Ruck Running: What is it good for?

I recently had a conversation with a Critical Skills Operator from Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) who is structuring a course for support personnel coming into the unit. One of the main questions was how to prepare them for ruck running.

As we went through some possible methods and progressions, the question arose: What is the purpose behind ruck running? Does it have transferability to the fitness needed for the soldier on the ground? Why are we doing it?

The 12-mile ruck run for time is common in the military. Several schools use it as a fitness gate to continue in the course. A variation of it is included in nearly all land based selections or screeners. An infantryman in the Army must complete the ruck in less three hours in order to get the Expert Infantry Badge (EIB) - a point of pride and taken under heavy consideration for promotion.

I haven’t heard of any school requiring you to run for any of these events, but the time limits put in place require you to run/trot/jog at least some of the distance in order to be competitive. It’s the nature of the beast.

Let’s be clear - ruck running isn’t good for you

Running with no pack can put a force of 3-7x your weight onto an individual leg during your stride. Now, add a 45-65 lbs pack to your body weight. That force has just grown significantly.

The mechanics of your running will likely be degraded with an external load (the ruck), compromising the kinetic chain that allows your feet, ankles, knees, and hips to move in unison. At best, you’re degrading the cartilage and synovial fluid in the joints. At worst, the soldier is susceptible to serious musculoskeletal injury.

Soldiers (let’s use that as an all encompassing term for military personnel in the infantry, special operations, and direct ground support roles) do lots of things that aren’t necessarily healthy for them but are completed in order to prepare for their overall purpose - combat. With that in mind, is ruck running needed?

Frankly, I don’t think so.

Rucking, or hiking, where a soldier moves at a fast walking pace, is certainly a requirement. Soldiers need to get from Point A to Point B. Vehicles can’t get them there, aren’t available, or are too conspicuous - so they walk. This has a historical precedence back to the earliest Armies - the Roman Legionnaires were expected to be able to walk 20 miles in a day. This continues to modern contemporary armies today.

But ruck running? I can’t find any evidence where a soldier has been required to run long distances under a full load. They may need to walk a long way, then sprint short distances (and repeat that process several times). Perhaps a soldier might need to run over a mile if shit hits the fan… but 12 miles (or more)? Seems unnecessary.

Rucking in Day to Day Programming

As I begin to develop my own tactical programming, you won’t find any rucking or ruck running for several reasons.

  1. Most ground units will have some kind of rucking/hiking program built into their work up. It’s a requirement. They will progress the distance and maintain whatever the required speed is. If this is going to mandated unit training, why double up?

  2. We want to keep you healthy for a long career. You might be able to get away with banging away at your knees with ruck running as a young soldier, but it will catch up with you in the form of stiff, arthritic knees. Watch any Gunny or SFC… you’ll see what I’m talking about. Fitness programming for the tactical athlete should have the overarching theme of keeping a soldier healthy for a full career, whether that’s four years or thirty years.

  3. I believe you can train a tactical athlete to maintain a moderate to high level of rucking fitness without rucking year round. Biking, running, step ups, and maintaining a durable core/low back will allow you shorten the adaption period if you have a school/selection coming up with a rucking requirement.

If you have a selection, school, or test that requires running with the ruck, then it’s time to do sport specific work. The two-three months prior to the event, you need to throw the ruck on. Understand what the requirement is as best you can (distance, speed, terrain, ruck weight), and build up to it.

Don’t do a 12-mile ruck run right off the bat - you will screw yourself up. I’d recommend breaking it down into two phases, time permitting:

  1. Develop the distance base - Incrementally work up to the assessment distance. Don’t worry about speed at this point. This is the basic conditioning of the joints and muscles for extended load carriage. Refine how you carry and pack your ruck. Get used to the suck.

  2. Interval Speed Work - This is where you get fast using intervals. Start with one-mile intervals - push hard at 80-90% effort. Rest for the amount of time it took you complete the mile (1:1 Work/Rest ratio), and repeat 2-3 times. Work up to two-mile intervals with the same formula. Do this one time a week, and do a longer ruck over the weekend at a moderate pace.

**NOTE**: Use trails, not the sidewalk or road. Doesn’t matter if you need to drive an hour to find a decent trail, it’s worth the time for the sake of your joints.

Final Thoughts

Using your feet to transport you, your weapon, and mission essential gear is a way of life. This might mean walking VERY slowly while patrolling (3km an hour in daylight, 1km an hour at night if memory serves) or walking fast for a long time to get to your objective.

We won’t change the ruck run component of the various schools and selections. It’s a part of the institution. I do believe that we can train tactical athletes to be fully mission capable, without causing major and minor injuries. Train smarter, not harder.

Questions or comments? Post in the comment section below.