What Tapering Before Your PFT Looks Like

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Soldiers run during physical fitness test.
Soldiers from the U.S. Army Medical Command (MEDCOM) participate in their semi-annual physical fitness test on May 5, 2019, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. (Staff Sgt. David Meyer/U.S. Army photo)

An Army soldier asked me about the week before taking the Physical Fitness Test.

Here is his question: 

"What is it that you recommend to do one week out from your PFT? Is it similar to preparing for a running race like a marathon and tapering a few weeks before it?"

A week before the physical fitness test is an easier week than your normal workouts should be. Here's some suggestions:

1) PFT Strategy: Practice the Way You Test

Do not try anything you have not done before the week of or the day of the test that you have not done throughout your workouts. The PFT should be accomplished by dividing the events into smaller sub-goals. Take the Army PFT, for instance:

Push-ups -- Two minutes of push-ups is challenging. It is recommended to do the push-ups as fast as possible while adhering to proper form. Try to let gravity push you in the down position so you do not waste muscle stamina by controlling the movement. When you move slow in the down position, you will waste energy and reduce your pushup score. Only use your muscles to push in the up position. This is a sprinting-style exercise. Resting may help you catch your breath, but it will reduce the number of push-ups when resting in the "up" position.

Sit-ups -- Two minutes of sit-ups should be paced. Many people err in testing by starting off too fast. People usually will get 30-35 sit-ups in 30 seconds, but they will not match the 30-35 reps in the next 1:30. This happens because you burn out too fast. Just as with running, the goal is to start slower at a pace that will help you attain your goal. For instance, if your goal is 80 sit-ups, your pace should be 20 sit-ups in 30 seconds. You will have a much easier time reaching your goal if you pace the sit-ups.

Two-mile run -- The run is a pacing drill as well. During your daily workouts, you should know what your pace is to run a two-mile run. For instance, if your goal is to complete the run in 14 minutes, you should pace your quarter-mile at 1:45 or your half-mile at 3:30. This will insure a seven-minute mile pace.

2) Four Days From the PFT, Your Workouts Should Start Tapering

This means you should take it easy and do not push yourself to failure. Go for easier runs at a seven- to eight-minute mile pace, while push-ups and sit-ups should be limited to 30-60 seconds of timed events so you do not hit muscle failure. Do knee push-ups or crunches to keep the joints lose and stretch well to remain limber.

3) Three Days From the PFT Should be a Day Off of Exercise

Eat foods that are low in fat, higher in protein and high in complex carbohydrates. Personally, green leafy salad or spinach with lean chicken or tuna fish are great examples of the types of food to help you have more energy. These foods should be part of your normal weekly diet anyway for best physical results. Consult my diet plan for more ideas. Drinking water to stay super-hydrated will help you regulate your body temperature during the PFT as well as other muscular-skeletal benefits.

4) Two Days From the PFT Should be a Light 1- to 2-Mile Run

This should be followed by 20 minutes of stretching from head to toe. Push-ups and sit-ups should be performed at goal pace for one or two sets of 30-60 seconds. Learn your pace and know it for the test. Knowing your pace will help you get rid of the anxiety before PFT. (Read the "Physical Fitness Test Anxiety" article for more ideas).

5) One Day Prior to the PFT Should be a Day Off

Take a light walk, run or bike for 15-20 minutes with an equal amount of time spent of stretching. The night before the test should be spent relaxing and eating foods high in protein and carbohydrates, such as pastas, green leafy lettuce, spinach, fish, chicken or lean meats. Lay off high fat foods. Drink water all day long.

6) Have a Normal Breakfast (Water, Cereals, Yogurt, Fruit and Juice)

Foods higher in carbohydrates, such as apples, bananas and carrots, are great snacks to add glycogen to your muscles and give you that extra kick for the PFT. When you push yourself to muscle failure and maximum effort, you will expend the glucose you consumed, so make sure you eat these one hour before the PFT.

These tips will help you, but they will not be fully beneficial if you do not practice these pre-workout methods during the weeks before your PFT. You will be better off, however, if you were unable to prepare for the PFT if you follow the above tips. Good luck in your next PFT.

More Tips on Military PFTs

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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