5 Ways to Know When to Add Cardio or Lifts to Your Training Plan

(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Joshua J. Garcia)

The question in the mind of someone preparing for a physical challenge like military training -- especially on the special operations level -- is: "Am I training hard enough?" The natural response to these doubts is to add more activities into your training day. That may not be the best answer to yield the optimal results you seek.

Often, adding more volume in repetitions, weight training, running, rucking or swimming miles can be the very thing that breaks you and requires several weeks of training around an overuse injury. Yet sometimes, it can be a great physical-mental toughness challenge that helps you with some added confidence prior to a tough military training program.

It depends on a few factors as to whether you should add more training to your already challenging training program. Your athletic history will drive the need to address more of your weaknesses to a training program.

The goal in any tactical fitness program is to get good at all the elements of fitness and typical athletes, get great at 1-2 elements of fitness and neglect others. The amount of time per day and the number of days per week also should be limiting factors, as it is just as important to master your recovery from training, versus overtraining.

Your current fitness level is the most important factor to determine whether you can handle extra activity. Here are some examples of when to and when not to supplement your current training program.

1. Adding Running Miles to Prep Training

Many non-running athletes feel the need to do more running once they realize just how bad they are at it. Conditioning for running can be tricky, especially for a bigger athlete whose impact forces can be really jarring to the feet, shins and knees.

Consider more non-impact cardio options as opposed to increasing your running mileage each week, depending on your running history and size. You can still work the overall conditioning of your heart and lungs with more biking, rowing or swimming and maintain the current running progression in your training program.

However, if you are comfortable with 25-35 miles a week and want to add in the challenge of doing a marathon, you can, but prepare for more running miles on the weekend to build up to a recommended 50 miles a week prior to doing your marathon. You may have to eat more, so you do not lose too much weight from the increased running. I would not recommend this option if your current cycle goal is to gain weight and muscle strength.

2. Adding Lifting to High-Rep Calisthenics and Running Program

This is another case of adding more activity to see the goals of improving weaknesses while running the risk of not recovering properly. The goal of a high-repetition calisthenics and running program is muscle stamina and cardio conditioning in highly tested activities.

Getting good at calisthenics and cardio is a must for any fitness test and typical training day. However, having a foundation of strength is also needed for the load-bearing activities you may experience, like rucking, log PT and equipment carries. Adding heavier weights to these types of cycles can often disrupt the gains you seek with muscle stamina and running, as well as strength. Many tend to get better at neither when combined randomly.

A way to do both would be a model of block periodization where you do three weeks of calisthenics and cardio progressions with a one-week strength training "deload," where you reduce miles and repetitions and add weight to your calisthenics (weight vest) and lifts.

You can do the same block model in reverse as well, where you lift heavy for three weeks and do a one-week strength "deload" week, complete with calisthenics and cardio training.

3. Adding a Second Workout that Mimics the First Workout of that Day

Many will add a second session in the day that either matches the earlier workout of the day or makes it more of a sporting activity, like martial arts or other team training. This is fine in balance, as it depends on whether you are negatively affecting the team activity, or the team activity is affecting your training goals.

You must actively pursue your recovery seriously to make sure you are eating well and enough, hydrating properly (electrolytes), resting, sleeping and adding needed mobility/flexibility training as well.

The possibility of injury is high with many secondary activities, so make sure you are not too close to shipping dates when still competing in any athletic event that has a moderate to high risk of injury, such as contact sports, road biking, MMA or similar activities.

4. Adding More Swimming to Your Training Day

If there is one activity that adding more is not, statistically speaking, going to hurt you, it would be swimming. Adding in an easy technique or coaching session is what many non-swimming athletes need to do prior to a future diving or rescue swimming training program.

These can be great recovery activities and will help you build some of the needed water confidence you may need when you add a second swim workout a few times a week. In fact, after every tough leg day where running and rucking are accomplished, treading water and swimming can help loosen the legs so the next day will not feel the burn of a previous tough leg day workout.

Swimming with fins, however, can be tough on the ankles and knees so add that type of swimming only a few days a week and for moderate distances (less than a mile at first).

5. Adding More Rucking to Your Training Week

If your training program has very little rucking in it and is mostly running and calisthenics with some lifting, then, sure, add in a ruck. You can do this one of two ways. One way is adding more rucking miles per week on your leg days.

You can also keep your total volume of running the same and replace a longer run with a load-bearing rucking event. If your training program is a progressive one, you can do so each week on that longer running day as a ruck, increasing distance and weight each week.

If you have a second leg day of the week, add another ruck of moderate distance and weight to that day. As with any impact activity, progress logically with both weight and distance each week. A good standard is increasing your distance 10%-15% each week and adding 10 pounds a month, starting with 10% of your body weight at first.

Obviously, any added activity off a proven training program can be a risk, but if you need to personalize a generic training program that specifically addresses the needs of the military training you seek, you should.

Making a training program easier is logical if the program is above your level in some events. The same can be said for making a program more difficult with more miles, more reps, more weight or greater intensity if you are capable of handling that added volume.

Those are big "ifs" so make sure you actually assess yourself and see exactly what you need to work on the most to not just meet the standards of your training, but exceed them.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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