What is the conclusive factor that determines whether a person is strong enough to get through elite military training? Are certain individuals predisposed to it? Or is it a unique combination of skills and luck that allow candidates to pass? Before you read any further, I want to let you know that nobody knows the answer to these questions. Anyone who claims they do know is lying to you. Even if they genuinely think they know what the secret key to passing, they are really only making educated guesses based on past experience. I’m not claiming that any of these experts are doing a disservice to you, I think everyone who’s been through and passed schools like Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer School, Buds or any school that has extremely high attrition rates has something to contribute to the development of the training theory. But just be warned their advice or training is not absolute. The process of getting through these elite schools is extremely nuanced. Each individual needs a different type of training throughout the process for optimal performance, both physically and mentally. This can only be accomplished if the candidate has an understanding of the basic principles of training.
If you’re like me, hearing this for the first time may sound a bit discouraging. When I first began looking for training programs for my rescue swimmer training, I was looking for certainty. I wanted a plan I could buy that would provide all of my answers and ensure success in rescue swimmer school. This quest for certainty is tied to a basic psychological trait in humans. We all seek certainty. This is a biological drive to conserve the maximum amount of energy per task. This principle is amplified and important to consider when we try to plan longterm goals. Certainty is often synonymous with easy. Anything you’re sure you can do, provided you’re not delusional, is often not going to be much of a challenge. Any big goal that is sure to challenge you is going to have some varying degree of uncertainty tied to it. You need to learn to deal with uncertainty well. If you can do this, you’ll exponentially increase your chances of passing your training.
How do you improve your ability to deal with uncertainty?
Training your ability to deal with uncertainty starts with developing a deep sense of personal responsibility. These elite military trainings all are looking for individuals who can, at times, think for themselves, assess a situation and make the right choice in high consequence situations. As an operational rescue swimmer, the second I leave the helicopter I am the one in charge of any giving situation on the ground or in the water. Being entrusted with this responsibility from the Coast Guard is the cumulation of years of hard work and studying. It requires exceptional knowledge of the inner workings of a Coast Guard search and rescue mission, the helicopter and responsibilities of my two pilots and flight mechanic. The early stages of training came from developing the necessary skills to build workouts and train in the most effective way possible to get through Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer School.
There are no shortcuts, when you purchase a program for your training, you aren’t relieved of the responsibility of learning why the training is structured the way it is. You should study these programs and learn the structure, so you can eventually create your own training blocks that are tailored to your weaknesses. In order to save you a bit of research I’m going to spend a portion of this write-up going over some of the basics! Below is a section from a blog post from October 2019. If you’ve already read through it or have a thorough understanding of training zones, you can skip over it!
Training zones are generally heart rate based. Ranging from Zone 1 to Zone 5. I do some training while tracking my heart rate, but I prefer to do most of my workouts using perceived effort. Perceived effort is simply how hard you feel like your body is working during a given workouts. Your perceived effort can vary from day to day, even if you’re doing the same workout back to back. Many factors contribute to this, you may be fatigued from the prior week of training, you may have not had adequate nutrition for one of the workouts or you many have not gotten enough sleep the night before. Before talking about how to use these zones in your training, I’ll define each zone based on perceived effort.
Zone 1: Light/easy, you should be able to do this type of training for hours on end and for consecutive days. E.g. 2-3-mile easy jog.
Zone 2: Moderate, this is a workout you should be able to perform for 30-60 minutes with little rest. E.g. 1000-1500-meter swim at 80% effort.
Zone 3: Medium/easy hard, this is best described as a workout that is challenging to the point where it is fun but doesn’t ever fell too hard to complete. E.g. Pushups/Pull-up Pyramid where you never reach muscle failure.
Zone 4: This would be your max sustainable effort for 30 seconds to 8 minutes, depending on the exercise. E.g. 400-meter track sprints close to max effort.
Zone 5: Unsustainable or exhaustive effort. This is the hardest you can push for any given exercise. E.g. 100-meter pool sprints at max effort.
These zones all have a correlated heart rate range associated with them, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll keep it at perceived effort.
The overall goal for your training should be to slowly increase the intensity of your workouts over time will minimizing the likelihood of injury. When we consider this goal, these training zones become great tools at building a workout regime that will help you succeed. It’s best to think of these training zones like a pyramid. With Zone 1 being the base, workout up to 5. The size of each level represents the relative time you should be spending training in each of these zones throughout the course of a training block. This means the majority of your time training will be in Zones 1-3. You should spend very little of your time training at the maximum exertion point or where your muscles are failing you in the middle of a PT session. Before going further, let me clarify! This isn’t a pass to lighten up your training load and cite me as your excuse! It means you may have to spend more time in the pool or gym but performing more reps in smaller blocks or lighter reps over a few days rather than all in one session.
When shaping a training program with the intent of improving your swim and run times, it’s important to spend the majority of the first portion of training in zones 1-2 or building or aerobic base. During this time period your run and swims may seem like they are a little too easy or you’re not really testing yourself. Patience is required here. If you can focus on building this baseline capacity, you’ll have the ability to push harder during the latter portions of training for the most gains in speed and endurance. Setting up your training this way also gives your body time to gradually build up its tolerance for the volume of training you’ll eventually be doing. In other words, you are mitigating the likelihood of an overuse injury in the long-term.
To prevent these overuse injuries, my newest training programs contain a block next to each work for the student to grade their workout. Over the course of a week or two this becomes useful, as the student scans their previous workouts if they start to see a few Cs or Ds in a row than it’s important to take a step back and figure out why this is happening. It could be due to lack of sleep, nutrition or the body isn’t adapting to the new training load and needs a few days off. While this isn’t a revolutionary way of assessing training, I think it’s an excellent way for the student to develop their acumen for self-assessment and a smart to way to stay healthy in the long-term.
After failing in the pool, the second most likely reason for a student to quit is injuries due to overtraining. Often this manifest in shoulder and shin problems. Don’t let this happen to you! It’s really an easy thing to prevent if you develop the proper training regimen. Each week you should progressively feel your fitness level rising. You should feel an increase in overall energy and strength. If you feel drained as the weeks progress, this means you’ve been training too hard. This is with some exception, where you have planned hard phases of training with a recovery period scheduled after. If you’re overtraining in this way, it would be wise to take a few days off up to a week, to let your body reset. If you push through this your fitness will likely plateau and you risk injury as mentioned before. What you’re really doing throughout your training is slowly building your baseline fitness incrementally until you get to your designated training. This is where you need to be peaking physically and exerting yourself to the point of overtraining!
If you feel like you’re currently at a point where you are too fatigued or are in need of some tips to speed up your recovery process between workouts this next paragraph is for you. First, your diet is essential for improving recovery. After a big workout, you’ve depleted your body of its glycogen store. The faster you start to replace those calories lost the better your recovery is going to be. You will need to eat both carbohydrates and protein to maximize recovery. Second is sleep, this increases in importance as you get older and as your training requires more mental bandwidth. In general, you know what a good night of sleep feels like and how many hours you need. During REM sleep your body releases natural growth hormones to aid in adapting to higher training loads. Be sure you’re getting the rest your body requires.