat. This requires a view of performance
which encompasses the optimisation of the often involves
Although future military operations remain physical, cognitive and emotional traits
relatively unknown, success will most likely
be influenced by the physical capability
of the soldier to create a more dominant
soldiers being
and performance of the individual soldier.
Therefore, it is clear that optimising the Within this holistic view, resilience can be
exposed to a
physical preparedness of the soldier is
essential in order to enhance their overall
defined as the mental, physical, emotional
and behavioural ability to face and cope multitude of
operational effectiveness and minimise with adversity, adapt to change, recover,
the likelihood of injury, defeat or even learn and grow from setbacks.8,13,17 Without stressors’

P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K 27

resilience, the soldier can easily become Non-functional overreaching

‘The overwhelmed, by the various stressors
which they may experience, resulting in a Soldiers often judge themselves and
overarching negative impact upon not only operational
effectiveness, but also on long-term
others on their ability to withstand
extreme endurance challenges which
objective for physical and mental health. Numerous
studies have demonstrated the inter-related
– when combined with poor nutrition,
inadequate recovery, poor sleep hygiene
the modern nature of physical fitness and mental
resilience.58,62 As such, it can be contended
and a host of other stressors – can result
in the development of non-functional
soldier that appropriate physical training may also
confer psychological benefits, which enable
overreaching.5 The human body can cope
with being placed into an overreached
soldiers to become more resilient to the state without suffering any adverse effects.
should be to mental demands of combat via a process of However, continued long-term exposure can
systematic stress inoculation.17,58 result in decreased physical performance,5
move further, an increased likelihood of musculoskeletal
overuse injury,4,63 and potentially serious
move faster Excessive focus on muscular endurance
and aerobic capacity
long-term physical and mental health
and fight Although it is clear that a broad spectrum It is highly questionable whether or not
harder than of physical capabilities is required by the
modern soldier, it can be strongly argued
current military PT practices adequately
prepare soldiers for the demands of
that for many years military physical training combat.42,43 Indeed, reports from both
his enemy’ (PT) has been predominantly focused upon commanders and soldiers alike support
the development of muscular endurance this contention, with many questioning
and aerobic capacity. Indeed, traditionally, the efficacy of current military PT
fitness within many militaries has been methodologies and testing protocols
regarded as the ability to complete in relation to the extreme physiological
endurance-based activities, with little and psychological demands encountered
emphasis given to the development during sustained combat operations.12,15,43
of either movement skill or strength Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests
fitness components.61,66 This focus upon that – more often than not – military
the development of endurance fitness PT is routinely ad-hoc in nature, with
component has resulted in the neglected training geared towards the completion of
development of movement skills, strength mandatory, non-task-specific fitness tests,
and power,6,36,65 thus potentially impacting with an emphasis placed upon testing
upon overall combat effectiveness. statistics rather than real world physical

28 P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K

performance.43,61 Finally, it has also been development of maximal strength and power
suggested that the nutritional, recovery can be seen as an acceptable trade-off due
and sleep hygiene behaviour of military to the significant enhancement in military
personnel is at best inadequate, negatively task specific performance observed as a
impacting upon not only physical result of concurrent training.1,19,23,31,34,35,55,59,65
preparedness, but also long-term health and Furthermore, careful and balanced
well-being.8 programme design may help to minimise
the impact of any potential interference
New direction for training required

Given the identified issues with current Daily undulation periodisation

military PT practices, it is clear that a new
direction is required in order to optimise The use of a daily undulation periodisation
physical preparedness, minimise the (DUP) has been proposed by several authors
likelihood of injury and improve the long- as being suitable for both team sports and
term health and well-being of the modern military populations due to its inherent
soldier. In order to achieve these objectives, flexibility.24,37,47,61 DUP can be characterised
it is recommended that a flexible, evidence- by a daily, wave-like, alternation of training
based, PT programme be adopted. Such loads (intensity x volume) and/or training
a programme needs to be grounded upon modalities dependent upon the focus of a
the fundamental training principles of specific training block within which sits the
specificity, overload, recovery, progression session.52 The fundamental basis behind
and reversibility.36 In addition, it must DUP is that one can have a different training
allow for the concurrent development of session each day, which provides not only a
movement skills, strength and endurance different physiological training stimulus
fitness components. Furthermore it must but also allows for adequate management of
also include an element of military acute fatigue between sessions.
occupational task-specific training
and be based upon a suitable model of In comparison to linear and non-periodised
periodisation, a model which organises training models, DUP has been proposed
training into systematic cycles of undulating to offer equal, if not greater, improvements
intensity and volume: this is necessary in in physical performance.20,21,22,33,54
order to reduce the accumulation of chronic The progressive overload of a given motor
fatigue, mitigate the risk of overtraining attribute during DUP is not achieved on a
and optimise subsequent physiological day-to-day basis as the training stimulus is
adaptations.36 Finally, it must also be flexible too varied. As such, progressive overload
enough to meet the fast tempo and ever- is achieved during a subsequent training
changing demands of unit training cycles session with a similar focus. It can be
and multiple operational deployments.1,37,59 argued that DUP may take longer to

Numerous studies have established

stimulate specific adaptive changes, due
to an insufficient frequency of training on
that periodised training programmes
incorporating concurrent strength and
any given fitness component.11,50,51 However,
the use of a conjugated block approach, suggests that
endurance training can significantly incorporating DUP, may potentially offset
enhance military task-specific performance, this problem. concurrent
while also decreasing the likelihood of
injury. In comparison to either strength A conjugated block approach places an training
or endurance training alone, concurrent emphasis upon the highly concentrated
training programmes have been development of a specific set of motor regimes may
demonstrated to improve load marching attributes during a given training block,
performance,19,23,31,34,35,55,65 material manual
handing ability,23,34,65 and also lower body
while simultaneously maintaining other
motor attributes albeit at a reduced training
strength and power,1,23,59 as well as obstacle
course performance19,23 and simulated
volume.27,28 The sequencing of conjugated
training blocks is intended to build upon with the
casualty extraction timings.19,23,59 the residual training effects of previously
developed motor abilities. Therefore, it development
Evidence suggests that concurrent training is proposed that the use of DUP within a
regimes may interfere with the development conjugated block model may provide a of maximal
of maximal strength and power.67 However, sufficiently adequate training stimulus in
given that the tactical athlete requires a order to elicit the required physiological strength and
broad spectrum of physical capabilities, adaptations. Theoretically, a training
any potential interference effect on the programme based upon a conjugated power’

P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K 29

block model incorporating DUP could or a loss of form due to excessive fatigue.32
be developed in line with a unit’s yearly Furthermore, hybrid training has been
training plan and/or upcoming operational linked to the onset of overtraining syndrome
deployment cycle; this would help to and rhabdomyolysis.32 Nonetheless, hybrid
optimise the physical preparedness of the training modalities offer a novel training
soldier for a specific deployment. stimulus which may enhance the overall
physical and psychological preparedness of
Typically, a training block is divided into a the modern soldier for demands of combat.
series of training weeks which are defined
as being either accumulating or unloading Military occupational task-specific training
in nature. Accumulation training weeks can – commonly known as battle PT – is
be characterised by a planned increased essential in order to provide the required
in the training load in order to provide a element of specificity needed to ensure
suitable training stimulus in line with the optimal physical preparedness to meet any
overall training block objective. In contrast, likely mission requirement which may be
an unloading training week can be defined experienced during combat. To coin a British
by a marked reduction in the training Army saying: ‘train as you fight’. Battle PT
load, in order to reduce the accumulation has been demonstrated to enhance combat-
of chronic fatigue, mitigate the risk of specific fitness measures.26,31,46,60 Examples
overtraining and optimise subsequent of battle PT include sustained heavy load
physiological adaptations. From a planning carriage, material manual handling, burden
perspective, operational deployments carries, simulated casualty extractions,
can be viewed as the peaking phase of a fire and manoeuvre drills, combatives and
training programme. Therefore, based upon obstacle courses. It is important to note
identified time constraints and competing that the intensity and volume of battle PT
unit training demands, different training should be systematically increased until the
block configurations (3:1, 2:1, 1:1) can be likely demands of combat are replicated.
easily adopted in order to allow for suitable In addition, the incorporation of mission
windows of opportunity for training and essential equipment – including body
recovery. armour, helmets, load carriage equipment
and weapon systems – should be gradually
introduced so that the soldier is able to
Hybrid/extreme conditioning meet the demands of the anticipated worst
programmes case and mission-related scenarios without
excessive difficulty or exhaustion.
Hybrid training or extreme conditioning
programmes are extremely popular within
the military due to their inherent variation, Physical and psychological
challenging nature and efficient use of preparedness
time.10,32 In addition, hybrid training also
has strong military cultural connotations, Based upon the literature reviewed, one can
as workouts of the day (WODs) are often infer that a concurrent training programme
named in honour of fallen comrades as an act based upon a conjugated block model
of remembrance. Hybrid training typically incorporating DUP may optimise not only
blends movement skill and strength and the physical but also the psychological
endurance fitness components into a single preparedness of the soldier for the demands
training session; WODs are often based of combat. Such a programme needs to
‘Operational upon the completion of a set amount of
work or alternatively the completion of as
simultaneously develop movement skill,
strength and endurance fitness components.
much work as possible within a given time In addition, it must also include hybrid
deployments frame using consistently varied multiple training and battle PT sessions in order
joint exercises.10,32 to provide the required element of task-
can be viewed specificity indicative of any effective
Several studies have demonstrated that training programme. Furthermore, the
as the peaking hybrid training modalities can enhance
military task-specific fitness.26,49 Indeed,
development of performance-enhancing
behaviours – through appropriate edu-
phase of hybrid training has been successfully
incorporated within the physical training
cational interventions in areas such as
nutrition, mindset, movement preparation,
a training doctrines of both the Canadian and US
militaries.7,49,53 However hybrid training
recovery and sleep – may also help to
optimise the physical preparedness and
may pose an increased risk of injury due long term health and well-being of the
programme’ to potentially poor exercise technique and/ tactical athlete.8

30 P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K

Tables 2, 3 and 4 give an example of a around operational demands such as high

12-week training programme split into mission tempo, fatigue and sparse base ‘Hybrid training
three, four-week training blocks designed conditions. Upon return from an operational
to prepare the solider for a specific
operational deployment. Each training
deployment, it is vital that a period of rest and
recovery be implemented, in order to allow
block progressively builds upon the last,
with the training load gradually increasing.
the soldier to recover and regenerate from
the physical and psychological demands of
offer a novel
In addition, as the programme progresses,
the overall emphasis becomes more combat-
sustained operations. This period should be
characterised by low-intensity, low-volume training
specific with the overall frequency of battle
PT sessions increasing.
active recovery modalities including both
sport and adventurous training. This in turn stimulus’
will help the soldier to recover in preparation
It should be noted that this is merely an for future training and operational
example training programme and that the deployment cycles.
number and length of each training block
will be dictated by the available training
time. Furthermore, it should be noted that Summary
the sequencing of training sessions should
not be set in stone. DUP’s strength is its It is clear that military operations place
inherent flexibility. Therefore, daily training unique and intense physiological and
sessions should be adapted, based not only psychological demands upon the soldier.
on a soldier’s conditional readiness to train, The overarching objective for the modern
but also on other conflicting unit training soldier should be to move further, move
demands. faster and fight harder than his enemy
in order to bring about his defeat.
The demands of combat, combined with Fundamentally, the soldier is a system:
a lack of opportunity to train, dictate in order to optimise the effectiveness of
that the goal of PT during operational that system, the soldier must be trained as
deployments should be to maintain physical an athlete, with as much time, effort and
preparedness. Furthermore, physical activity resources placed into developing the soldier
while deployed can be an important respite system, as they would be with any other
from the stresses of operations and an weapon system.
essential part of a soldier’s routine.3
This article purposely does not go into depth
A continuous DUP approach utilising hybrid regarding military fitness testing or specific
training modalities may be the best option training methodologies as its aim is to help
while deployed, due to its adaptability to fit drive a discussion on the development of

P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K 31

a holistic, evidence-based approach towards

future military PT.

Policy makers, the chain of command, PT

staff and the individual soldier must all come
to realise the interdependent relationship
between physical preparedness, overall
operational effectiveness and long-term
physical and mental health. Failure to do so
will result in the soldier being ill-prepared for
the demands of combat, ultimately impacting
upon overall mission readiness, operational
effectiveness, and general long-term health
and well-being.

Table 2. Training Block One: Accumulation


Week 1 Muscular Aerobic training Strength: total body; 5 Anaerobic Muscular endurance: Rest Rest
endurance: lower sets of 5 reps; rec 2 mins interval training upper body; 4 sets
body; 4 sets of 8 reps; rec 1 min
of 8 reps; rec 1 min
Week 2 Strength: lower body; Movement skills/ Muscular endurance: Load Strength: upper body; Rest Rest
5 sets of 6 reps; rec hybrid training total body; 4 sets of 8 carriage training: 5 sets of 6 reps;
2 mins reps; rec 1 mins 6 km /20 kg rec 2 mins
Week 3 Muscular endurance: Aerobic training Strength: total body; Anaerobic Muscular endurance: Rest Rest
lower body; 4 sets of 5 sets of 7 reps; interval training upper body; 4 sets of
10 reps; rec 1 min rec 2 mins 10 reps; rec 1 min
Week 4 Active recovery Movement skills/ Active recovery Movement skills/ Active recovery Rest Rest
hybrid training hybrid training

Table 3. Training Block Two: Transition


Week 1 Strength: lower Anaerobic Maximal strength/power: Movement skills/ Strength: upper body; Rest Rest
body; 5 sets of 5 interval training total body; 6 sets of 2 hybrid training 5 sets of 5 reps;
reps; rec 2 mins reps; rec 3 mins rec 2 mins
Week 2 Maximal strength/ Load Strength: total body; Anaerobic Maximal strength/ Rest Rest
power: lower body; carriage training: 5 sets of 6 reps; interval training power: upper body;
6 sets of 3 reps; 7 km / 25 kg rec 2 mins 6 sets of 3 reps;
rec 3 mins rec 3 mins
Week 3 Strength: lower body; Battle PT: Maximal strength/power: Load carriage Strength: upper body; Rest Rest
5 sets of 7 reps; obstacle course/ total body; 6 sets of training: 8 km/30kg 5 sets of 7 reps;
rec 2 mins combatives 4 reps; rec 3 mins rec 2 mins
Week 4 Active recovery Movement skills/ Active recovery Movement skills/ Active recovery Rest Rest
hybrid training hybrid training

Table 4. Training Block Three: Realisation


Week 1 Maximal strength/ Movement skills/ Strength: total body; Load carriage Maximal strength/ Rest Rest
power: lower body; hybrid training 5 sets of 5 reps; training: 9 km/35 kg power: upper body;
6 sets of 2 reps; rec 2 mins 6 sets of 3 reps;
rec 3 mins rec 3 mins
Week 2 Strength: lower body; Battle PT: fire Maximal strength/power: Movement skills/ Strength: upper body; Rest Rest
5 sets of 6 reps; & manoeuvre total body; 6 sets of 3 hybrid training 5 sets of 6 reps;
rec 2 mins drills/combatives sets; rec 3 mins rec 2 mins
Week 3 Maximal strength/ Load carriage Strength: total body; Battle PT: Maximal strength/ Rest Rest
power: lower body; training: 5 sets of 7 reps; combatives/ power: upper body;
6 sets of 4 reps; 10 km/40 kg rec 2 mins casualty extractions 6 sets of 4 reps;
rec 3 mins rec 3 mins
Week 4 Active recovery Movement skills/ Active recovery Movement skills/ Active recovery Rest Rest
hybrid training hybrid training

32 P R O F E SS I O N A L S T R E N GT H & C O N D I T I O N I N G / W W W. U K S CA . O R G . U K

BSC (HONS), ASCC, CSCS Physical Training Corps, working as an exercise
rehabilitation instructor. He currently specialises
Jonpaul is the lead strength and conditioning in the delivery of S&C support for disabled
(S&C) coach at Help for Heroes, delivering S&C athletes across a wide range of paralympic sports
support for wounded, injured and sick service including cycling, powerlifting, surfing, triathlon,
personnel and veterans on performance sport skiing and athletics. He is also undertaking an
pathways. He is a fully accredited member of MSc in strength and conditioning at St Mary’s
the UKSCA. Prior to joining Help for Heroes, University and has a keen interest in developing
Jonpaul served in the British Army for 15 years, physical preparedness of military populations
seven of which were spent in the Royal Army based upon his previous service experience.


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