Table of Contents
PART 1 – HOW TO GET STARTED & THE FUNDAMENTALS
Let’s just say this and start here: rucking is simple to start. You can do it in your neighborhood with things you already have on hand, and it’s free. The military teaches the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach and Leonardo da Vinci said simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Somewhere between military stupid and da Vinci sophistication is pretty much good enough for any of us so here ya go.
- Get a rucksack (or a backpack)
- Put ~20 lbs in it.
- Stabilize the weight next to your back in the ruck
- Cinch your rucksack down so it sits higher on your back
- Then, just walk. Ruck 2 miles, shoot for 20 minutes/mile. Longer is OK. See how it feels.
THE RUCKSACK OR BACKPACK
You don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of new stuff as if this were some sort of gym membership to satisfy a New Year’s Resolution you wish you didn’t have to make. Start with one that you already have, maybe it’s in your attic or your garage, maybe you haven’t touched it since high school, or maybe you travel with it but that’s the only time you use it. Maybe you have a hiking bag, maybe you wish you had a nicer one. It doesn’t matter, just find something.
Twenty pounds is a great place to start. A case of beer, or water (8 lbs./gallon), or a bunch of books you have lying around. Canned goods are OK, though they might poke through a little bit into your back and shift around a little too much. Ideally, you want your weight to lie flat against the inside of your ruck.
You do not want the weight moving around all over the place while you’re rucking, so do what you can to make it as stable as possible. A barbell in the bottom of your ruck might sound like a good idea, but if you don’t wrap it in a towel or figure out how to prevent it from moving around too much, you’ll regret it as it’s poking you and push-pulling your ruck sideways with every step.
The first thing you’ll notice when you ruck up is the weight on your shoulders. Pretty straightforward. Cinch the ruck down, using both straps, so that it’s riding higher up on your back. To do that you’ll need to lean forward slightly at the hips and cinch the straps down. Don’t make them so tight that the straps are cutting off circulation. You just want it stable. Then stand up straight.
The ruck pulls your shoulders back, which is how they should be with proper posture, even without a rucksack on. It’s uncomfortable to roll your shoulders forward while rucking, like we all do to hunch over a keyboard or when we look down — so you don’t do that.
You haven’t started your ruck yet and this should not be crippling weight. If you think to yourself, that’s not so bad — that’s probably about right to start. Over time and distance, the weight makes itself known more and more to your entire body, all the way down to your feet. More on that later.
Before you step off, shift your shoulders around just a little bit to make sure the weight is stable enough. It’s OK if your ruck moves a little, you just don’t want the weight shifting around all over the place like a slinky inside the ruck. If you need to, depending on your setup you can stabilize it inside the ruck by adding some filler (a pillow or couch cushion) to keep the weight in place more.
Rewind to the day before, and the preferred technique was for you to call a friend up first, and ask them to join. Feeling just a little ridiculous walking around your neighborhood (or theirs) with a backpack full of books or whatever is a secret you can share forever. You might even smile about it in a year or ten when nobody else was rucking but you all were. How long you go for doesn’t matter (try two miles), nor does your pace (try 20 minutes/mile). And you don’t need to track yourself on any kind of app and you don’t have to worry about posting anything to social media. It doesn’t matter, this is just going for a walk, for now.
Or, maybe the person is your dog, and you didn’t even have to ask them, they always say yes to more activity. In my book, that’s a community of two and it’s a lot more rewarding for the both of you. Don’t worry about contacting a local gym or box, don’t worry about GORUCK Clubs. Starting somewhere is a lot more important than buying anything to get you ready or waiting until the scheduled stars align perfectly. We’ll get a lot more sophisticated in our advice on gear and performance, and tips and tricks in later pages. For now, the greatest tip we can offer is to start somewhere.
That’s the only place we can find out if we like something or not, if it’s worth our time and energy. There will be plenty of time to join a GORUCK Club or have others join you and your community. There’s always plenty of time once you’ve taken the first step.
When I was a kid I thought that if I was going to start something new I needed to conquer Rome in a day and that meant absolute, 24/7 commitment whether it was basketball, Zelda till I beat the game, collecting baseball cards till I had all of them, or working out. It was everything or nothing and anything short of everything had the potential to derail me to nothing. That’s not the approach we’re going for here. Your body needs to get used to the effects of a little extra weight on your back, then you need to back off and see how your body responds. You need to discover what works for you in terms of how you can incorporate rucking, and at how much weight, into your life’s routine. Not just to carve out time, but to incorporate rucking into time you already have. Ruck the dog, ruck to work, ruck at lunch, stuff like that. If we prescribed 100 miles your first week and said ‘go’, some of you masochists might jump on it, but few would sustain anything. As long as you can walk, you can ruck, and you can do it all the days of your life. That’s our version of sustained rucking. Love at first sight is great, but it’s also OK to ease into something you might want to do forever.
After your first 2-mile ruck, you might be sore. Or you might not. If not, the weight, distance, or pace wasn’t enough. Try 30 lbs next time. If you are sore, that’s OK. Your body will heal back stronger. Try it again in a couple days. Before you know it, 2 miles with 20 lbs won’t make you sore and you’ll want to either up the weight or increase the distance, or go faster. At some point, at some weight, it’s too much weight and you’ll be sore (again). 2 miles with 20 lbs is a far cry from 5 miles with 50 lbs, which anyone needs to work up to. And all of those are different than 50 miles with 20 lbs. There are so many variations on ‘rucking’ by virtue of the weight, so many ways to challenge yourself, part of our job here is to help you discover what those challenges might look like, and how you can conquer them.
Your head should be up and facing forward, eyes looking ahead (not at your feet) and you should ruck like you walk – one foot in front of the other. As you progress, here’s the most important barometer. If you feel a tendency to break form, to start contorting your body forward or backwards, either due to weight or time under the weight, you need to either decrease the weight or decrease the distance. If you’re rucking 50 lbs and it’s too much for now, drop some weight as opposed to breaking form to gut out the rest of your ruck.
If you feel yourself leaning – hunching your back forward, trying to round your lower back to give your shoulders and your hip flexors a break, you’re putting a lot more strain on your lower back muscles. The reason you’re doing this is because your upper body isn’t yet ready for that much weight, for however long you’ve gone at that point. Leaning forward lets you take some pressure off your shoulders, but you’re taking it out on your lower back. This is poor form and not recommended, kind of how when you go to the gym and you see someone on the bench press and they’re arching their back like it’s the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. They’re sacrificing form, and risking injury, to push a little more weight a little more distance. A noble cause, but getting injured isn’t cool in the gym or on the trails. The injury risk from rucking is significantly less with rucking than with lifting weights, but the fundamentals of form over reps still apply. It’s better to build up strength in your back and shoulders over time, which will allow you to up the weight accordingly.
If you start out with 20 lbs and just go for a walk, your natural tendency is to have good form. As you scale the weight, time, and distance and it becomes really challenging — that’s when you need to pay close attention to you form.
PACKING THE WEIGHT INTO YOUR RUCK
If you want to up your pace or start trying more weight, it becomes increasingly important to pack your ruck better.
That means you want the weight:
- Stable inside your ruck
- Close to your back
- Higher up on your back
- No greater than ⅓ of your bodyweight
The ALICE pack had a radio pouch hanging from the inside of the top of the ruck, next to your back. The PRC-119 (lovingly called a “prick 119”), a big heavy green MASH looking radio we had to carry with us on our patrols, fit in there perfectly. Putting it higher up and close to your back, and keeping it stable meant that the entire ruck would shift around less while you were moving. The farther away from your back any significant weight is, and the more it can shift around, the more it turns into a slinky on your back with every step. The ruck is moving one way, your body the other. Your lower back and your abs are competing to stabilize your core. Usually your lower back loses if put under enough strain. It’s preventable by stabilizing the weight. So, we learned that it was a lot better to put the Prick 119 next to our back and our bulkier bag of clothes that didn’t weight much at all farther away from our back to maximize stability.
The GORUCK Rucker took the same design principles as the ALICE Pack in terms of where you can put the weight. There’s a sleeve high up in the ruck to perfectly house a Ruck Plate. Having the weight higher up puts it closer to your shoulders and upper back, which are stronger muscles than your lower back and abs. And it’s above your center of gravity while you’re moving. If you drop the weight in a backpack and let it sink all the way down, the bottom of the ruck takes on more potential for friction against wherever it hits your lower back. This is more of a thing with more weight. If you have a Jansport or something — the cool kids in my high school thought it was cool so I had one, too — trying that with 20 lbs in the bottom, you should be fine. In terms of rucksack sizing, you want the bottom of your ruck to be above your belt line so that it won’t rub wrong against your belt loops or your pant line. More on that later.
Stable and close to your back keeps the weight over your center of gravity. As you move, that’s going to be the most efficient way. Here’s an example that might help clarify that, without a ruck. Grab a couple books from your bookshelf and hold them next to your chest and walk around your couch a few times. It’s really easy, the weight stays above your hips and keeping good posture is not a problem. It’s easy to stand up straight. Now, fully extend your arms out as far as they’ll go holding the same books and walk around your couch a few times. It’s more of a chore to keep good posture, you keep wanting to lean forward into the books because you’re having to work to stay upright. If the books are stable and over your center of gravity, you can do it for a lot longer with proper posture. It’s the same concept when the weight is in a rucksack on your back.
Having stable weight close to and high up on your back also reduces the friction against your back. More shifting around creates more friction of the ruck. This matters less if you’re going to go for twenty minutes. More if you’re gonna go a lot longer.
PART 2 – WEIGHT & GEAR
HOW MUCH WEIGHT AND HOW TO CARRY IT
“On the march, for training purposes, the optimum load, including clothing and personal belongings, is one-third of body weight. Above that figure the cost of carrying the load rises disproportionately to the actual increment of the weight.”
— Colonel S.L.A Marshall
The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation
HOW MUCH WEIGHT?
‘It depends’ is the only fair answer because it’s relative to what you’re used to and what your goals are. We say to start with 20 lbs, but what’s the maximum weight you should carry? There are a lot of Special Forces schools and missions that require you to carry really heavy rucks. 125 lbs or more. If you weight 200 lbs, that’s over 60% of your bodyweight. It’s hard for me to imagine an application outside of a military environment where you should ever carry that much weight. Actually, it’s hard for me to imagine a military operation where you should carry that much, either, but that’s a different story. Because ‘it depends’ on so many factors, you’re not going to find a definitive rule on how much weight you should carry, the max. Studies do exist, and we have seen (and felt) firsthand at all different kinds of weights on all different sizes of people. A ruck plus a sandbag nearing 100% of someone’s bodyweight is not an uncommon thing to see. Some can do that for a short period of time, but not for long. How long, though? There is no rule, no perfect doctrine, but if you’re not ready for it, if you haven’t taught your body to incrementally scale up the weight, you’re risking injury. Life is full of grey areas and this is one of them.
A good rule of thumb, though, is to not carry more than ⅓ of your bodyweight. This is part anecdotal and I prescribe to it. I weigh 200 lbs and you won’t see me with over 60 lbs in my ruck and usually I have 50 lbs. I can get all the workout I need with that much weight. If I want to push harder, I go faster. The other part of this guidance is based upon an official military doctrine that is routinely ignored. In any military offensive since forever, man has needed something of weight with him to gain a strategic advantage over his enemy: a spear, a sword, a gun, ammunition, etc. On those grounds, militaries past and present have spent the most significant amount of thought leadership on what a soldier should carry. Colonel S.L.A. Marshall published a book in 1950 called The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, which the United States Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s 2003 Combat Load Report cited as the reference of choice on the matter. Marshall details at great length how and why soldiers are required to carry too much weight, which was as relevant then as it is to today’s combat loads in excess of 100 lbs. His main contention is that officers in the headquarters elements are incentivized to prepare soldiers for every contingency, lest they ever have to face criticism for why the boys were without this or that item in time of need.
The ground truth to the soldier is a different matter, though. Would you rather storm the beaches on D-Day with the lightest load possible or would you rather have enough food on your back for a week and move a little slower? Speed is security in that situation, you can figure out the food situation later, if you survive.
You want less weight, the least possible to achieve your mission, of course.
Marshall contends that based on past studies on the loads carried by armies throughout history, the soldier should be limited to ⅓ of his bodyweight. This would allow them to avoid chronic fatigue over long time periods and allow for greater speed of movement and thought.
Even in Special Forces, where doctrine is routinely challenged, questioned, and evolved on the spot, there is also nothing to gain and much to lose by carrying too much weight. The goal is to win, not to win the award for the heaviest ruck. If you’re carrying 100 lbs and able to keep up, imagine how much faster you could be, as individuals and therefore as a team, if you each only had 50 lbs.
Based on our experience as Special Forces soldiers and the Cadre for thousands of events with over 200,000 participants, the “no greater than ⅓ of your bodyweight” passes the smell test. For the purposes of rucking as performance training, we’re less concerned with excessive fatigue unless there is a military application. In fact, at times absolute fatigue is the goal when training. However, you could assume that going over ⅓ of your bodyweight increases your chance of injury disproportionately and will cause you with greater frequency to break form, undoing some of the positive gains for your back and posture at lighter weights. If you’re looking for a greater challenge, you can always ruck faster — remember that one the next time you get the bad idea to ruck 100 lbs just to see what it feels like. Keep it at ⅓ of your bodyweight and go faster.
So yes, rules are meant to be broken, but the fundamentals still apply. No greater than ⅓ of your bodyweight is a great rule in your training. If you go above that, make sure you’re ready for it and that you’re going above it for the right reasons.
SCALING THE WEIGHT UP
Let’s go back to the beginning of your journey, before your body is accustomed to ⅓ of your bodyweight, which should take months or longer. Let’s say you’re at 20 or 30 lbs and wondering how to scale up. 10 lb increments is the best way to do it. If 20 wasn’t quite enough, scale up to 30. If you were at 30, try 40. Then see how the increased weight feels. Your body, all of it, simply has to get used to more weight. The feeling of the pressure on your shoulders, over time and distance you’ll notice that your hips, your hip flexors, your thighs and glutes, your feet — everything you use when walking, you’re asking more of those muscles and tendons. Rucking more will strengthen them, and that’s the goal.
And when you’re sore, as eventually you will be, back off on the weight and/or the distance next time. With enough variety you’ll start to see how your body responds. Once you’ve tried various combinations of weight and distance, you’ll get the hang of what you should be rucking and for how long, and when. If you have a little less time, go with heavier. If you have a little more time, maybe you ruck a little less weight and try to go faster. It’ll be up to you.
PACKING & TERRAIN
“The optimal distribution of the center of mass of load within the rucksack may depend on the type of terrain. On roads or well-graded paths, placement of heavy items high in the pack is preferable to lower energy cost, maintain a more upright body posture, and possibly reduce lower back problems. On uneven terrain, a more even distribution of the load within the pack may be more helpful to maintain stability.”
— Soldier Load Carriage (Military Medicine Vol. 169, January 2004)
Most military members are taught to keep the heavy weight as high as possible, regardless of terrain. Put your heavy radio next to your back, put clothing and other lightweight items at the bottom of your ruck. The point made in Soldier Load Carriage is dealing with the idea that when the weight is higher, your body has to support a weight that is farther away from the power center of movement, your hips. Your body can sway more with more movement, made more so with greater weight.
If the weight is at the bottom of your rucksack, it’s closer to the hips and will not rotate as much with the normal movement of your upper body, say, when you’re moving your arms as we all do when we walk. In our experience, most find it less comfortable at any weight in any terrain to pack the weight lower on your back — it’ll be up to you to see what works best for you.
At 20 or 30 lbs, this decision matters a lot less than when you start carrying weight approaching ⅓ of your bodyweight, or more.
FIT OF RUCKSACK – CIVILIAN VS MILITARY
The ALICE pack I went through the Q-Course with was the only military ruck I ever used with a hip belt attached. I became fond of it, but only once my Stockholm Syndrome kicked in. When I moved to Colorado Springs in 2006 to serve in 10th Special Forces Group, it was a huge mix of civilian hikers in the area, and us military folks. The cultures collide in terms of the thinking on how you’re supposed to carry weight. The civilian hiking (and hunting) sectors will tell you that you have to carry all the weight on your hips, which represent the greatest source of power in the body (true story). In the military, though, you have important things around your waist like loaded magazines, and you need to be able to get them, fast. You can’t use a hip belt because it would get in the way. So you learn to carry assault packs over the top of your body armor with only a shoulder carry. The stronger you are, the easier this is. Do it more, and you get plenty strong. By that point in my career, a 45 lbs rucksack felt like an extension of my body.
As for the hiking world’s idea that you should only carry all the weight on your hips – and that shoulder straps don’t matter at all, or rather, that they serve primarily as retention straps — the thing is that you also have large muscle groups in your upper back and shoulders, and over time engaging them will spare your hips some of the energy expenditure, thereby allowing you to go farther, more efficiently. In essence, you can do both, rotating between the muscle groups and the exact angles where the pack, or ruck rests. Slight adjustments – cinching the ruck down a little more, then a little less, will change how it feels on your back. Your desire to bear weight on your shoulders will depend, to a large degree, on how the shoulder straps feel. In the design of GORUCK rucksacks, our aim was to ensure the best possible feeling while doing a shoulder carry, but also allow the user to engage a (removable) padded hip belt when necessary.
HOW TO SIZE A RUCKSACK
THE BELT TEST
If you want to do a shoulder carry, which is significantly more accessible and a lot more common in our daily lives, insert the belt test. You want the weight in your rucksack above your belt line and preferably you want the bottom of the rucksack above it, too. If the bottom isn’t above the belt, then you’ll introduce the potential for friction along your belt line. This friction is magnified if the heaviest items in your ruck are at the bottom, which is another reason why you want them toward the top. As the ruck shifts around, even slightly, it’ll compete with your pants and underwear (if you don’t go commando, that is). The more surfaces you have competing with each other, the more friction — and friction is not your friend when your skin is on the line. Raising the weight is an easy fix for this.
If you integrate a padded hip belt onto a GORUCK rucksack, or if you choose a hiker’s pack, the hip belt needs to go around your hips, not your stomach. This sounds obvious, but somehow it’s often missed. Its goal is to transfer the load from your shoulders to your hips. Make sure it’s snug and that it doesn’t move around too much (partially controlled by having a stable loadout), especially if you have pants and a belt on.
Of note, for travelers or people who take a backpack or rucksack to work, this friction rub is not a significant risk unless you really load the weight in the bottom and move a lot of miles. GORUCK’s 40L GR2, for instance, is my favorite ruck we build. It lands on top of my belt loops and I’ve traveled with it all over the world (without a padded hip belt) and never had one problem with it and friction on my waistline — because the weight never got heavy enough and because I pack the heaviest items as high in the ruck as possible.
PADDED HIP BELTS
When fully engaged, if you loosen your shoulder straps so much that ~zero weight is on them, the ruck should still stay on your hips. It doesn’t fall to the ground. Your shoulder straps, in essence, turn into retention straps, and their job is to keep the ruck, or pack, close to your body while you move, which keeps your posture as it should be. As this is the preferred technique in the hiking crowd, you’ll find a lot of hiking packs with skinny shoulder straps with minimal padding, because they’re not meant to bear weight.
In my experience, if I’m going for a long, heavy ruck then I alternate between my hip belt and a shoulder carry, with heavily padded shoulder straps. If it’s a short ruck or a light one, I don’t use a hip belt because I don’t love the bulk.
I never used them in the military. I found that they restricted my breathing while rucking, and then when I mounted a pistol onto the top of my chest rig, the last thing I wanted was a sternum strap getting in the way.
But I had always seen them on hiking packs, and backpacks of all types. Only once I got out of the military (not wearing a pistol on my chest), did I start using them. But even now, I use them infrequently. Same with Padded Hip Belts. I’m comfortable with a shoulder carry at anything up to 50 lbs. But over the long haul, call it 10 miles or sometimes 20, it’s nice to give my shoulders and back a little break, even if for a few minutes here and there. If I connect my sternum strap, it moves the rucksack weight in toward the center of my chest, and engaging the padded hip belt moves the weight down. Both increase the blood flow to my arms and shoulders, as they take some of the load off of them.
Alternating over time and distance is the way to go. If you’re new to rucking, they’re nice options to have because they might really work well for you.
Military issued uniforms are produced by the lowest bidder. How that works is that the Department of Defense puts out its requirements and whoever comes back with the lowest price that can meet those requirements gets the contract. The result, as you might imagine, is that you get what you pay for.
Uniform tops are made of 100% cotton ripstop, the t-shirts you wear underneath are 100% cotton, the brown underwear they issued was 100% cotton. The boots weigh two pounds or more each, and the field jacket they issued us in Basic Training was fine, unless it rained. Which it often did, when you wanted it to least. The socks were a little better because they blended some wool in with the cotton. Trench foot has lost a lot of wars for a lot of generals over the millenia, so that’s worth an extra buck a unit or whatever.
In sum, it’s almost a list of everything you should not wear, and when I got into the Special Forces training pipeline they issued us a few nicer pieces, synthetics and waterproof stuff (minus breathability). And we could buy our own socks and our own T’s and our own underwear, and we could customize our boots. The pieces of apparel closest to the skin were of vital importance when you’re facing extremes of wet and cold and moving and you’re not really able to change clothes very often or at all for days on end. And because you’re wearing your boots every step you take for lots of miles, you have every incentive to make sure they’re perfect for the job at hand, too.
Training in worse gear is not the world’s worst strategy because it makes you appreciate the better stuff. In Special Forces, when training or on missions, you can wear pretty much whatever you want to get the job done. You want stuff that’s tough, that performs. When you’re hot you want to cool down quickly and when you’re cold you want to get warmer but because you’ll be sweating, you need something that will wick the moisture away from your skin so you don’t freeze.
‘Cotton’s rotten’ is a common phrase you’ll hear from the mountain climbing hippies and the Green Berets in Colorado Springs, from performance athletes of all kinds. What we’re all in agreement about is the fact that cotton absorbs water and does not dry fast enough — think bath towels and blue jeans, neither of which is praised for its ability to dry. The world’s best sheets are made of cotton and it’s great for sweatshirts you’re wearing next to a fire on a clear night, but it’s not ideal for rucking or any performance activity for that matter. You want clothing that dries fast, that wicks moisture away, that keeps you cool when you’re hot and warm when you’re cool. It’s through that performance lens that I pass all the recommendations below.
APPAREL – TOPS
That Army issued iconic brown 100% cotton t-shirt is terrible for doing Army stuff. When you sweat, it soaks it up and it stays wet. You move, it’s wet. You stop, it’s wet. It seems to never dry. Brown T’s were part of the uniform so in Basic Training we all had to wear ours underneath our uniform tops. A t-shirt’s importance cannot be understated because it’s right next to your skin and you don’t want anything wet to be next to your skin for too long. The next layer of our uniform was the BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) top made of 100% cotton ripstop fabric. It was thick, and tough, and served its purpose in terms of not failing. It was also, though, just one more layer of cotton that would get wet and stay wet. Here’s an example of how that would matter.
If you’re rucking all night, maybe it’s chilly outside, call it 45 degrees Fahrenheit. With a heavy ruck on your back, you’ll stay plenty warm when you’re on the move. But let’s say the mission calls for you to do a reconnaissance of a building and its activities for a period of five hours. When you get to your spot and you stop after all that rucking, you’ll start sweating, and you’ll keep sweating while you’re not moving anymore. Your cotton t-shirt will absorb all the sweat, then it’ll freeze (or close to it), and in no time your shirt has the opposite effect of keeping you warm, it’s actually sucking the life out of you, so you search for your woobie blanket or something else to trap whatever heat you have in. Nobody wants to have to change their clothing in that situation, it’s a distraction and it’s loud. Cotton means you might have to, or really want to anyway.
So, no cotton.
In the Q-Course, we were allowed to wear brown T’s that were polyester and wicked moisture away, so the second we had the freedom to switch to those, we did and it was a game changer. Once we started wearing body armor, and we deployed to the Middle East, SF guys were all modifying their uniforms at local sew shops in country. We would have the base of the uniform top, where the chest is, removed and replaced with a wicking fabric, and we kept the ripstop cotton sleeves in place with a bunch of extra pockets sewn on. The body armor, with a ruck on your back, caused a lot of sweating and our goals were to reduce the swamp of sweat on our shirts. We wore no additional t-shirt underneath and it worked and over time that became the standard issue uniform for those kinds of deployments.
Performance apparel wicks away sweat and moisture from your skin. No matter how many layers you have on, you want your baselayer to dry faster and stay dryer longer, because it has the same effect on you. Cotton’s rotten, it retains water which can lead to discomfort and irritation. Look for a tougher type of performance apparel. If you have any issues with your shirt riding up on your back, which can happen as you shift and adjust your rucksack, try tucking it into your pants, or shorts. It’s an old school technique, and it works.
We’ve been making Tri-Blend (50% polyester, 25% cotton, and 25% Rayon) T-shirts since forever. They’re soft, way softer than 100% cotton, and feel great next to your skin. I wear them all the time when I’m rucking, in America. Yes, I know cotton’s rotten, but here’s the deal. When it’s a short ruck, maybe an hour or two, it’s not a big deal no matter how much I sweat. And in Florida in the summertime, that’s usually a lot. When I get home, I take my tri-blend off and that’s that. I don’t really care how long it takes it to dry. If you’re gonna work out for an hour and then change clothes, it matters less. If your shirt gets wet and stays wet for hours and hours and you can’t change it, you might see some pruning of your skin, it’s the same concept as when you stayed in the bath too long as a kid. That’s not what you want to happen on your back or your chest, and it makes it harder to regulate your temperature as well.
If I’m going to pack a shirt for a longer event like a GORUCK Challenge, or for a long hike, I wear performance shirts. No matter the temperature, that means 0% cotton so I leave my tri-blends at home.
Sweat happens when you’re under a ruck, so you’ll want performance fabrics. Because cotton absorbs water and does not dry fast at all In the development of the GORUCK line of apparel, we infuse a lot of fabrics with Nylon, or make it the primary fabric. It’s a tough fabric that reduces pilling, doesn’t keep wrinkles, and it dries lightning fast.
Nylon is also the same durable fabric used to make the USA flag Neil Armstrong planted on the moon. That’s a bonus.
Your second later should be a warming layer, like a fleece. It’s better to have more layers than one big jacket because then you have more options to take one off or put one more on. Same as with a baselayer, cotton is not recommended. Try a half-zip or a grid fleece, something comfortable. The good news about having a ruck on your back is that you can easily carry an extra layer.
This second layer will come in contact with your skin more, so something that feels better, or has a “good hand” as they say in the apparel industry, is the preferred technique. It’ll be more comfortable and softer on your arms and neck line, while still able to wick moisture away.
HOW MANY LAYERS?
If you’re a little cold when you’re just about to start rucking, that’s about right. You’ll heat up on the move. If you have a jacket on, a front zipper comes in handy if you start to overheat. Stay away from wool tops unless you plan to use them as a baselayer that will not come in direct contact with the rucksack – they lack the durability you’ll want. As a rule of thumb, wear one less layer than you want, at the start of your ruck. With good reason the guys used to call the rucksack on your back a microwave. It’s not uncommon to see someone rucking with a t-shirt and gloves on, maybe even a scarf, too, when it’s rather chilly out (in the 40’s). Keep moving and you won’t have a problem warming up. If you have too many layers on with a lot of weight on your back, that microwave really starts cooking.
WINDBREAKERS AND WATERPROOF JACKETS
Windbreakers are a great outer layer to have and probably the most important. They help a lot with insulation in any weather, hot or cold, and they dry really fast. At the GORUCK Challenge, we require them. Even in warm environments it’s possible to get hypothermia. Say you’re wearing a t-shirt and you’re soaking wet and your pace slows down. Then the wind picks up. You might start getting cold, fast. A windbreaker can help prevent that. Waterproof, even “waterproof breathable” jackets, are better in colder environments. Keeping all the water out means that it’s really good, even better than a windbreaker, at keeping the heat in, too. And the water out. The best ones have taped seams, which means that someone glues tape along the seams in the interior of the jacket. Anytime a sewing needle punches holes in two pieces of fabric to bind them together, that provides water an opportunity to find its way in. Most windbreakers are treated with a DWR coat which makes them weather resistant, but they’re not waterproof per se because they’re not taped. Waterproof jackets are sewn together, and then taped. It’s a lot more labor which is why they cost a lot more. Here’s the downside. When it’s really hot out and you’re wearing a waterproof jacket, it will trap the heat around your body which will cause you to sweat more. Then it feels like you’re in a steam bath, you sweat and it sort of sticks to the interior of the jacket. Your arms sweat some more and keep sweating, but the rain stays out better. It’s up to you, as you regulate your body’s temperature, what the situation calls for.
When in doubt, if it’s going to be really cold, bring a waterproof jacket. If it’s warmer weather, go with a windbreaker.
In a world of apparel sold on features by people sitting behind desks in marketing departments, pit-zips catch people’s attention: “Ooh I might want that” they hope we say. But 99.99% of the time you don’t want them and they’re there, bulky and uncomfortable and you’re rubbing against them every time you move your arms. If you’re wearing just a t-shirt underneath, you might see some irritation if your jacket has pit-zips. My advice is never buy a jacket with pit-zips. If you’re starting to heat up, just put the main zipper down. It’s an old school technique, and it works.
SHEMAGH (SPECIAL FORCES SCARF)
A shemagh is ideal for layering and trapping warmth around your neck.
Nobody likes being cold. So before a ruck, in the warmth of our houses, we all want to put on too many layers. Then you start moving and you’re sweating, so you stop to take a layer off and then somehow you’re cold again. Wearing a shemagh, which have been greatly popularized by Special Forces guys in the post 9/11 world, solve this problem. You can start a cold weather ruck with one less layer, then wrap your neck to keep your body heat from escaping. As you move, you can always adjust it to trap more or less heat. You can even take it off entirely and put it in one of your pockets. Versatility is the key because it’s always a hassle to stop and take layers off or put more layers on. If you’re more uncomfortable, you’re more motivated to do so, but nobody enjoys that process.
A shemagh is a great tool to help you regulate your temperature on the move.
APPAREL – BOTTOMS
Lightweight, performance bottoms that dry quickly are ideal. Same as with tops, cotton will retain water and if your pants stay wet, it makes any friction that develops more uncomfortable.
The bottoms we wore were the same material as the uniform tops: 100% cotton ripstop. They worked OK, but it was relatively common to blow the crotch out (cotton has no stretch) and as with the tops, once they got wet they stayed wet. Because when you were on the move you had to move your legs a lot and because you didn’t really strap anything like a rucksack onto your pants, these dried out a lot faster than the tops would. What you’re seeing now is that uniform bottoms, the best ones, are blending other fabrics like nylon into the pants, and they’re creating some stretch for greater freedom of movement. It’s only a matter of time until they’re completely synthetic.
Zip-off pants are not recommended, the bulk of the zipper around your knee as you’re moving can cause irritation, and you almost never need to actually zip them off. But everywhere you go, you have that lazy, bulky zipper rubbing your leg with every step.
Cargo pockets — Over time and distance, whatever you have in there will rub against the side of your leg. If you have anything abrasive in there, it will result in a lot of discomfort. Hats and gloves — you’ll be fine. In my training, I would stuff my cargo pockets with some MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) packages and my map cases. Over time, the friction was enough to shear the hairs off my legs, and it took years and years for it to grow back. I lost a lot of things, like leg hairs and pride, in becoming a Green Beret. It’s OK, you can laugh, I am. GORUCK’s Challenge Pants intentionally offer less volume than those enormous built out cargo pockets. It’s so that you stay streamlined on the move, and so you keep your leg hair, assuming you have any to begin with.
THE VASELINE TRICK TO COMBAT MONKEY BUTT
Though rucking is a low-risk of injury kind of activity, chafing between your upper thighs is a real thing that can lead to a lot of discomfort, affectionately called monkey butt. There are a couple ways to combat this, the first is to wear Ranger Panties (thin, short nylon shorts) underneath your pants, serving as a nylon underwear to prevent your legs from rubbing against each other. A pair of compression bottoms can work, too. However, for really, really long movements this might not be enough. To avoid monkey butt, you should lube up your “hotspots” with Vaseline or something similar before you start your ruck. Put some at the top of your ass crack, too. When you sweat it will work like oil in an engine to make sure things are going smoothly. Whether you’re wearing Ranger Panties, underwear, or not.
There, I said it.
UNDERWEAR — GOING COMMANDO TO PREVENT CROTCH ROT
“Going Commando” is the preferred technique Army guys and grunts the world over because when you have to stay in one pair of pants for days on end and you’re gonna sweat and it might rain and you have rivers to cross, there’s no way your underwear can ever get and stay dry. Especially those brown cotton pairs they issue you — we could save a lot of taxpayer money if we simply abolished them. If your underwear stays wet, eventually you’ll get crotch rot, the presence of wet underwear for too long (days, not hours) guarantees it. To avoid it, go commando and never sleep in wet underwear.
If underwear is your thing, make sure it’s performance underwear that will dry as fast as possible. The only time I wore performance underwear in my training was when it was really, really cold out.
PANTS VS. SHORTS, SHORT SLEEVES VS. LONG SLEEVES, COVERED VS SUNSCREEN
Shorts – ruck ‘em if you got ‘em. Especially if you’re not going to be coming into contact with shrubs or vines or anything like that, in which case you probably want to wear pants. One tip is that if you’re going to carry your phone, put it in a pocket that won’t move around a lot – really loose basketball style shorts are not ideal. And same as with pants, cotton is rotten. Choose something like Simple Shorts that will dry quickly.
There are some trade-offs to wearing shorts, or short sleeves, for that matter. In the West, in America we typically think in terms of wearing less when it’s hot to stay cool, keeping our skin exposed, and using sunscreen when we must. In the military, you’re taught by default to cover every part of your body as much as possible, all the time. The hottest day in Iraq when I was there was 148 degrees Fahrenheit. It feels like you’re in a sauna with an industrial strength fan blowing fire on you wherever you go. You want to talk about oppressive heat, that’s it. In terms of clothing, though, when we would go out on missions even in that heat, we wore pants, tops with long sleeves, even gloves to keep our hands protected from the elements. In the humvee, there was a small vent in the back seat where I sat, half the size of a deck of cards, and some of the time when it wasn’t broken, A/C blew out of it. I would turn my collar down just a little and shift my body around ever so slightly so I could feel it blow the faintest amount of air on my sweaty neck. It wasn’t cold air like we expect in America, but it was a million times better than nothing and I thought that’s what heaven felt like.
Our clothing certainly made us hotter in the humvee, and it’s not the tactical reasons for our long sleeves and gloves that I want to stress, it’s the idea that when you go outside in a Florida summer and it’s 100 degrees, you can wear a ballcap over your head and that will help a lot to keep the sun and the heat off your face. It’s the same concept with apparel, except you have far greater selection than we had in the military. You can wear really thin, tough stuff that will keep the sun off and the elements away. If you wear long sleeves, say it’s a hoodie, and you’re on the move, I recommend you not wear a t-shirt underneath. One layer is better than two if you want to stay dry for longer, which you do.
Ultimately, don’t overthink it. If it’s really hot out, figure out a way to stay cool. If you’re going to be crawling around on the ground or passing through thorn bushes, cover your skin up with something that won’t cause you to overheat. If you are overheating, find some water and jump in it. Hopefully whatever you’re wearing more than your birthday costume will dry quickly.
BOOTS & SOCKS
“For each kilogram added to the foot, the increase in energy expenditure is 7% to 10%. This suggests that footwear should be as light as possible, compatible with durability requirements.”
— Soldier Load Carriage (Military Medicine Vol. 169, January 2004)
We were required to wear boots, and for good reason. They’re stable and prevent injuries better than running shoes, which offer no ankle and no lateral support. The Army issued us very heavy, very clunky boots that would last forever, at least in part because nobody wore them. We all went out and bought jungle boots, which were and still are the most beloved boots in Special Forces. They were developed for the jungles of Vietnam where your feet would constantly be wet and you wanted to drain the water as fast as possible. Right outside Fort Bragg, we all got the soles customized with something more like a sneaker sole because we wanted to do any and everything we could to reduce the weight.
In terms of sizing, I had always found that over the duration of training – whether running, rucking, or playing sports, my feet would swell up a bit. This can also introduce new areas for hotspots as a larger foot will rub the shoe differently. While rucking, my toes had an extra tendency to swell. If you’re rucking downhill, your foot shifts forward, jamming your toes into the front of the boot, if your boot was too small. So it was important to choose a boot with a large toe box, and size up ½ a size, or even a full size (depending on the fit) to allow for my feet to swell a little and go downhill comfortably, and at times to wear thicker or thinner socks depending on the weather and my training. I lost a lot of toenails because my feet jammed into the front of my boots on uneven terrain over miles and miles — eventually, I figured out what boots in what size worked best for me.
MACV-1 JUNGLE RUCKING BOOTS
When we developed our MACV-1 Jungle Rucking Boots, our goal was to modernize the old-school though heavy jungle boots while maintaining toughness and performance standards expected by Special Forces soldiers. And no matter what, they had to be as light as possible and still durable enough to face all the extremes of human performance. This process took our team over four years.
Our MACV-1’s weigh under 16 oz, are built for traveling, training, and rucking. They drain water and expel sweat, moisture, and any kind of water that finds its way inside — so that means that they stay lightweight, too. Promising you one thing in a shoe store with tags still on is a lot different than what you expect that boot to do five hundred miles later when you’re rucking through northern Vietnam, along the Chinese border.
When you’re choosing boots, or shoes, if you plan on rucking or moving around at all, never wear waterproof boots. Your feet need to breathe, especially while moving. Waterproof boots act as a microwave for your feet after they’re shrink wrapped in plastic – so your feet sweat more and the waterproof boots trap it in. If rainwater, river water, or water from an alley puddle get in from the top, there’s nowhere for it to go. So it sits there like a waterweight swamp for your foot to slosh around in. This will not work out well for you – you’ll get pruned skin and eventually blisters that will form and then rip off, exposing raw, red skin – it’s everything bad you don’t want. Waterproof boots are great if you’re moving very little and needing a lot of warmth – otherwise, stay away. In Rich’s words, “waterproof boots are good if you wanna kick your feet up around a campfire that you drove to, or if you’re a prison guard in Siberia. Otherwise, stick to MACV-1, it adapts to whatever environment you find yourself in.”
Army guys make very little money and yet we’ll spend anything for the best socks. $20/pair, whatever. You want something that won’t retain water, or make you sweat too much, and they have to be comfortable.
You also don’t want sweaty saltwater bloody feet, so never wear waterproof socks. And I mean never, while rucking. I did one of my land navigation iterations in the Special Forces Qualification Course with waterproof socks, thinking they could solve all my problems for me — my feet were pretty beat up by then. When I pulled my blood soaked feet out of my boots at the end of the day, my feet were way worse than when they started, and missing an entire layer of white, pruned skin on the bottom. I got what I deserved on that one, though. Never wear waterproof socks, they’re like a microwave for your feet as you move.
Cotton is only slightly better because you want your socks to dry out on the move. Your feet are creating heat, through friction, with every step. More weight, moving faster = more friction. You can also use this to your advantage — with every step you’re heating up your socks through friction, which dries them. You’re also sweating. If your feet stay wet, eventually they’ll prune up like your kid’s feet in the bath if you leave them in too long. White pruning means your skin is weaker and more susceptible to coming off entirely, which is what happened to me when I wore waterproof socks and I lost the bottom layer of my skin.
You want wool socks, preferably 100% merino wool. Merino wool costs more and it’s naturally wicking and warm when your feet are cold and they breathe when your feet are sweating. Because they shed moisture, they reduce the bad friction and maximize the friction that will dry them out. Some blends claim greater durability if they mix the merino wool with a synthetic — but I got plenty of durability out of my socks, and always found the 100% merino wool versions to be the most comfortable.
SIZING YOUR SOCKS
Do not wear socks that are too big — and of note, mine always had a tendency to stretch over time. If additional rolls develop where they bunch up and there’s too much fabric, and you’re rucking on them, they’ll cause a lot of friction. It’s a weird, new friction your feet are not used to. Especially painful is when you have a roll that develops underneath your arch. It feels like you’re stepping on a bump with every step (because you are). First comes the hotspot, then the blister.
Quick tip: if your boots and socks are soaking wet, stop your ruck, take your socks off and ring them out as hard as you can. Do the same with your boot inserts, or at least just squeeze them. This will allow the friction of movement to help dry them a lot faster.
The more padding your shoes or boots have, the longer it will take them to dry, all other things equal. So, whether you’re traveling or training or rucking, regardless of how your boots got wet you want them to dry fast.
Let’s assume an ideal situation first. You step in a puddle or a swamp on your way home, and you have all the time in the world to dry them when you get there. First thing you should do it give them a freshwater rinse with a little soap. Remove the laces if you want an A for effort, and definitely remove the insert and keep it separated until they’re both bone dry. Make sure you completely rinse the soap out before you set them out to dry.
Then, set them out in the sun and give them all the time they need. Flip them upside down for a while on a fence post and let all the excess water from the interior of the boots drain out (or get a towel to speed this process up). What you’ll find is that the exterior of the boots or shoes will dry a lot faster than the interior, especially if your interior has a lot of spacer mesh style padding. That stuff sponges water and it takes a while to dry. To speed that process up, crumple up some newspaper and put it inside your shoes while they’re drying. Don’t crumple it up too tightly because the oxygen still needs to circulate inside the shoes while they’re drying. Trade the newspaper (or paper towels) out periodically.
Now, let’s talk about a less than ideal situation. Wet boots are really not fun, and if you have to get back to rucking soon, you might want to get more creative to speed that process up. When I was at Fort Bragg, we’d finish up one day and then have a few hours to go get some food and prep for that nights iteration. You were pretty much guaranteed to get your boots wet at some point, but starting out the iteration with wet boots is really demoralizing and I tried to avoid it at all costs. I had an SUV with rails on top, so I would tie them down up there and then go drive around Fayetteville. The wind worked its magic and they dried in no time. You could hang them out of your window no matter your car, or you could get a hair dryer and go to town. There are lots of ways to speed things up when you have to. Be creative.
Regardless of whether you have shoes or boots, or how they’re constructed, do not use a machine dryer to dry them. The glue that binds some portions of the upper to the lower sections is susceptible to melting, which you don’t want to happen to yours.
One more tip: don’t put them too close to the fire and then fall asleep. You might wake up with melted boots that are now little more than worthless. In that case, wet boots would have been better.
DRY IS CLEAN – APPAREL AND FOOTWEAR
When you’re in the field or on a long trek or when you just don’t have enough time to clean everything perfect, dry is clean. Moisture is where bacteria grows and over time it’s bad for both your equipment and your body. The sun is your friend, it kills the moisture and a lot of associated bacteria. So use it. When I was driving around town with my shoes tied to the top rack of my truck to dry them out, I also had a plan for my inserts and my t-shirts. I didn’t always have time to go to the laundromat, so when I stopped I would just put my wet clothes on the hood of my truck, and on the windshield. You can imagine me at Outback Steakhouse some afternoon, hours before I had to be back on base. I’m eating my steak and my baked potato and drinking my coffee and outside in the parking lot I have boots tied down to the top rack of my truck and I have a full set of uniforms on the hood of my car and a bunch of T’s and boot inserts under the windshield wipers so they wouldn’t fly away. They didn’t weigh enough to stay put when they were bone dry. It was probably quite a site, but I didn’t care because it worked.
Dry is clean and sometimes it’s the little things in life that make all the difference to your morale.
THE PANTYHOSE TRICK
THE SOCK SYSTEM TO TOUGHEN UP YOUR FEET THROUGH BLISTER PREVENTION AND HOTSPOT IDENTIFICATION WITH A PANTYHOSE – YES, PANTYHOSE
Your foot is unique and no matter what shoe or boot you select, over time you’ll find that there are a few areas where your foot rubs uncomfortably. This friction develops hotspots and they’re precursors to blisters. Basically, a hotspot is where the friction is wearing your skin down, heating it up and making it red. Over time, unless you change something, a blister is inevitable.
Note on footwear: no matter how great your boots or shoes fit or how comfortable they are, hotspots are likely to occur. Your goal will be to toughen your feet up so that this does not turn into a blister. The thickness of your socks can help prevent a blister from coming.
So, you’re out rucking and you feel discomfort aka a hotspot on your heel. If you increase the thickness of your socks – that means you stop and put a second pair of socks on – it will allow you to keep rucking but you’ll have a greater barrier to the friction. The downside is that your feet might sweat more, but that will take time to really impact the hotspot. Don’t start out with two pairs of socks because you’ll sweat more from the get-go, and won’t figure out where the hotspots are.
The second pair of socks will also cause you to fill more of your boots. Depending on how they fit, this might not be ideal, but if your boots have a little extra room it should work out OK for you.
Over time, if you can avoid blisters, you’ll develop harder skin, thin callouses, in those important areas where you get hotspots. This is the goal. Think of a callous as a thin layer of armor guarding against the harmful effects of friction.
In your training, to harden your feet up, try this. Start out with a normal pair of merino wool socks. When you feel a hotspot, add a second pair, put a little bacitracin (Neosporin) over the top of the hotspot, and keep rucking. That should stop the hotspot from getting worse, at least for a while. Stop rucking before you develop blisters.
Once your feet get tougher – you’ll know because you don’t get hotspots as easily or at all anymore – start rucking with really, really thin socks. Or even pantyhose – yes, pantyhose. It was a trick many of us used to train up for Special Forces training on the tank trails of Fort Bragg. If your feet are really tough, hotspots will take a while to develop. When they do, put your first pair of socks on and continue your ruck without getting blisters. If they don’t develop, hold what you got.
The pantyhose trick was something that some of the guys continued, all the time. They would use pantyhose as a sort of “base layer” sock, and put a merino wool sock over the top of them – this was how they would start their rucking movements. This helps move some of the sweat away from the foot, faster, they said. Then the merino wool sock would absorb and begin wicking away the moisture. The pantyhose (or similar thin, nylon sock) can also serve to keep debris and sand away from your feet, which can help in some situations.
To make it more challenging for your feet, submerge them at the beginning of your ruck. Do this only once your feet are really acclimatized to rucking, your choice of footwear, and the friction they’ll face.
The downside of two pairs of socks is that it introduces a second layer that creates more friction as it’s now moving around, sometimes against the first layer of socks and against the insoles as you’re already creating a lot of friction. And it’s of course hotter to have two layers of socks than just one, which can cause more sweating. I never loved the pantyhose trick as a permanent solution — it almost felt like my feet had less traction, like they might slip inside the boot. Over a really long endurance event or when performance has to be optimal, I taught my feet (the hard way) to thrive with one pair of socks. But using more pairs in training is a great method to harden your feet up. And if you happen to love having two pairs when it counts, then do it.
THE BOOTS AND SOCKS SIZING THING IS COUNTERINTUITIVE: You want socks that are a half size smaller and boots that have a little extra room in the toes, call it a half size bigger than they would be if they were snug. The socks stay tight on your feet and the boots let your toes breathe and the extra space means you won’t jam your toes into the front of them when you’re going downhill. It’s counterintuitive in so many ways, but it works great.
BLISTERS AND POWDER AND FOOT CARE
For a while, I had this great idea that the more foot powder, the better. If I really caked it inside my boots, it would stop the sweating and then that would reduce the blisters. After one of my training land navigation iterations, a Cadre did a foot check and saw all the powder, by then soaking wet and caked up in my sock as I peeled them off. He took mercy and gave me a footcare class on the spot. As it turns out it this was Sergeant First Class Summers, who had been on Special Forces ODA 595 on the invasion into Afghanistan, and this lesson is basically his, verbatim.
Powder was to be used very sparingly, if at all. Caking powder inside your boots is a good way to create hotspots and alter how you walk, which is never the goal. If you put a clump of powder under your arch or anywhere in there, you’re going to walk differently. That’s not what you want. Here’s what powder’s good for – when you’re done, take your boots and socks off, wipe them down and dust them lightly with powder as you air them out, it helps them dry faster. When it’s time to go again, dust 99% of the visible powder off, with your hand. Leaving a really thin layer of powder on them is just fine, but not in excess. There’s nothing wrong with your feet sweating, it’s how they regulate themselves. You just have to be smart about letting them do it.
As for blisters, Band-aids by themselves will come off in no time, then you’ve got a foreign object inside your socks – no good. You can use moleskin and cut it out just right to shield the blister from the friction of your boot – but these will likely come off, too. Especially if you apply it when your feet are sweating. If you put 100 mph tape (industrial military grade tape) over the top, less so. But if you don’t have to use moleskin, don’t. It’s a foreign object that you’re putting inside your boot, on top of your skin. It’s bulky and bulk is bad — it changes the whole relationship of your foot inside the boot, which you want to stay as pure as possible.
If you have a blister, it’s gonna pop if you have to keep moving, so you might as well just pop it like a professional — at the bottom of the blister that’s closest to the ground, with a needle. It’ll then continue to drain while you move. If you don’t want to use moleskin, put some neosporin over the top of it and then completely surround that neosporin with 100 mph tape. It’s the only stuff that won’t come off across all your movements. Because of the neosporin, the tape won’t rip your skin off (if you do it right). After every iteration you need to remove the tape so you let it breathe, and whenever you can have your boots off, take them off. The air will dry your feet out and keeping them as dry as possible whenever possible will really reduce the time it takes them to heal.
Other guys sprayed their feet with antiperspirant, and swore by it. I guess if topically your feet don’t dislike this, it might be OK. The Cadre told us not to do this – they said sweating was a good thing to regulate your body temperature, and they didn’t even allow us to bring sticks of anti-perspirant at all (it was a forbidden item) – so I didn’t. Try at your own risk. But whatever you do, take care of your feet, and take care of them often.
INGROWN TOENAIL PREVENTION
I had a problem with ingrown toenails my whole life. When my toes jammed into the front of my shoes playing tennis or basketball or on a downhill running or rucking, over time I was certain to get an ingrown toenail, assuming I didn’t lose the nail altogether. I even had two cut out while I was in Iraq. It was not fun at all, but as necessity is the mother of invention, I figured out the only best way to ensure I’d never get one ever again.
When I start to feel the nail growing into the side of my cuticle, creating that discomfort many of us know all too well, I rip a small piece of cotton off the end of a cotton swab and jam it down into the corner of my nail with the blunt edge of my nail clippers, and I make sure the cotton wraps around the nail itself between it and the cuticle, as far down to its base as I can push it. Make sure you can see the cotton separate the nail from the cuticle and you’ll be good. The nail will change its growth trajectory to be up and out instead of down and into your cuticle, and that makes all the difference. You want to leave it in there for a couple days – trade it out for a fresh one if it gets funky. I haven’t had an ingrown toenail in a decade, which has saved me several doctor’s visits, some blood and other less pleasant fluids, and a lot of recovery time.
OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
WATER & FOOD
Hydration is a process, not something you wait to do till you get to the oasis. Using a hydration bladder you can drink out of on the move, helps with that a lot. Inside your ruck, make sure to suspend it at the top so it falls north south. If it bunches up at the bottom of your ruck, it won’t do you much good. Do not put electrolytes into your bladder. Bladders are harder to clean out than a water bottle, and over time if you put anything with sugar in there, the bacteria will follow and that’s not good. Water only in your bladder, and air it out when you’re done with it until it becomes bone dry.
Bring a Nalgene bottle or the equivalent inside your ruck, put Gatorade or something like that in there. Electrolytes can give you a much needed boost. Same with some lickies and chewies like bars or, my all time fave, a Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich. Unlike running, where the consumption of anything during a run would immediately lead to stomach cramps, I was always fine to take in some calories (often a lot) to sustain me on a long ruck.
ORS – ORAL REHYDRATION SALTS
These are utilized in two very different, interesting settings. Diarrhea is a huge killer, especially of children, in third world countries around the world. Doctors use ORS to treat people suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, and other heat illnesses. They’re recommended by the World Health Organization because they work. And Special Forces guys use them before and during extreme exercise, especially in the hot summer months when hydration is vital to optimal performance and you’re at risk of heat stroke, all the time. They taste like salt water funneled through a sweaty jockstrap, but if you mix them with Gatorade or “beverage based powder”, you might not have to hold your nose.
Do not chug the whole mixed packet all at once, especially if you are new to them. That can lead to severe stomach cramps.
Bring them in your ruck if you’re going for a long, or a heavy ruck. When you’re done you want to take your shoes and socks off and let your feet air out. This is definitely a life hack for ruckers. Especially if you find yourself at a “ruckoff” when you’re done. You do not want to have to stand around in wet socks or shoes, it’s a morale killer to the point where you might even want to leave a good time for a comfort item you could have just brought with you.
POST RUCK – RUCKOFF
It can be tempting to sit in a rising pool of your own sweat with your boots still on and eat an entire jar of peanut butter and M&M’s (or whatever’s fresh off the grill, and all of it). Been there, done that. But the preferred technique post-ruck is that you take your ruck off and lean up against it, called the rucksack flop, which feels great. Then take your shoes off so your feet can air out, and stretch your body out. Your hip flexors, your glutes, your thighs and shoulders – there’s a good likelihood they’ll all be sore, which is the feeling of your muscles getting stronger. A multi-purpose use of your water bottle is to use it as a small foam roller to roll out your hamstrings, calves, and quads. It requires some willpower to do anything more than just sit there, but it’s worth the effort. Stretching will help with recovery of those specific muscles because it increases circulation throughout your body. To increase this specifically to your feet, massage them slightly – one of the Cadre taught me this early on, and I did it religiously after every ruck. If it was a really challenging ruck, elevate your feet on your couch when you get home, or on your ruck at the campsite – or wherever you are.
More blood flow will help your body recover for whatever’s next. Which should probably include an ice cold beer if you’re not out in the field and this isn’t your job. They taste great after a good ruck, which is definitely the Special Forces way. That’s a proper “ruckoff” and best done with friends.
PART 3 – THE SCIENCE
“The health of all systems in your body require movement. That’s just a foundational fact. Your cardiovascular system, your joint health, brain function, kidney function, everything requires movement for optimal health. The primal movement, if you want to call it that, that really has tremendous widespread health values is walking. And you can’t get away from that. The next issue is one of progression, to build resilience and robustness in a person’s life so they can enjoy all kinds of things that life has to offer. A progression for walking would be, now, walk up a hill, now add load to it. And you could do that through a backpack for example, and now you’ve got rucking.”
— Dr. Stuart McGill
author of Back Mechanic and professor emeritus, Waterloo University
THE KNEES, AND THE LOWER BACK
As running remains the de facto form of exercise in our society, and has long been associated with fitness and a prescription for good health, there is a mountain of evidence related to running – both the performance gains and the likelihood of injury, some of which we’ll discuss as it compares to rucking.
We’ll discuss posture and the effects of having a rucksack on your back while you’re training. As almost everybody in the world carries a backpack from time to time, there is a lot of crossover.
What you will not find is a prescription to do less in life, or to be less active. Or to limit yourself to one kind of activity. In fact, the opposite. We believe that to die with perfect knees or a back that’s never had to bear any burden is a far worse way to live your life than to push your body to the max. But the older you get, the smarter you have to get to avoid being put on the sidelines while the active world passes you by. To maintain your durability across a broad spectrum of performance demands (often referred to as life), same as for a Special Forces soldier to maintain his durability, you need to focus on two critical body parts most susceptible to injuries:
- Lower Back
We’re going to compare the effects on your knees of rucking with weight to running without weight. We’re also going to detail how rucking can be a platform to strengthen your back, and your posture, which goes against the conventional wisdom that putting weight on your back is bad for your back.
From 2000 through 2010, surgeons performed ~5.2 million knee replacement surgeries in the United States alone¹. From 1999 through 2008, emergency room doctors saw ~6.6 million knee injuries². There are a mountain’s worth of additional studies to indicate that whatever we’re doing as human beings in life, our knees are paying some of the price.
Injuries are especially costly to the Special Forces regiment, at the Headquarters level they’re referred to as a ‘readiness impediment’. Military Medicine published a study in October 2014 quantifying the injuries of 106 Special Forces subjects³. Their goal was to “ultimately identify the priorities necessary for refinement of USASOC’s physical training (PT) program to reduce musculoskeletal injuries and enhance force readiness.”
¹Williams SN, Wolford ML, Bercovitz A. Hospitalization for total knee replacement among inpatients aged 45 and over: United States, 2000-2010. NCHS data brief, no 210. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015.
²Gage BE, McIlvain NM, Collins CL, et al. Epidemiology of 6.6 million knee injuries presenting to United States emergency departments from 1999 through 2008. Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. 2012;19:378–85
³Abt JP, Sell TC, Lovalekar M, Keenan KA, Bozich, A, Morgan J, Kane S, Benson P, Lephart SM. Injury Epidemiology of US Army Special Operations. Military Medicine. 2014: 179, 10:1106-1112.
Diving into this study — albeit an imperfect one because it relied on Special Forces guys to self report injuries of any kind — offers a window into the culture. When I was brand new at 10th Group, we did most of our PT together, in the morning. A lot of it was running for some distance. I questioned then, as now, the difference between running and rucking in terms of the impact on the human body. “Runner’s knee” was a real thing, and would frequently slow guys down as they limped through it with Motrin flowing through their blood. So were ankle sprains, mine included, that swelled up to the size of a grapefruit after you rolled it on that root you didn’t see. But there was a perception that the more miles you ran, the fitter you were – just make sure you don’t look like a runner, you still have to be strong after all. ‘Run more’ sounds like the same prescription given to the rest of America, too. Rucking itself, on the other hand, never had as many injuries attached to it, but in the Army it suffered from the perception of being the better depot for blame. The fact that the rucksack weights frequently topped 75 lbs. and rucking was coupled with days of movement on little sleep and scant food probably made it guilty by association, too.
So what is the actual difference in impact, or load, on human knees between running and rucking?
In 2014 the American College of Sports Medicine published a study⁴ that detailed the difference in peak loads placed on your knees between walking and running.
The load refers to the “structural mechanics definition of an applied force, in this context specifically the contact force between the articulating tibiofemoral surfaces” also known as the knee.
They used multiple sensors up and down the on the subjects’ bodies and captured movement and marker data for their analysis with 14 optical motion capture cameras. Subjects, both male and female, were were told to walk as if “walking down the street” and run as they would “jog for exercise.”
⁴Miller RH, Edwards WB, Brandon SC, Morton AM, Deluzio KJ. Why Don’t Most Runners Get Knee Osteoarthritis? A Case for Per-Unit-Distance Loads. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014;46(3):572–9. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000135.
|Study’s finding||Subject averages|
|Peak knee joint contact force (“load”)||mins/mile||stride length (feet)|
|Running||8.02 x Bodyweight||8:28||7.4|
|Walking||2.72 x Bodyweight||18:31||4.7|
Joint load refers to the force put on your knee when your foot strikes the ground until you pick it up again. With every strike of your foot while running at an 8:28 min/mile pace, you’re putting 8X your body weight of force onto your knee.
8X from running.
With walking at an 18:31 min/mile pace, it’s 2.7X your body weight of force onto your knee.
2.7X from walking.
No wonder it’s called “runner’s knee.” The study also concluded from the data that “peak knee joint contact forces increased with increasing running speed.” So, run faster, take that 8X and increase it.
Let’s compare some different body weights at those paces and see what’s going on with your knees.
|Peak knee load – per foot strike (lbs)|
|Your body weight (lbs)||Running||Walking|
Every foot strike, every time your foot hits the ground, the peak knee load is the amount of force being placed onto your knee. Those are some big numbers in the running column, which are about a third as big in the walking column.
No wonder it’s called runner’s knee.
So where does rucking fit in? Your gait and stride determine the multiple of the load. We run or jog differently than we walk. While walking, you always have one part of one of your feet on the ground. With running, it’s different and more like galloping, which costs your knees a lot because you land harder with every stride. Your gait when rucking needs to be like it is when walking, that’s what’s so simple about it. And therefore the multiple of 2.72 can be assumed to hold constant, and we’ll add the weight of the rucksack onto your “body weight” for the analysis below.
|Peak knee load – per foot strike (lbs)|
|Your body weight (lbs)||Running||Walking||Rucking (20 lbs)||Rucking (30 lbs)||Rucking (50 lbs)|
So if you weight 200 lbs and you’re rucking with 30, you’re looking at 230 lbs x 2.72 (the force multiple of walking) = 626 lbs on your knee with every strike. That’s a lot less than 1,604 (200 lbs x 8.02) from running, and barely much more than 544 lbs from walking.
Even if you’re 200 lbs rucking 50 lbs, you’re looking at 680 lbs per strike.
680 lbs is still more than I expected before I dug into this, and it’s a testament to the evolution of the human body that it’s able to endure so much, for so long.
But running still offers cardio gains, and just as runner’s knee is a thing, so is runner’s high and the gains your heart will achieve from running. If the goal is to approach top Special Forces style performance, a cardio base is required.
My goal in life is not to die with perfect knees, but I would like to optimize myself for performance, and stay as active as possible for as long as possible. I’m not saying don’t run – there are far more dangerous things out there to do with your life. But 8X your body weight per foot strike is 8X your body weight per foot strike.
More force leads to greater risk of injury and no wonder it’s called runner’s knee.
A likely response to rucking being easier on your knees than running is Yeah but what about your back, it sucks for your back. And while there is no definitive study out there detailing the long term or even short term effects of military rucking on your back, suffice to say that excessive loads, 125 lbs etc. are not to be replicated. Special Forces remains a goldmine of lessons at the extremes.
But what about at lighter weights? 20 lbs, 30 lbs, 50 lbs. What about at ⅓ of your body weight? Is it possible that rucking could even help your back?
Yes, it is.
Let’s start with your posture. We live in a world of phones, and computers. We sit too much, we don’t move enough. We human beings are so dominant on the food chain that we’ve made everything as comfortable as possible for ourselves, and good on us.
But the problem is that your body is not built to hunch over a keyboard, or stare down at a screen, texting, as much as we do. Your body has evolved to move and we don’t walk enough and then we’re guilted into getting into better shape, and losing weight. So maybe we run, or try to, but we’re heavier than ever – a lot of it through muscle gains, but not all – so it puts more strain on our joints (8X is 8X), and we get injured. And running sucks anyway, and the worst run is the first run, so there’s that. So instead we join a gym or do functional fitness where we go all out for half an hour a day and we hope that makes us fitter. We exercise in isolation, without enough other activity in our daily lives, especially when we drive to the gym and we drive home. We hope it’s enough but our body is cold, and we have bad posture that we bring with us everywhere. Including to our workout of the day. And not surprisingly, back pain results in over 15 million doctor visits, annually⁵. To put this in the ultimate historical terms, we’re the only primates out of over 250 who are fully bipedal, meaning we only walk on two legs, and that comes with some costs (knees and back) and some advantages (our brains), if we take advantage of them.
Posture matters a lot, and fixing it can fix a lot. In 1999, I was in college on the tennis team. My lower back ached day and night. I was taking 10 Advil a day – the trainer told me it had anti-inflammatory properties at that quantity. He didn’t tell me I couldn’t do this indefinitely. My stomach grew a hole in it and my back still hurt, chronically.
It was a Friday afternoon, after practice same as always, and I was sitting on the table in the training room, with an ice pack wrapped around my shoulder, and another around my elbow. I mentioned in passing to a different trainer how I was unable to sleep at night because my back pain was so great. I had to elevate my feet with four pillows, and that provided some necessary relief.
He told me – yeah, you can take more pills and you’re young so you can recover quicker, so that’s good. The pain can be managed, but the bigger problem is that your posture sucks. Look at you now, you’re slouched over, arching your back forward for no good reason other than that it’s easier to sit there like that. And you’re used to it from sitting in class, and on a computer.
“Pull your string” he said.
And I said what?
The puppet string above your spine behind your neck, pull it up and stop slouching. Your back will get alot better if you do.
This was pre-military, pre-rucking, pre-anything preventative in my life, like yoga. I had nothing to lose so I tested out his prescription. I found it excruciating, in a new way, to sit up straight in class, or to not slouch over my computer all night as I worked on papers. But slowly, it got easier.
⁵Ackerman, Jennifer. “The Downside of Upright.” National Geographic July 2006. National Geographic Magazine 22 Dec. 2017.
I kept taking 10 Advil a day, but I also learned to sit up straight in class, and slowly I learned what it was like to sleep at night without four pillows under elevated legs. And eventually I stopped taking the Advil, only to find out that I could still sleep without the pillows, and I could move about my day, and play tennis, without pain. Funny how one little change in our lives can make all the difference, especially if it changes our routines and the patterns of our lives. That was almost two decades ago, and it remains some of the best advice I ever got: Pull your string.
Little did I know then that a straight back is common in the military. And it’s not because there’s a back machine on every military installation that hasn’t leaked its way out into the general population.
Rather, it starts with Drill Sergeants screaming at you to straighten your back and stand up like a man. Something I don’t plan on doing to you in these pages, or ever. But their lessons are reinforced the second you put a rucksack on.
Any ruck, any backpack. Put it on with 20 lbs in it, or 30. Rolling your shoulders forward like we all do when we’re typing, or texting, is uncomfortable. Move a mile with the same rucksack on, and you’ll notice that the last thing you want to do is collapse onto your front. The rucksack literally pulls your shoulders back.
Which is exactly where they should be.
INJURY PREVENTION AND RESILIENCE
“It’s no coincidence that the militaries of the world have chosen rucking as the tool to create that physical and mental fusion of toughness. You can push someone and really give them a little bit of toughness exposure without high risk of injury, through rucking.”
— Dr. Stuart McGill
author of Back Mechanic and professor emeritus, Waterloo University
Rucking is the foundation of Special Forces training. It’s the most basic, common task found in Special Forces Assessment and Selection, British SAS Selection, Delta Force Selection, and the list goes on. To move with weight over time and distance across varied terrain — the longer you go, the more resilience it demands of you. And the tougher you’re forced to become, both mentally and physically.
But getting injured is not a mark of toughness. In Special Forces, it keeps you out of the fight and your team has to do the work without you. That’s never the goal. So training smartly, with proper form, has become the priority in the community.
With rucking, the best way to prevent injury remains to respect your body’s threshold for the amount of weight on your back — and keep proper form. We recommend starting with 20 lbs and progressing slowly to a max of ⅓ of your bodyweight. As a reference to that amount of weight, the standard in Special Forces Assessment and Selection is 45 lbs “dry”, meaning that your water and other consumables don’t count. You’ll end up carrying ~55-60 lbs, which is about ⅓ of the bodyweight (or under) for most of the candidates there. “Selection” has one of the highest attrition rates of any school in the military. The point is, rucks don’t have to weigh 100 lbs and that should not be the goal. Try more challenging terrain, ruck faster, go longer if you’re really wanting to up the amount of difficulty. In some cases, Special Forces carry a lot more, but on missions they try to carry as little as possible – their goal is to win, not to have the heaviest rucksack for its own sake. And the goal is always to stay injury-free.
STRENGTH, CORE, AND MOBILITY TRAINING TO AUGMENT RUCKING
Your core does not act as the the power generator. If you’re sprinting towards a basketball, for instance, then have to change directions, the split second your brain knows you have to pivot you instinctively engage your core to stabilize the transition, to slow your body down. With rucking, there are less pronounced starts and stops, though as you’re moving your body is flowing from side to side and your core stays engaged — not your lower back — keeping your body stable. You’ll really see this if you’re rucking on uneven ground or any kind of terrain that forces your body to shift more from its center of gravity.
Dr. McGill says that “Good technique in most sporting, and daily living tasks demands that power be generated at the hips and transmitted through a stiffened core.” Rucking will help strengthen your core, and there are also additional ways you can train to become even more resilient and support greater weight.
The point is not to have a set of pretty abs so you can take mirror selfies. One of our Cadre taught me with a smile on his face a long time ago that only an asshole brings a six-pack to a party. Those are words to live by. The point here is to become more athletic and more resilient to injuries. That’s why you need a strong core.
A few different exercises help strengthen your core, your upper body, and increase your mobility:
- Core: asymmetrical sandbag carries (carrying only one sandbag with one hand only) force core stabilization in a way that a squat or symmetrical lifts or carries cannot. A great example is the suitcase carry. Scale it up by keeping your ruck on your back.
- Plank (no ruck on) and the “birddog” where you start on your knees, on all fours, then extend one arm forward in the half Superman flight position, and extend the opposite leg backwards. Do this for ten seconds, then switch. Do this several times as a great warm up for your spine.
- Upper body: sandbag military presses, push-ups. Over time, your upper body will gain lean strength just from the resistance of the rucksack. To push a little further, a little more muscle helps to support the load, which is why upper body exercises are important.
- Mobility and circulation to the hips: air and weighted squats, sandbag tosses. A full range of motion in your hips allows for greater circulation and bloodflow, which aids in performance and recovery. While doing squats with and without a ruck on, make sure to keep your back straight and do not roll it forward.
CRUSH CALORIES AND GET STRONG
While rucking, you’ll burn a lot more calories than walking, not quite as many as running but about the same as jogging or doing functional fitness. It depends greatly on the amount of weight you’re carrying, of course. Go faster with more weight and it’ll be a lot greater challenge. That means more calories.
Calories are a fine measurement, but they’re missing the whole story. We believe tracking every calorie you burn and becoming a slave to food you don’t want, all day every day, can feel like a full time job, and one you hate. The less perfect our lives seem compared to the latest perfect celebrity wedding or everyone’s perfectly curated social media feeds, the more we feel shamed into making ourselves happier by counting calories and forcing ourselves to the gym to stare at a screen next to strangers wearing headphones while we jog on a treadmill. Where’s the fun in that?
The modern world has so much technology to “help” us get in better shape, so many plans — most of them brand new and built on empty promises. Is it working? Running has been the default form of fitness for tens of millions of people for decades now. Are we healthier? Statistically, waistlines continue to expand and America is more obese than ever (this is fixable). And people still want to be healthier and part of a real community of active people. The trick, which isn’t a trick at all, is that you have to figure out how to work activities into your life in a way that you don’t hate. Because if you hate it, you won’t stick with it.
Rucking goes counter to the online world of individualized fitness, and counter to the idea of fitness as punishment. Grab your ruck, put some weight in it, and go for a walk. It’s that simple and it’s more fun with friends and when you’re done, don’t worry about how many calories are in your beer. How’s that for a change of pace?
If you’re really into it or just want a frame of reference, you can track your calories. There is a well established baseline to calculate caloric burn known as the Pandolf Equation. Check it out in GORUCK’s rucking section.
The gait of rucking is different than running, so your speed will not be as great and that impacts the caloric burn. Rucking is Active Resistance Training (ART), though, and the resistance from the weight on your back has other benefits, such as building stronger muscles, which increase your metabolism even when you’re not rucking, or running for that matter. You can probably burn a few more calories if you go for a run instead of a ruck. But, like every meathead out there loves to say, running kills muscle cells, and that’s a price you don’t have to pay when you ruck.
Compared to CrossFit, From the Compendium of Physical Activities, looking at a MET value of 9 for CrossFit, I would burn about 862 calories/hour (though that’s a lot more CrossFit than most do at any one time). From the Pandolf equation, that’s a similar caloric burn that I get from rucking ⅓ of my bodyweight for an hour at an advanced pace of 12 minutes/mile.
The point is not that calories are everything. They’re not. But if you want to burn a lot of them and look forward to doing it again soon, rucking is a great means to that end.
RUCK RUNNING” >> RUCK SHUFFLING
Ruck Running — don’t do it. That’s one of the only main things I was always told. If you do, all of the risks from running are magnified, and it turns the low injury risk activity of rucking into the high injury risk activity of running. The risk of injury to your ankles, the exponential load on your knees, the risk of spraining your knee, the force thrusted up to your hips. But, there is a way to move faster than just walking, with a ruck on.
It’s by Ruck Shuffling. Don’t gallop, keep your feet low to the ground, and one foot on the ground at all times. Keep your arms lower than you do when you’re all out sprinting, then just move your legs faster. It’s a markedly different feeling than either running or rucking with a walker’s gait. It’s an advanced movement technique best done with lower weight once you’ve really learned how your body is impacted by the extra weight on your back.
In the Special Forces Qualification Course, my knees were about the last thing on my mind and I would have sacrificed years of their life to make it through that course. I hope now, of course, that I didn’t. But 12 Mile Ruck marches were a timed event, and nobody knew what the standard was, and if you didn’t pass you were out. So we all went as fast as we could. What I found, same as many, was that it was impossible to run the entire way. Even though many of us tried. What got my times way down was to Ruck Shuffle. I would alternate rucking, where I would step out and increase my strides, with the ruck shuffle, where my strides were significantly shorter but I could move faster. After a while, it felt good to stretch my legs out again, then it felt good to go faster again. As with all of this, you’ll have to try it out for yourself. I recommend you hold off on this until you get some miles behind you, though.
AFTER A HARD RUCK
50 miles is not nothing. I had never done 50 straight miles before until we launched a GORUCK Star Course – 50 Miler in 2018, so I wanted to give it a shot with over 700 other first timers. The weight was 20 lbs plus food and water. Not that bad, I thought.
The first forty miles were fine. Despite the pissing rain, the wet trails, the fact that my feet had been wet the entire time, my body held up great. Then I hit the wall, that thing everyone in life should slam into every once in a while just to keep your humility sharp. My body wanted to shut down so it tried to. Everything got harder, and more painful and the rest of the route was a matter of gutting it out. It wasn’t pretty and I regretted not training smarter or better, but we made it in eighteen hours and thirty minutes. Ninety minutes before the cutoff time.
My shoulders ached, all I wanted to do was take my ruck off and relieve the pressure. My hip flexors were screaming stiff and wanted nothing to do with a full range of motion. Shin splints spoke to me with every step, that sharp digging sensation of pain that grates through your whole body, straight to your head. When you push hard, at some point everything pushes back. My feet had blisters on the underside, I had wanted to test out our new boots so I thought it would be a good idea to not change my socks the entire time even thought it was a monsoon the night prior and they were wet for over nineteen hours. It was a poor choice. My thighs and my calves ached and all I really wanted to do was sit on the ground and eat my pizza. I wish I had finished faster so it would have still been hot, but you can’t have everything in life. I felt lucky that the Vaseline trick had worked so well and the monkey butt stayed away. At least I had that going for me.
Here’s the point. Over time and distance, with the weight I had, my body was not ready enough so I paid in pain. That’s not the goal, but the choice was either quit or deal with it, so I dealt with it, same as hundreds of other ruckers. My past was helpful but not enough, and no matter where you are in your rucking journey, there is always a point at which it’s new weight, for a new distance, at a new pace. Some combination of the three just might get you like it got me. The first time you put a ruck on, you might be sore all over when you’re done. You might have to recover for days or a week, like I did. That’s OK.
What you want to avoid is pain, especially the sharp kind. Shin splints, back pain, runner’s knee, that feeling in your foot like your arch is about to collapse, even blisters or friction burns. You want to avoid all of them, and it’s possible to do so.
When in doubt, reduce the weight. This reduces what you’re asking your muscles to do with every step, it reduces the friction your feet have to deal with with every step, it reduces the load on your joints with every step. The next fix is recovery. Time — sometimes days, sometimes weeks — is your friend. Scale the weight, distance, and pace down until you don’t feel pain. That’s the barometer, that you don’t feel pain.
And when you’ve recovered, you’ll be stronger and more ready for whatever’s next, including a lot more miles under weight.
ADVANCED CELLULAR REPAIR TECHNOLOGY (ACRT) AKA BEER
THE OFFICIAL RECOVERY DRINK OF RUCKING
What I never wanted the GORUCK Challenge to become was some sort of bootcamp. Been there, done that, don’t need to do that again. In the fitness world, I find bootcamps to be the kind of thing people are shamed into signing up for as a New Year’s Resolution to whip them back into shape. They show up, it sucks, someone preaches at them to eat more steamed broccoli and nothing fried, ever, and they promise the sun, the stars and the moon to anyone who sticks with it. The truth is that bootcamps do work, if you stick with them. You’ll lose weight and get to know the people you’re suffering with. You may even make lifelong friends. The other truth is that nobody really sticks with bootcamps because the premise is one of negativity, you’re being talked down to. This is fine in the military where they have months to tear you down to build you back up, and where it’s literally illegal to leave, going AWOL is a crime punishable by UCMJ action. The other 99% of the population doesn’t have to abide by that, so while we may start a bootcamp, we don’t want to sustain it forever and so we drift back to our old ways.
The vibe at GORUCK needed to be sustainable, and approachable to people of all walks of life. One where the Special Forces Cadre could build a bridge between the military and civilian worlds, in person, face to face, while expecting and demanding a lot of the class. The feeling you have around any leaders in your life is very telling. If they make you feel small, usually by having no humility and telling you how great they are, you’ll do the job until you won’t. If they empower you and make you feel like you can do anything, if they’re there with you and you feel like you’re in it together, you’ll follow them through hell and tear down as many walls as you have to along the way. Special Forces works because we’re taught and expected to be effective leaders, leading from the front with our teams, but people still assume so much about Special Forces guys, about how they’re machines and completely different. So I was searching for something everyone loves and I found it in my dad’s garage fridge in Bellbrook, Ohio, my favorite place on the planet to drink a beer.
The lightbulb was that beer cuts across all demographics and on that account alone we should embrace more of it. If you get a cold beer at the end of your Challenge, does that make you more likely to do it? Maybe. But it definitely signals something about community and living your life to the fullest and not taking yourself too seriously, no matter who you are. And that was always really important to me, and still is.
So early on, in a crowded fitness world full of powders and bars, bananas and gel shots, I started calling Beer ACRT, for Advanced Cellular Repair Technology. People seemed to get it immediately, especially when we’d be done with a Challenge and then I’d crack open a case of beers and start passing them out. I’m sympathetic to people who don’t drink, but even they want to be around fun to be part of the fun. And it’s a lot more fun with beers at the end of the Challenge than it is with bananas. So that was that and somewhere along the way beer became the official recovery drink of rucking and I suspect if we do this right, it always will be.