When we write about preparing for the rigors of Selection and the qualification courses here in Special Operations.com, one specific area we don’t write about often is proper nutrition. It is an oversight on our part and it is for two very good reasons.

Number one, I am not a nutritionist and have no training in that realm. And #2, although I’m much better at it now than when I was younger, my nutrition is still pretty crappy overall. But we’ll resolve to do better by our readers, especially those younger ones who are candidates for or soon will be for the Special Operations Forces for our military

Years ago, I met a former professional athlete and we spoke about strength and conditioning programs that pros use and one of the first things he told me was proper nutrition was a key component. His words were prophetic, “There’s nothing in here that is a magic elixir but you should pay attention to the nutrition guidelines…which you probably won’t.”

The Special Forces of my generation weren’t big on nutrition at the personal or unit levels. From what I’ve been reading, both are much better at it today, which means a better trained, healthier force.

Unfortunately, more fraud exists in the nutrition industry than in any other segment of the fitness business. So, when we look at the preparation for rucking that we do to prepare for Selection, there are also nutritional guidelines that should be followed. These four guidelines should be applied to whenever you are doing a ruck march of at least one hour in duration.

  • Eat a good meal (3-4 hrs) prior to rucking can improve your performance.
  • Preload carbs/fluids: Start the rucksack march fueled and hydrated by having a light snack an hour or more before setting out
  • Eat during (WHAT? More below) the ruck: Eat some carbs and hydrate while on the go
  • Post Ruck Meal: Recovery time folks, continue to re-hydrate and eat some carbs

So, let’s go over these one at a time and see how each can help the candidate out. And be advised, during the Selection and/or qualification courses, candidates’ schedules may not allow them to follow this guideline perfectly. Take these and try to follow along as best you can.

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Eat Well Prior To a Long Ruck March:  

Candidates should consider eating a meal well stoked in carbs 3-4 hours prior to a long distance ruck march. However, as we mentioned above, the time frame and schedule of the class may preclude this from happening. Many marathon runners “carb up” with pasta the night before a 26-miler.

Try to do the same, if possible. Pasta has always been a favorite of mine but everyone is different and you have to find what works best for you. If you can, whole grain, potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit

Preload Carbs/Fluids:

About an hour before the ruck, candidates should ideally be hydrated to start the ruck with a full tank. A light snack that has a high amount of carbs and moderate in protein and lower in fat should be consumed, if possible.

Oatmeal, cereal, bagels, peanut butter, bananas are all good ideas. In the Selection course, eat what you can, when you can.

Eat and Drink During a Long Ruck March:

Some guys believe it is blasphemy to eat anything while on a ruck march, that it will slow you down, cramp you up or make you sick. But once again, if possible it is most advisable to eat something from carbs during the ruck. It prolongs the onset of fatigue and keeps your head in the game, mentally keeping you sharp as your tank runs dry, the drop in blood-sugar levels will adversely affect your decision making and concentration.

Sports drinks are perfect for this, however, in Selection? You probably won’t have access to them so hydrate constantly with water. About 45-60 minutes into a ruck, your body will be craving sugar and anything you take, Jolly Ranchers, Lemon Drops, Gummi Bears, candy bars that you are allowed to have will help out. Keep them handy in a pocket that can be reached while on the course so it doesn’t slow you down.

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When taking in water, ensure you drink before feeling thirsty. If you wait for thirst to kick in, you’re already 2-3 percent dehydrated. The amount of water varies that you’ll need to replenish during a high-intensity event such as a ruck march and the weather conditions.

Cool water works the best, that’s why during the summer when you’re working hard outside an ice cold beer or Coke tastes so good. Your body is craving it and it does work the best. Obviously, there won’t be any beer on the drop zone or ruck march. But it is a nice thought, even if it is bad for you. Beer or anything else with alcohol is a diuretic and dehydrates you even faster.

Something to consider down the road, if you use anything other than water in your Camelback system, it will have to be cleaned thoroughly after its use. Leaving Gatorade or a similar type of drink in there can cause bacteria which can you to get sick as a dog. I’m guilty of this often, but I’m doing it while rucking from home, and it is much easier to clean here than in the field or in a school environment.

Recovery Post Ruck Meal:

Immediately after the long ruck, most candidates will want to sit or get off their feet. It is natural and trust me everyone feels that way, especially after a 20 miler. However, if possible (there’s that caveat again), Keep walking, albeit slowly to cool down your muscles and this will decrease your soreness the next day.

Now when it comes time to refuel after the race, fruit juice is excellent for restoring your glycogen stores. Now is the time (30-60 minutes post ruck) to ingest some protein. Milk and/or soy milk actually will rehydrate your body faster and better than plain water. Eat something simple right away that is rich in carbs before indulging in anything heavy. Wait a few hours before doing that.

There will be no easy way to prepare yourself during Selection. But during your training prior to going, work on this routine and find what works best for you and then stick to it. Selection is a different animal, your schedule and the cadre will control your clock but do your best to follow this.

You’ll notice I didn’t list any weights for carbs, protein, and fat. Like so many of the runner’s magazines and fitness articles where they say, “eat X grams of protein, X grams of carbs.” I don’t believe in cookie cutter formulas. Not to discount them entirely, I’m not doing that. Everyone’s body is different and you have to find what works for yours. That’s what the train up period is for. Work out the kinks and treat your body like the well-oiled machine it should be.

Rucking is like anything else, it requires much practice and patience. Part of that, a large part is the techniques you will use. But proper nutrition also plays an important part. When your body starts to wear down in the course, your body can recover much faster by using proper nutrition.

Photo: DOD