Enjoy waking up early, be in good shape: the secret to a happy military life

Note: Originally published in 2016, but still true.

Two seemingly enduring aspects of military life are the tenets that starting things unnaturally early is best, and physical fitness is paramount. Failing to master these two things makes military life more miserable than it needs to be.

As a new private, first call was a dreaded affair. It was the time that my Team Leader or Squad Leader banged on my barracks room door in the morning to get me out of bed and ready for physical training. On most mornings first call was 0600. I tried my best to set my alarm to 0555 to get the jump on the NCOs and get into the shared latrine a few minutes before the rush of sleepy, grumpy soldiers. Most mornings, though, I let my NCO be my alarm clock so I could get the most sleep possible.

Within 25 minutes of waking up, I’d be standing in formation waiting to be subjected to whatever physical training my Squad Leader could dream up – in this case, usually a fast, long run up and down Fort Bragg’s firebreaks.

The combination of being forced to get up early and thrust into physical training makes mornings miserable for many soldiers.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the idea that the military is going to make me get up early, just about every day. Instead of resisting this and trying to eek out a little bit more sleep by waking up at the absolute last-minute, I’ve shifted my wake up time far to the left, waking up at an ungodly hour that insulates me from having to rush. This means having to go to bed early, but that is usually something I can control.

I’ve grown to not only make waking up at an early time a habit, even on the weekends, but I’ve come to enjoy the mornings more than any other time of the day because it is truly my time. What I do with it is completely up to me.

When it comes to physical training, taking responsibility for your own fitness ensures you can go to work feeling reasonably confident that you can handle whatever physical training you are forced to do.

Much of the misery that soldiers endure are connected to these two things – sleep and fitness. Waking up early and enjoying it together with staying in good physical condition can make military life a whole lot easier.

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“If you think snot rockets are gross…”

Fort Drum Snow Run

This is a guest post from Andrew Steadman who writes at The Military Leader.

If you think snot rockets are gross…

I had a lesson hit me the other day on a run. It was a damp, chilly morning, the kind that leaves you raspy and congested during a workout. And as I ran past the four mile mark, I decided to blow a snot rocket to free a little sinus space.

As I let it fly, I noticed a pedestrian strolling on the sidewalk to my left. He was wearing a tie and blue blazer on his walk to work. And he had an unmistakable expression of dissatisfaction, maybe even disgust, at the nostril-clearing activity I had engaged in. He thought my snot rocket was gross.

Now, he was at least 15 feet away and not in my blast area, so I know I didn’t hit him with it. Clearly, though, he did not approve of what he saw and I can only conclude it’s because he had forgotten, or has never known, what snot rockets are for.

Which brings me to my point…

If you think snot rockets are gross, you’re probably not testing yourself. If you’re in a combat arms job and can’t remember the last time you got dirty or low-crawled, you’re not being honest about the demands that combat will place on you. If you can’t remember the last time you put yourself into a risky situation or a scenario that demanded prowess and stamina, you might be living in your comfort zone. If that’s the case, you’re not growing. And more importantly, if you’re not growing, your followers aren’t growing.

If that’s you, change it now. Get out the door and do something that forces you to blow a snot rocket. Push yourself in a new way. Submit yourself to someone else’s training regimen. Whether it’s setting up a radio or conducting mission planning, perform your skill as fast as you can, then do it in the worst possible weather conditions. Then do it at night. Then do it when you’re exhausted and scared for your life.

Why? Because that very battlefield awaits. And you will step onto it…prepared or not.

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Andrew Steadman is a US Army Infantry Officer and creator of The Military Leader, a website devoted to helping leaders of all professions grow themselves and their teams. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.

In Defense of the APFT

One of the first topics of this blog was a discussion on how you can’t seriously discuss certain things with military folk. Physical training is one of them. The source of the problem – I think – is that since every single soldier does PT every day (a questionable assumption), every single soldier has developed some level of experiential expertise on the subject.

I’ve very rarely heard anyone say anything good about the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which consists of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. The idea behind the event is to get a general idea of a soldier’s fitness through a maximum effort test.

From FM 7-22, Appendix A (Army Physical Fitness Test):

The APFT provides a measure of upper and lower body muscular endurance. It is a performance test that indicates a Soldier’s ability to perform physically and handle his or her body weight.

The problem, as has been written about at length, is that the test doesn’t accurately measure the types of fitness that will likely be required in combat. Typical jokes include “I’ve been on 3 deployments and not once did I ever have to run 2 miles.”

Back in February, Jim Gourley explored the current struggle with embracing different fitness programs in the military at The Best Defense. In it, he captures some of the issues with the current APFT:

Palkoska admits that some aspects of the “legacy doctrine” persist in the form of the Army Physical Fitness Test. “One of the problems of the old fitness model is that units trained to the test, and that resulted in overtraining to certain aspects of fitness.” More than generating injuries in a large population of individual soldiers, it created an unbalanced paradigm of fitness in the Army at large. Efforts to change the APFT to reflect the new model of fitness have been going on since General Peter Schoomaker’s tenure as Chief of Staff. Though the old APFT remains the standard, Palkoska says that new initiatives aim to update it in the next few years.

Without question, there is pressure to do well on the current APFT – not just as an individual, but as a unit. The quantifiable score that comes out of the APFT becomes the easiest measure of “success” for a young platoon leader trying to impress his Commander. Raising the platoon’s APFT average is a simple, quantifiable means of “doing well.” The problem, as the argument goes, is that this often results in physical training regimens that train to the test, emphasizing the ability to do 2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and run 2 miles as fast as possible at the expense of other, more “combat focused” physical training.

And it is true, that just because a soldier can score a 300 on their APFT doesn’t mean they can perform their physical job better than someone who scores less.

When I was in basic training, I was the first in my platoon to score a 300 on the APFT. Nonetheless, I was one of the weakest foot marchers in the platoon. I only weighed 140lbs at the time, and my ability to do a bunch of push-ups and sit-ups and breeze through the run didn’t help me much when I was carrying a heavy rucksack, a weapon, and walking up and down Sand Hill.

It wasn’t until I started weight lifting and packing on some muscle that carrying a rucksack became less of a burden. Preliminary research from StrongSwiftDurable also correlates upper-body strength with rucking ability.

So I am in agreement that the APFT is not an absolute measure of physical ability. And I am sure there are a host of really fantastic fitness tests out there that could eek out a better way of identifying where individual soldiers stand when it comes to their physical ability to actually perform their jobs.

However, what those tests lack – and I’ve seen a number of the proposed tests – is practicality and feasibility.

Soldiers in the active duty Army are supposed to take two “record” APFTs a year. In all of the years I’ve been in the military, the only time I’ve ever seen that enforced was when I was in a TRADOC environment, and taking APFTs was part of the course. In the operating force, it is a miracle to get a whole platoon doing physical training on a regular basis, and usually takes signficant prioritizing to get everyone together for an APFT.

The beauty of the APFT is that it requires no special equipment or space and can be completed for most elements during normal PT hours (usually between 0630 and 0745). All of the proposed fitness tests either require a bunch of extra equipment or space, and in some cases need to be tested over multiple days.

Additionally, there is evidence that performing well on the APFT generally corresponds with success in physically demanding courses, such as Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The below is from USAREC’s notes on how to adequately prepare for and succeed at SFAS. In it, they make a direct correlation between APFT score and ability to pass the course.

Again, having a high APFT score does not mean you are in great physical shape for everything, but it does correspond to being in good shape generally.

Lastly, while it’s true that I’ve seen soldiers who could adequately do their jobs yet still perform average or even poorly on the APFT, I have never seen the opposite. That is, most soldiers I know who score well on the APFT generally are able to perform their jobs well and do not “suck” any more than other soldiers.

The APFT in its current form provides a good baseline measure of physical fitness while being relatively easy to administer. For those reasons, we should be very careful about discarding it altogether simply because it is not the perfect measure of combat fitness.

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