Ask Stew: Help! I Need to Pass My APFT or I'll Lose My ROTC Scholarship

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Clemson University Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadet Jared Stoltz, a senior from Fayetteville, North Carolina, majoring in criminal justice, tracks his fellow cadets as they run two miles during an Army Physical Fitness Test Jan. 15, 2015. U.S. Army soldiers are required to pass the test at least once every six months. It consists of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and the timed two-mile run. (Ken Scar/U.S. Army)
Clemson University Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadet Jared Stoltz, a senior from Fayetteville, North Carolina, majoring in criminal justice, tracks his fellow cadets as they run two miles during an Army Physical Fitness Test Jan. 15, 2015. U.S. Army soldiers are required to pass the test at least once every six months. It consists of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and the timed two-mile run. (Ken Scar/U.S. Army)

A standard bit of life advice is, "Don't train for the test." That's not always true. Sometimes you need to train specifically and solely for a fitness test, since your performance will mean the difference in whether you earn a college scholarship, a slot to a special program or even just remain in the military.

Depending on the situation and your prior preparation, there could be many reasons why you need to focus on the exercises and events of a fitness test. Here is a question from a young man who needs to pass a fitness test to stay in college.

Mr. Smith, I have a fitness test that is important that I pass in the next week. I didn't pass the last APFT I took and missed earning an ROTC Scholarship by 10 seconds. I have a week to re-take the test. My ability to stay in college depends on this test. What can I do in 6 days to improve my scores? Thank you, Jacob.

First, congrats on your accomplishments. The academic achievement, leadership experience and other qualifications you had to meet to be eligible to serve and train within the Army ROTC are impressive. The standards of a fitness test for your chosen branch of service are often overlooked even by young, smart and athletic candidates.

Now is the time to figure out a strategy for success by following the recommendations below:

Learn Your Pace

Make sure you are training to run at a pace that is well under the minimum standard. For instance, if you need to run 14 minutes on your next two-mile test, you need to practice the seven-minute mile pace, which is a 3:30 half-mile and a 1:45 quarter-mile. It is time to learn these paces, and you can do it if you practice them this week. You will want to pick a pace that you can handle and maintain but not flirt with the minimum standards, either. Build in a little flex time of 15-20 seconds if you can. Try this. If you take the test in seven days from now, do the following:

Days 1, 3 and 5: Goal Pace Intervals, Plus Push-ups and Sit-ups

Repeat 10 times.

  • Run: 400 meters at 1:45 (or your goal pace)
  • Push-ups: 20 (even sets)
  • Sit-ups: 20 (odd sets)

For each set, you will only do push-ups or sit-ups for a total of five times each in the ten sets of running. This is a total distance of 2.5 miles.

If you can combine two sets, try a half-mile at 3:30. If you can handle combining four sets, try doing a mile timed to see how close you are to the seven-minute mile pace (or do the math for your goal pace).

Days 2 and 4: Work Extra Cardio and Stretching

Warm up with a half-mile jog, then mix in some bike, elliptical or rowing at a steady pace for the time you need to run. Add a series of upper- and lower-body stretches for 10 minutes and repeat the non-impact cardio for the time it takes you to run your two-mile test again.

I recommend non-impact cardio, depending on your ability to handle the volume of running. Most people who fail a two-mile run are either not running athletes or are easily injured when increasing running volume too quickly. Make sure the level of intensity when you do these cardio sets matches the heart rates you get when you run. You should not be at an easy conversational pace for the sets of cardio.

Day 6: Mobility Day

This is 45-60 minutes total. Do easy cardio for five minutes, followed by stretching or foam rolling for five minutes. You may not even break a sweat doing this workout and that is fine, since this is an easy pace that will prevent you from getting stiff after the activity of the week.

Day 7: Test Day

Good luck. Be well-rested, hydrated and fueled as you take this important Army Physical Fitness Test. Eat a good breakfast, plus some fruits you like, and make sure you have something with carbs to sip on during the test. I personally like juice or Gatorade just to keep my blood sugar normal, so I do not run out of fuel during the two-mile run.

Also, right after you do the push-ups and sit-ups, use the time between the calisthenics and the run to transition into the run. See How to Train for the Transition.

See below for a few more tips on things you should not do:

Do Not Lift This Week

This especially means legs. Your workouts should look like the APFT this week. Do upper-body days every other day with running and non-impact cardio on the days between. Make sure to mix in calisthenics with your running sets, as you do need to get used to the pumped-up feeling after doing push-ups and sit-ups prior to the running event.

No Caffeine

On the day of the test, do not drink extra-caffeinated "pre-workout" energy drinks or coffee before the fitness test. Your ability to have a lower heart rate matters, especially when you are trying to run at your goal pace for two miles. Caffeine can artificially elevate the heart and throw you off the pace that you have learned to maintain through practice.

Final Piece of Advice

It is time to start taking the physical mission more seriously. Right now, the outcome is worth close to $100,000 in college scholarship money. In the future, your physical fitness could be the determining factor that enables you to survive a life-or-death situation or help a fellow soldier in such a moment. So let this be a learning and life-changing moment for you. One way or another, it will be.

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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