How to Prepare for Military Service During Your Last Season of Competitive Athletics

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Air Force wrestling
Air Force wrestler Hunter Bleakney squares off against his Oklahoma State University competitor during a meet held at the United States Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Dec. 17, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin R. Pacheco)

If you are currently a competitive athlete who is considering military service, here are some guidelines to help you prepare without interfering in what is very likely your last season of athletics.

Ideally, adding military-style training to prepare for required fitness tests, along with timed runs, swims or rucks, should be a cycle of training all its own after your athletic career is done. However, there are a few things you can focus on while still a competitive athlete to help with the typical weaknesses athletes have as they make the transition to being a tactical athlete.

The difference between an athlete and a tactical athlete is subtle, and opinions vary on the definition of the term "tactical athlete." Think of it like this: You are training to be more well-rounded and good at everything instead of being great at any one thing, as is usually the case in competitive athletics.

If you are applying for a job that has a challenging special ops selection, it is critical to take any weakness developed while focusing on your sport and turn it into more of a strength. If you are transitioning into the regular military on the conventional side, your athletic history may very well be enough to keep you within physical training and testing standards with only minimal and specific training prior to service.

My definition of the term "tactical athlete" is a military, police and firefighting team member who needs to develop all the elements of fitness to do their job effectively. These elements are strength, power, speed, agility, endurance (run, swim, ruck), muscle stamina, grip, mobility and flexibility, as well as mastering tactical skills.

Athletics alone do not require an athlete to get good at everything. For an athlete to make the team, they must demonstrate A to A+ levels of mastery of only a few of those elements of fitness. Depending on the sport, many of the other elements are unnecessary.

This past week, I had the opportunity to work with high school athletes considering military service. They came from the wrestling and water polo worlds and could not be more different as to how they need to prepare for future service. The wrestlers were tough and could do high-repetition calisthenics, load-bearing activities and run well. However, we needed extra lifeguards on the pool deck when we introduced swimming and treading water to them.

On the flip side, the water polo players were also tough, but most did not fare well when we introduced running, load-bearing and even higher-repetition calisthenics . When we showed them the special swim stroke called the Combat Side Stroke (CSS), it only took about five minutes of verbal explanation before they crushed that skill in the water.

The journey for both types of athletes will be very different, as the wrestlers will spend most time in the pool practicing the technique and conditioning of swimming and treading. The water polo players will spend most of their time in the weight room and progressively adding running to their week of training. For the swimming athletes, getting them to perform well in gravity can take time as they build strength and durability to handle load-bearing and impact forces of running. For the non-swimming athletes, water confidence, technique and overall conditioning are often the biggest hurdle to success.

Try these recommendations to prepare for the military during athletic training so as not to weaken your athletic performance during your final season of competition.

In-Season Technique Drills

During the athletic season, the last thing you want to do is to hurt your ability to perform well in your sport. Secondary workouts geared toward military training are not recommended at this time as they can interfere with recovery and energy levels during competition. They can also increase your injury risk.

However, if you want to focus on technique-oriented activities, these can work well with any training program and help with recovery and mobility. For instance, if you are a wrestler (or do not know how to swim well), adding in a cooldown workout in the pool after practice can help with basic water comfort, mastering techniques of treading and swimming, and make for a good dynamic stretching session in chest-deep water.

Even if it's only for a few days a week, you can do this cooldown workout any time of the training year. If swimming is a weakness, I highly recommend cooling down by learning some basic swim and tread techniques. If you are a swimming athlete, short runs and lifts can help you with durability to handle the impact stresses of harder progressions once you are done with competition.

Preseason Training and Conditioning

A variety of conditioning drills that enhance cardio training can be an effective way to mix military events into your preseason training. Limit the overall volume of those activities so they do not interfere with the skills you are trying to master or improve before the season.

Wrestlers will add running for cardio base training, but should mix in swimming as an option for conditioning training. Swimmers can do the same, but progress gently and avoid running too many miles as running injuries, stress fractures and shin splints are common for swimming athletes. Try a beginner running plan.

Postseason Training and Addressing Specific Weaknesses

After the season, use the time to recover from any aches and pains your sports season brought to you and focus on recovery. Mastering recovery is key to optimal performance, both as an athlete and a tactical athlete. Easy technique training for running form, swimming skills and water comfort, lifting and performing perfect reps of calisthenics will help you with any future fitness test, as well as the following training and the job itself.

When time is limited, you need to start preparing harder for the military and that time falls during your athletic season, be a team player and do not push too hard on activities that are not helpful to your sport.

Instead of setting yourself on a timeline and thinking you must join immediately after you graduate, set a performance starting line and self-test the future physical fitness events you need to master for your military career. Do a military-specific training after your final season is complete and join when you are ready and can exceed the standards of your future profession.

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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