Updated: Jan 3, 2022
The British Army for generations famously trained its soldiers to run with, and walk very quickly with, weight. This weight came in many forms and combinations, from webbing and daysack, or just a bergen, to body armour, logs and stretchers. I was trained in and by the army in an era when the dogma surrounding how to get better at this was just to do more of it. In the parlance of sports science, this would be considered a focus on Sport Specific Preparation (SPP) and a lack of General Physical Preparation (GPP). As a result, this became a war of attrition. The number of Musculoskeletal Injuries (MSKI) was through the roof, and a scary number of soldiers and former soldiers were having hips and knees replace, suffering with chronic back conditions, and had recurring shin splints that can have been considered healthy.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Army began to roll out its Army Physical Training System (APTS). Developed in conjunction with academics, and drawing on the best information available, the new model is designed to replicate those used successfully by sports teams, military forces and law enforcement agencies across the world with great success. They have a renewed focus on strength training, and base building periods of training organised at unit level, before tweaking the specific physical capabilities of units, and soldiers within those units, to those required for operational effectiveness. Whilst still in its infancy, and certainly far from perfect, early indications suggest that this model is beginning to have the effects for which it was designed.
In spite of the high casualty rate of the methods previously used, those who did make it through, tended to spend a period of time where they were physically dominant in the areas in which they were trained, namely running, carrying weight, and circuit training to failure. Clearly not optimal for sustainability or longevity, this system did serve the odd function of highlighting physical anomalies who were able to not only survive under these training conditions, but in some cases, thrive, and become world beating athletes. You need look no further than the current world record for a half marathon carrying a 40lb pack, held by Lee Riley, where he averaged around 7 minutes 24 seconds per mile over the distance. This is a very respectable time for a runner (you are eligible for a national ranking in the UK if you run under 1hr 30min), but with over 18kg on your back, it almost seems impossible. Riley is a former Royal Marine, who also broke records over other distances. Whilst the casualty rate that the rare successes are built on was eventually deemed unacceptably high by the military, that takes nothing away from the accomplishments themselves. This brings an interesting and difficult question to my mind: is what's best for injury prevention and large numbers of the population, also best for elite performance? We're unlikely to ever see a real answer to this since, quite rightly, the Army aren't chasing individual feats of excellence (although they do a great job of supporting those on a path to achieving such feats), but rather getting as many people as possible fit for the roles which they are required to perform.
You might wonder why I am spinning this around in my head? Well, put simply, the record I am chasing will likely not stand up against the marathon, half marathon and other distances dominated by Lee Riley, carrying the same weight I will be for my challenge. I don't just mean when we measure raw speed, or more accurately, pace, I mean when we compare results to the best in the world. Take for example the half marathon world record. We could use one of a number of mathematical models to compare that performance to the world record, national qualifying times, or any other suitable metric. For my record, I have a target distance in mind of 80 miles. If we generously assume I get exactly that, we could make comparisons with the world record for distance run in 24 hours. This currently stands at 188.59 miles, and is held by Yiannis Kouros. Even a very rudimentary assessment of my projected result against his record compares less favourably than a 1hr 36 min half marathon does against a world record of 57 min 32 sec. There are of course many factors to consider here, not least of which is the effects on cumulative fatigue as time goes on. That is surely more impactful over a longer duration. If we examine Riley's half marathon versus marathon times, he slows from a half marathon pace of 7:24 per mile to a marathon pace of 9:12 per mile. In normal running the drop off is much less telling, shifting from 4:21 per mile to around 4:37 per mile. This effect will be the result of several factors including, but not limited to, the longer outright time each take, especially the marathon carrying weight, as it goes beyond the point of glycogen depletion, the increased muscular effort required of the upper body to stabilise the weight, the increased difficulty the load presents to proper breathing mechanics, the difficulties the body will face reoxygenating a greater amount of muscle, the need to hydrate and fuel more whilst on the move, the altered cadence and foot strike of running with load, the altered centre of gravity, and an endless list of nuanced topics into which sports scientists could delve for hours.
Whatever we choose to take into account, a direct comparison would be impossible, but I think is is worth noting for context, that whilst I am much closer to Lee Riley's former world record marathon time carrying 40lbs of 4hrs 1 min, than I am his half marathon time, I am still 10-20 minutes away from it. That's quite a margin! So why does any of this matter? Well, in reality it doesn't, however in the system I outline at the beginning within which I was trained, I am something of an outlier. Despite being trained in the traditional run, loaded march, circuit style of military training, I was awful at it, and avoided it for the vast majority of my career. When I decided to get fit, it was on my own time, using methods much more closely linked to the ones being used today. So as a contradiction to my peer group, my fitness is very much 'new school' fitness as opposed to the 'old school' fitness I can only assume someone like Lee Riley would have possessed in his prime. With that in mind, there are two questions I will be left with if I am successful; how long until I am beaten by someone from the new way of training who has better genetics, lived more healthily through their twenties, is mentally stronger, or simply worked harder? And then, how much could we both have been beaten by, by a survivor of the brutal, but occasionally freakishly effective, methods of previous generations?
Maybe you know someone who would have fitted into the same category as Lee Riley? Maybe you know someone who is showing early promise now of being a phenomenal tactical athlete having graduated from the new school of military fitness? Or maybe you have an anecdote about someone who could achieve the feats I have outline above, after a night on the town? As much as the research into endurance and all that comes with it is both revealing, and exciting, nothing quite beats a real life tale of superhuman feats achieved by mere mortals. If you have one, please share it in the comments.