Fitness Then and Now

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Mission accomplishment!  That is all that mattered.  I do not know how I stayed in such great shape as a young Marine, there’s no evidence of any sort of athleticism in my genes, I smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and ate like garbage yet I consistently was in the top of my unit for the annual physical fitness test, never fell out of a conditioning hike, and could patrol for days surviving off of water, M&M’s, and Copenhagen snuff or Red Man chewing tobacco.  

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That is not to say I didn’t think there was a benefit to physical training but I couldn’t draw a distinction between lack of conditioning with someone getting injured or falling out of an event.  Basically my thinking was you were either conditioned enough to do an event or you were not, and any training in between was just extra…oh, and if you rolled an ankle or torn your ACL, or broke a bone in your foot it was because you were weak and your mind was weak for letting your body quit on you.

Life in the Marine Corps, especially in the infantry was very ego driven. It had to be considering what we were prepared to do at all times.  We were unstoppable warriors and to be injured during a training event exposed one as vulnerable, and not only vulnerable but a liability which then led the rest of the team to question if someone who had been injured during a training op had what it would take to survive in combat.  That being said, more often than not physical training consisted of grueling endurance events (maybe a 10 mile ruck run) with the sole purpose of  identifying the last man standing.  If you were the element leader you set the pace which ultimately guaranteed you’d be left standing and maybe a select few of your subordinates.

Looking  back and with knowledge I gained towards the end of my career, I can say with 100% confidence there are smarter ways to train and increase your body’s chances of surviving longer than the Hulk SMASH! mentality I used to approach training with.

First and foremost, let’s consider flexibility and joint health.  During the second half of my career I began trying to take advantage of some of the exercise classes offered by the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) folks who provide a plethora of services to the military.  In Djibouti, Stuttgart, and back at Camp Lejeune I dragged a couple of my teammates to yoga classes.  Without getting into all the benefits of yoga (for that you can check out my podcast with Yogi Bernadette Soler), but I felt great following a yoga session, especially as I began participating in more endurance races.  Not to say yoga sessions were easy, but I always felt great afterwards.  Knowing yoga can help with flexibility, restore joint range of motion, loosen muscles and decrease the risk of a muscle pull injury, it is easy to now sit back and be the armchair sergeant and say I should have been doing more this with my team.  I mean, why would this not be incorporated into a training program?  Is it not manly enough?  I would submit, for a culture that loves to study ancient warriors and draw comparisons between them and modern day warriors, it would make sense to incorporate some yoga or soft martial arts (tai chi, qi gong) into practice and teach the troops what it means to be in touch with their body and recognize irregularities before they manifest into serious injuries, not to mention the positive benefits these disciplines have on mental health.

Strength training.  I think it would be accurate to say there are two kinds of trainers in the military: gym rats and runners.  (The third would be those who don’t want to do anything, but no need to dwell on that).  Especially on a rainy day, the guys would welcome an hour or two in the gym versus a 3-6 mile run in the rain and mud (don’t let the recruiting posters and videos fool you, nobody enjoys that shit!)  But even strength training in the gym, when done as a unit, is rarely deliberately planned.  Most guys want to get in the gym and throw steel around, but rarely consider what do I need to work on?  What are the requirements for my job and how can I get stronger?  Is bench pressing 350lbs going to help me improve my run time?  Will lifting to increase strength help me to burn fat and avoid being taped every time we have a weigh in?  Maybe I shouldn’t lift heavy today because I feel some pain in my shoulder, let me instead do some lighter weight exercises that will help strengthen this deficiency.  Do I really understand how to do high intensity training in order to change my body composition or am I just trying to barely keep up with the latest Navy SEAL workout?  These are considerations elite athletes look at when working with their strength and conditioning coaches, and really troops should be taking the same approach: a personalized program based on a needs analysis.

The runner also has flaws in their training program. It’s great if someone can run all day ’till the day is done, as the old cadence goes. And they probably have incredible aerobic capacity and cardiorespiratory endurance, and they may be the one of the first ten to cross the finish line during the physical fitness test every damn time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the ability to bound and overwatch under load. Their amazing cardio endurance and high physical fitness test score doesn’t necessarily guarantee they have the muscular endurance to handle miles of door kicking and room clearing carrying 70lbs of lead and cumbersome gear.

It took me many years to get to this realization.  When I retired from the Marine Corps, a doctor told me I could still squat but don’t go below 90 degrees; one of my shoulders made a horrible crunching sound when I rotated it more than three times, my lower back was killing me, my hips were so tight sometimes it hurt to walk.  One day I decided to start from scratch and build a new training program for myself.  I didn’t have to worry about the demands of the Marine Corps, I could now focus on what was best for me.  I changed up my nutrition completely.  I was going to yoga regularly, my strength program consisted of mobility training, strength training, and some high intensity interval training (HIIT), and in my 40s I feel a lot better than I did in my late 20s going into my 30s.

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Author: James Conner , USMC (Ret.)

I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently living in Ireland, where I am enrolled as a student at the University of Limerick getting my degree in Exercise Science. Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist,  Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach.