When attempting to pass the various Selection courses in the military, we tend to lean towards the physical preparation but speak about the courses being mostly mental in nature. Well, the two definitely go hand-in-hand as the more physically prepared you are, the more confident you will be when tackling the next obstacle in your path.

This tip today fits right into this. While it is physical in nature, dealing with a problem like we’re going to discuss today will go far in being a mental hurdle that won’t have to be crossed. This will become much clearer below.

One of the biggest issues we’ve found in candidates that failed to get Selected was that their failure was a combination of both the physical and mental. How so? Many of the candidates underestimated the physical preparation required to pass and showed up woefully unprepared. As a result, they began to suffer trying to pass the physical gates and keep up with the grind that is Selection.

As they became more and more worn down, at a faster rate than their peers, they sensed that they were falling behind and failing. And as it so often happened, they mentally checked out. While they “officially” didn’t voluntarily withdraw, they quit. You could see it in their eyes and it happened far too often to be a fluke.

One of those issues, a very common one among candidates, especially among those who were coming from a non-light infantry, airborne, or Ranger type of unit was their inability to carry a rucksack. It became apparent rather quickly which candidates followed the PT program to prepare and which ones didn’t. Several looked like they never picked up a ruck before stepping foot in Selection, where they thought, they’d be able to gut thru the course…wrong.

It takes quite a bit of time to properly prepare for the rigors of Selection, for the newcomers to the military or in those type of units mentioned above, it will be measured in months. For the already hardened troops, that prep time will be lessened a bit.

But on the subject of rucking, the only way to get better at it is to practice it. It is no different than shooting or any other perishable skill. That’s why we put out a daily physical training workout that should help our readers who are aspiring Special Operations candidates get properly prepared to attend the course.

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We routinely have the candidates run most days with about 3 days a week dedicated to rucking. And one of the most common problems among the newcomers while rucking comes in the form of shin splints.

Shin splints, which are preventable, are allowed to take hold, will lead to blisters and a myriad of problems after that.

While I’m no doctor, PA or a Special Operations Medic, and I can’t give you a medical diagnosis for what they are but I can explain in layman’s terms. Shin splints are when you get pain just below the knee down the front of your shin and it feels like your calves are trying to bust thru the shin bone. For anyone who has ever got them, they can be very painful, especially the morning after a long road march. Yes, even many of the FOGs got them after a long-range movement, usually from dehydration. Which is why we always preach stretching, before and after a long ruck and proper hydration which if you aren’t doing it, tends to make the cramping all over your body worse.

While a cadre member at Selection, we had a candidate who was a personal trainer before entering the military and he was doing a simple stretch that I hadn’t seen before. I asked him about it which meant that he immediately clammed up thinking it was wrong. But pressed, he swore by it and he and those of his class that did it together before a timed gate had much less instance of shin splints.

Before my next ruck session, I tried it and Voilà! It worked pretty well. This stretch is done by kneeling on the ground with your feet, legs, and heels together and lean as far back as possible. It doesn’t sound like a calf stretch but it does work especially when on the trail for a while and you stop for a moment. It can help and do wonders.

But that isn’t the best way to prevent them. So what’s the answer, you say? Ah….that is the $64,000 question. Back when I was out at Selection, one night I during a class, I actually arrived home at a decent hour. We normally would just live out there during the classes as the hours were as long for the cadre as they were for the candidates when we were so short-handed. So after getting home, two of us were having a couple of beers with our neighbor who was an SF guy who became a Doc (PA) out at JSOC.

This was around the second week when the candidates began limping around with what we called the “Selection Shuffle”, that pronounced limp where the candidates would bounce/hop along in the compound that reminded one of “Stumpy” the Walter Brennan character in the John Wayne classic “Rio Bravo” with Dean Martin and a young Rick Nelson as well as Angie Dickinson.

Well anyway, the talk got around to the current course and we were talking about how the candidates were already hopping around. Our PA friend, deadpanned,“Were they walking like a duck?” Yes indeed, we said, at which time he said it wasn’t a shin, foot, or blister issue at all, but an issue with the hips. He then explained that a hip flexor issue with either tightness or weakness was the culprit.

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Of course, we were intrigued by this but as he then explained, everything is interconnected and if a candidate has either tightness or weakness in those hip flexors, the strain of carrying the heavy weight of the rucksack will change their gait and put much more stress on their shins and feet. And no amount of stretching their calves out will compensate for bad hip flexors.

Which was why the candidates shuffling along would begin to stretch those calves out every night and each morning before we’d go off on another lovely trip in the pine forests and swamps of lovely Camp Mackall. And after a very short amount of time, they’d be right back in the same pickle.

I revisited this after going to physical therapy a couple of years ago. Arthritic knees were (and still do) the cause of intense discomfort and pain. Here, once again, my therapist said, due to the gait I was using to compensate for knee pain, my hips were tight.

And the cure for that is extremely simple, just stretch those hips out, by using a foam roller or a lacrosse ball. We used both the foam rollers and a lacrosse ball and the results were unbelievable. I was soon able to resume rucking again. Perhaps not to the same extent as back in the day but much, much more effectively.

This is why we push the squats and sled push in our physical training programs. I used to hate Leg Day at the gym, and at times due to arthritis there is anything I’d rather train but now we know we can’t ignore. And if you’re going to be in Special Operations, your legs are the vehicle that will get you around. They have to be strong and support your upper body by carrying all that weight. I suggest for the younger guys to follow and read everything that the guys at @SquatUniversity on Twitter have to say.

A final problem with shin splints is the act of rucking itself. Many…too many candidates ruck and will pound their heels into the ground.  Which is a byproduct of the hip issue. This puts tremendous strain on your joints and will cause shin splints among other things. When you land on your heels, my PA told me that it is essentially 3-4 times your bodyweight landing on your feet.

When lifting your foot off the ground, it should be relaxed and when landing, you shouldn’t be landing on your heel but in the middle around the ball of your foot. Easier said than done right? But practice…practice and then practice some more. Your shins will thank you in the long run.

So, I’m taking the ice bags off the knees this morning and am going for a ruck before the sun comes up and I have my thrice weekly beatdown from my trainer at the gym. Who’s up for some rucking today? Don’t be late, don’t be light and don’t be last.

Photo courtesy: US Army