6 Sep 2012

Be As Strong As a Soldier

The M4 carbine’s metal ridges feel cool against my hands. Four magazines bounce around my waist on an ammo vest as I sprint over dying grass and dirt kicked up by a squad of soldiers before me. I drop to my left knee, eject one magazine, pull out another and slam it in with my palm, then run. Finally, my chance to live what I dreamed of a hundred times. But as I cross the finish line, something separates me from the soldiers more than enlistment papers or tactical knowledge: I am not Army strong.


Train for the Battlefield

In July, I was a guest at physical training, or PT, with a company of Army Pathfinders from the 10th Mountain Division’s Task Force Knighthawks stationed at Fort Drum, New York. To prepare for my morning with the troops, I maintained a loose workout schedule for three weeks. Five miles here, two there. Pushups and situps once in a while. Drink more water than beer. (Is your drink making you fat? Lose up to 32 pounds this year just by switching your beer, coffee, and juice.  Discover the secret in Drink This, Not That!)

Dew clung to my Chevy Cobalt as I passed through the post’s gates and into the public affairs parking lot at 6:30 that morning. I pulled a camouflage uniform over my head and looked in the bathroom mirror. My grandfather still tells me stories about World War II and his time at Fort Drum. Growing up, I pretended so many times that I had this uniform, and now I did—I looked like a soldier. But as I walked to the training field, officers standing in the cool morning air looked twice and grinned at me as if to say, “You have no idea what you’re getting into, you dope.”

As I crossed over a dry ditch to the PT field, Lt. Col. Matthew Braman, who commands hundreds of soldiers at Fort Drum, nodded at my green notebook. Smirking, he asked, “Are you running or writing?”

In the last days of my master’s program at Syracuse University, an Army lieutenant told my professors that any journalist interested in military reporting could come to Fort Drum three weeks later to experience training firsthand. My eyes popped and I told everyone I knew that I was going. After reporting military stories all year, I would finally stand with soldiers, immersing myself in a taste of their daily lives.

The M4 sprint was the last of several PT obstacles that day. At the start, about 160 pounds of plastic dummy lay at my feet on a Skedco, a plastic stretcher used to remove battlefield casualties. I slung the nylon strap around my shoulder and exploded out, straining with what felt like four fat kids on a sled. Already breathing hard, I still had 80 pounds of water to carry, a tractor tire flip, fake rifle drill, army crawl, lunges, and finally the M4 run before resting. (Think this doesn’t sound tough enough. Test yourself with The Ultimate Bootcamp Workout.)

Sgt. 1st Class Josh Bures, who joined the Army at age 17 and told me in a Texan drawl to knock off calling him “sir,” shouted to keep moving, keep fighting. Staff Sgt. Blane Risinger, who planned that day’s bit of hell and did it himself with a broken hand, ran with me, telling me when to drop. At the end, I fell to a knee, heaving. (Get your fitness up to snuff with the must-have muscle advice in our FREE Personal Trainer newsletter!)
Are You Army Fit?

To stay in the Army, soldiers must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test twice a year. The test goes like this: Do as many pushups as possible in two minutes, rest for 10 minutes. Do as many situps as possible in two minutes, rest for 10 more minutes. Then, run two miles as fast as you can. Guys between the ages of 22 and 26 need 40 pushups, 50 situps, and a 16:36 run to score the bare minimum of 180. Pathfinders make it a point to regularly score 300.

When my sore ass hobbled across the finish line, I chalked up a measly 101.

The Pathfinders’ peak physical condition prepares them for battle in Afghanistan. But as I walked away from the field, I didn’t want to take off the uniform. As a journalist, my most dangerous enemies are passive verbs. How do these high intensity, battle-like workouts apply to me or anyone else not in the military?

For soldiers, PT is about staying alive. In October 2011, the Army physical training manual adopted the philosophy I experienced firsthand, called battle-focused PT. It’s based on building stamina, endurance, and strength and hones short-twitch muscle fibers for the explosiveness needed in a firefight. Achieving fitness before entering the combat zone is imperative. Lt. Col. Braman says those who don’t prep get in trouble fast, especially given Afghanistan’s terrain and elevation. (See if you have what it takes to handle The Army Workout.)

“It would be like growing up on the seashore, going to Colorado and saying, ‘let’s go to the top of Pike’s Peak tomorrow,’ doing no training for it, and all of a sudden saying for the next 9 months we’re going to walk up and down this mountain,” Braman says. “You’ll become a casualty.”

Explosive physical drills train soldiers to reach objectives regardless of exhaustion and bitter environments. Troops don’t have to run for miles in Afghanistan, but rather sprint for cover in triple-digit heat while wearing 100 pounds of equipment and body armor.

Braman’s companies, including the Pathfinders, came home almost a year ago. Soon, they will be eligible for deployment again. Once overseas, Risinger, Bures, and the others lock in for 9 months, launching tactical combat missions against enemy forces and rescuing downed aircraft. They tangle with the enemy constantly and rely on strong minds and bodies to get back inside the wire. “The enemy has a vote,” Braman says. “He gets to shoot his weapon and if he aims right, he can hit you. The enemy doesn’t care if you’re at your twelfth hour of [a mission] and you’re scheduled to go home and rest.”
What the Pathfinders Can Teach You

Most Americans aren’t menaced by IEDs and mortar-dotted hillsides. But sitting in an office chair 10 hours a day, gobbling fast food, then planting on a sofa with an Xbox can kill you too. Some PT basics can help you in your own war, just as they help the Pathfinders in theirs.

Most importantly, your mind determines what your body can do. In my 2-mile run, Capt. Christopher Gage, Pathfinder commander, kept pace with me. My shins ached and my feet dragged. About 100 meters from the finish, Gage said to pour in everything I had left and if I puked, I puked. I started running hard, grunting at first, and then yelling with strain. (Discover the cutting-edge fitness system that will help you build endurance and sculpt every muscle in your body: Speed Shred, the new follow-along DVD series from Men’s Health.)

I convinced myself for most of that run that I couldn’t do better when I obviously could, because I felt tired and hurt. Staff Sgt. Joshua Swink, who administered my test, says this is a common mental problem, fixed only by positive brain training.

“Your mind is always gonna say ‘I can’t do this.’ So you change the keywords,” he says. “Every time you tell your brain ‘I can’t,’ you replace it with ‘I can,’ or ‘I’m going to.’”

Gage says he remembers walking through southern Afghanistan’s grape fields amid stewing heat where the only option was to keep moving. That mindset applies to all the excuses you give for not working out during the week: you’re tired, you didn’t eat enough, or you don’t have the right shoes.

Beyond the mental game, what can battle-focused PT teach you?

Change up your workouts. Sprinting short distances at progressively faster speeds instead of your normal 3-mile jog works out those short-twitch muscle fibers, giving your workout regimen a wider range of effectiveness. Venturing to the beach this weekend? Try the shuttle run: Make three parallel lines in the sand, 5 yards apart. Straddle the middle line with your knees slightly bent and your elbows bent. Then, run to your right and reach down to touch the line with your right hand. Next, turn and run to the left and touch the far left line with your left hand. Return to the middle and continue until you’ve completed 4 runs to each. (Want more fat-incinerating plans? Try one of these 3 Tough Cardio Workouts.)

Improvise. Toss some bricks in a backpack and run up stairs, or turn an everyday activity like carrying groceries into a lifting and cardio workout. After all, you don’t always need expensive workout setups—or even have one hour to hit the gym in an already packed day. The Pathfinders scrounge most of their workout equipment from around the base and implement it into creative fitness routines.

Work out in groups. Pathfinders feed off each other’s energy and drive each other to be better. Get a small group of guys together and take turns planning weekly workouts. Sgt. 1st Class Bures describes how seeing his comrades succeed during a hard workout drives him to overcome weakness and exhaustion to push through it himself. Humor in a group is also a great motivator, he says. On his first parachute jump in airborne school, Bures told the Navy Seal in front of him that the Seal’s parachute had a hole in it. “He didn’t like it, but it made me feel better, and I was able to jump out of that plane,” he says.

Whether your battlefield is the Hindu Kush or the living room couch, better stamina, endurance, and strength enhance your quality of life. I reluctantly returned the uniform two weeks ago and since then, running is more fun: I sprint until I can’t pick my feet up anymore, growling, “I can.” I carry weights in my bag and knock out 40 pushups whenever I’m bored. I feel better, and look better. I’m still not a soldier, but next time I pass Fort Drum’s gates, I want to be as strong as one.

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