How to Pace Yourself for Military Fitness Tests

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U.S. Army Sgt. Brandon Green and Spc. Fiona MacReynolds perform the 2-mile run exercise of the Army Combat Fitness Test at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania.
U.S. Army Sgt. Brandon Green, left, and Spc. Fiona MacReynolds, with the 343rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, perform the 2-mile run exercise of the Army Combat Fitness Test at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, Oct. 25, 2023. (Spc. Andrew Mendoza/U.S. Army Reserve photo)

When military members and others in the tactical professions first take fitness tests, they tend to forgo pacing and put 100% effort into every event. No pace considered -- just sprinting. In a fitness test that requires two-minute sets of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups (calisthenics) and any run over a mile, the idea that you can go 100% is wrong, because if you do, you will likely burn out and not finish the time or distance.

If you want to score at your 100% maximum capacity on a military or tactical fitness test, you must learn about pacing and getting in shape to maintain a certain pace. This goes for activities such as sit-ups, running and swimming. Here is a question from a police recruit who has to pass a fitness test very similar to the Navy and Air Force's tests:

Good afternoon. I emailed you about the sit-ups and getting better at them, but I wanted to know how to drop my 1.5-mile time under 11 minutes. I am in the police academy and run 1.5 miles in 11:58 seconds. Thanks, Elijah

Elijah, thanks for the email. The same way you are getting better at sit-ups is how you get better at running. It is all about getting in shape to maintain your pace. None of this is a sprint, though you should add in sprinting and agility drills into your weekly workouts, as those are two important elements of fitness for military service members and police officers.

Here is a breakdown of typical events that require pacing to score your best:

Sit-ups

If you want 80 sit-ups in two minutes, you need to learn how to do 20 sit-ups in 30 seconds. Your workouts are lots of 30-second sets until 20 reps is easy ... then build it up to 40 in one minute. Next thing you know, you are doing 80 in two minutes.

Note: Many groups within the tactical community are removing sit-ups or crunches as part of the fitness testing events and replacing them with the plank pose. Obviously, there is no pacing for planks, just building the necessary endurance for holding that position for 3-4 minutes.

Running

If you are running 1.5 miles in 12 minutes (or eight minutes per mile), your quarter-mile runs are set at two minutes. So if you want to drop it a minute, that means each lap needs to get faster by 10 seconds. Make your workouts in that time zone -- no slower, no faster -- and learn how to run at that pace for 11 minutes and build up to 1.5 miles. Here is your new goal pace workout sets:

Goal pace: 11 minutes for 1.5 miles (or a 7:20 mile pace); your quarter-mile runs need to be 1:50 to get down to an 11-minute, 1.5-mile timed run. Try this:

Repeat 6-8 times.

  • Run 400 meters (quarter-mile) at 1:50
  • Walk 100 meters between sets

When this gets easy for you, don't try to run faster, learn how to maintain the pace for 800 meters or a half-mile:

Repeat 3-4 times.

  • Run 800 meters (half-mile) at 3:40
  • Walk 100-200 meters (as needed for recovery)

In a future warm-up or cooldown set, see whether you can run a mile in the goal pace time of 7:20. When you can do this, you are well on your way to achieving your 11 minute, 1.5-mile timed run score.

Pacing is king. Both the run and sit-ups are pacing exercises. You need to get in shape to handle that pace for whatever time or distance your test requires.

The same goes for swimming. If swimming is part of your future fitness tests, you will need to learn how to maintain a steady pace to exceed the standards. For instance, we typically teach a yard or meter per second when swimming any distance. Typically, these distances range from 100-500 meters in most units that require rescue swimming, diving, or if your jurisdiction is surrounded by water, there may be a swimming portion to your training.

Regardless of your fitness test, there is going to be an event that requires practice in pacing yourself to achieve the highest score possible. Make sure you put in the time, breaking down the pace into smaller chunks and building up to the testing distance. Good luck.

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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