I wrote an article some time ago about physically preparing for combat in mountainous terrain. One of the critical aspects of this preparation was foot marching. I’d like to explore and expand upon this concept of foot marching, also known as ruckmarching, or “rucking” for short, because it’s an activity with many benefits, and can be a tremendously effective addition to your physical training program.
The Definition of Rucking
The term “rucksack,” first used in the United Kingdom and later adopted by many other countries including the U.S., originated from the German word describing a location on the body—“the back” (der Rücken)—combined with the word for what was being carried—a sack.
If you’ve ever been on a long afternoon walk over a pleasurable scenic route through nature while carrying supplies in a backpack, then you’ve been rucking. But unlike backpacking, which has a primary purpose of the hike and destination, when you are rucking, you are purposefully marching—conditioning yourself to travel long distances on varied terrain, carrying weight for the express purpose of physical training.
The Benefits of Rucking
Rucking is applicable to everyone who has the physical ability to walk. Besides being historically the most simple and effective way to prepare a soldier for duty, it is also a fantastic way to improve aerobic conditioning, strength, posture, and mental health.
Rucking gets you outdoors and offers you the elevated heart rate of jogging at the more moderate pace—and less impactful activity—of walking, by strapping a load to your back. These infrequent long-slow distance (LSD) sessions are important for building a wide aerobic base to use as the platform for increased anaerobic performances. Unloaded walking uses your bodyweight for resistance, which is fixed, and speed as the intensity variable. But the velocity in our walking gait has a low ceiling, allowing only the deconditioned among us to even begin to stimulate a conditioning effect.
For those who are better conditioned than your typical sedentary coach potato, another variable must be introduced for increased intensities: loading. Additionally, using rucking for your LSD work provides a natural mental benefit that you can’t quite seem to get from jogging. Get out on a natural trail and explore your world once per week, then dump your anti-depressants (full disclosure: I’m not a doc).
What the Army Doesn’t Tell You About Rucking
To use this tool properly, you need to understand how to apply it. Reading through the U.S. Army’s field manual, number 21-18, “Foot Marches,” leaves one with a lot of guessing to do. Amended in 1990, this manual contains comprehensive information with respect to the logistics of tactically relocating a lot of foot soldiers and their equipment between point A and point B, affording them the energy reserves to be mission-ready upon arrival. But little is mentioned about how to train this activity. What I learned in the service about how to ruck was handed down from NCO to NCO, and was not found in field manuals. Not surprisingly, we did a lot of things wrong. I’ve learned a lot through my experiences since then.
Perusing some of the literature available online written about rucking also leaves one wanting. People have sent me some of these works over the years and my reading of some of the methods discussed have left me feeling anywhere from disappointed to downright annoyed. The disconnect between what works in reality and what some authors recommend is in some cases complete and in others just embarrassing.
Many of these programs focus on some brand of military operator selection course preparation, even those that are marketed to recreational hikers and fitness enthusiasts. They seem to imply we all need to train like prospective operators, or we’re not really training. Preparing for a rigorous military selection course differs from rucking for basic conditioning—for both the soldier and recreational athlete alike. The basic movement and logistics are the same, but the programming is different.
I will take the reader from A-Z: how to prep your gear, how to walk, how to program, and why. This will serve as a multi-purpose use tool, whether you aim to improve your general fitness, or prepare for a more rigorous professional requirement.
First: Your Rucking Gear
Whether you are rucking for aerobic conditioning, soldiering, or selection, you need quality gear that fits. Many elements are important to a successful experience, such as comfortable clothes, safety equipment, and protection from the elements, but I will focus on the two most important here: your pack and your footwear.
Packs are available in two styles: framed or frameless. Frameless packs are essentially schoolbook bags. Framed packs are offered with internal or external frames, the latter usually requiring some assembly.
Just about every rucksack comes with some kind of internal skeleton. Externally framed packs can carry more weight, but are less comfortable. An external frame can also be rigged for other uses, such as carrying elk-meat out of the woods or this crafty weapon used during the Vietnam conflict and later popularized by Jesse Ventura’s character in the movie Predator:
If you use an externally framed pack, ensure that you assemble it properly, or you will make it even more uncomfortable than it tends to already be. For those in military service, you will likely be issued an externally framed pack, so you will need to get used to this type of rucksack.
For recreation or physical fitness training, however, internally framed packs are more appropriate. They are more comfortable and can carry more than enough weight for most applications. Any named rucksack distributor offers high-quality merchandise, and you will pay for it. However, it is worth spending near $200USD on a good pack, even if you are using it for general fitness only.
Get a pack that fits you—ensure that you can pull the straps tight enough to cinch down on your shoulder girdle, leaving little space underneath your armpits. You don’t need to fasten your waist or sternum straps for a conditioning walk on relatively flat terrain. However, if you will be running an obstacle course or climbing up steep terrain, it may be a good idea to fasten these straps.
Learn to pack your ruck properly: keep the load’s center of mass close to you. Placing the weight lower in the pack, making it closer to your hips is recommended, but I like it a bit higher. You should experiment with the placement of the load to discover where you like it. It’s also important that the load is balanced from left to right and stable in the pack. This takes some practice to get right, so don’t minimize this task’s importance.
Because packs with internal frames place the gear right up against your back, pack the items such that they do not jab you while you are wearing your rucksack. Nothing is more uncomfortable than getting speared by camping gear while you walk. When you are using your pack for a purpose, such as carrying supplies on a hike, your load will be the total weight of your needs. When training, you can craft any item(s) into a load for resistance.
Sand bags are great tool to use for a training load. You can fill them with various amounts of weight and they conform well inside the pack and up against your back. I use bags of cement varying in weight and wrapped in 100-mile/hour (duct) tape for protection and durability.
These are very comfortable to carry for long durations and are available cheaply at your local home improvement store. I’ve heard of using bricks, rocks, kettlebells, pots and pans, etc., but I would recommend setting yourself up with something more comfortable. Even old textbooks work well.
If you’re in the service, your footwear is chosen for you: combat boots. You have to train as you fight, so you’ll be rucking in your boots. Make sure they fit well: press your heel to the back of the boot and ensure you have enough room off the front of the toe, but not too much. Your feet will swell when you ruck, so don’t wear boots that are too tight, and try them on in whatever thickness socks you are going to wear.
Modern boots do not require the break-in period that the old leather boot used to, but to avoid unnecessary foot issues, do break in your new boots a bit before you hit the road. If you don’t need to be in uniform on your walk, unblouse your trouser legs and lace your boots like below, using two sets of laces for each boot, the bottom lace tighter, to hold your foot in place, and the upper lace looser, to allow your lower leg room to swell.
For the rest of us, I advocate some type of “less” shoe. Not a true minimalist shoe, but one with less support, and minimal heel-toe drop. The Native Americans populated the Americas barefoot or while wearing a thin layer of animal skins on their feet. Let me say it outright: I don’t advocate barefoot running or hiking. I advocate minimal, but sufficient footwear (though I have witnessed more than a few hikers coming off the Appalachian Trail in flip-flops).
If you are overweight (either excessive adipose or muscle tissue) and run for exercise on dense surfaces, then you’ll probably want more cushion than a true barefoot shoe provides. If you are normal weight for your structure and run on softer terrain, then you can go with as little support as possible. This will be an individual choice and experience.
Wearing footwear that allows your foot to be close to the ground will minimize the chances of rolling your ankle, making the ankle support characteristics of boots unnecessary. This lets your own lower leg strength adapt to support your ankle stability. Boots also provide far too much arch and foot support. The more support your foot has, the less it has to navigate the ground and support your body weight, which is unhealthy for your legs and feet.
The work your feet and legs have to do with minimal support maintains the strength and balance within these structures, reversing or preventing muscle atrophy. Many cases of lower leg and foot pain can be traced back to weak and atrophied foot and lower leg muscles not doing their part to support the foot’s arch. So for your training, less support and stabilization is better, but jumping from spending 24/7 in a highly stabilizing and supportive boot to none at all will cause some growing pains.
Be smart, and gradually reduce external foot support. Give your feet and lower legs adequate time to re-adapt to the task of supporting your body—take up to three to six months to work into less shoe. Finally, make sure your footwear fits properly, and play with different lacing techniques. I use this:
You may wonder why I’m advocating minimal shoes instead of hiking boots. I’m not saying that boots have no place in hiking—they provide protection from the elements, support to your feet and ankles in harsh terrain, and can allow you a better foothold in some cases. In your training, however, why not take the time to also stimulate the proper functioning of the foot and lower legs?
The Proper Terrain for Rucking
Select any terrain or trail that suits you. You can ruckmarch around your subdivision with a loaded pack, getting your training time in, but you may not reap the mental health benefits. Don’t walk too far on heavily crowded roads, and change sides periodically if you must. Choose a terrain which most matches your application: if you’re headed for a selection course in sand, clay, and hilly terrain, do less hardball time (i.e., rucking on firm or paved surfaces—though some training here will be necessary) and more time on a surface similar to your target environment.
For general recreation and fitness, just get out and enjoy nature. Challenge your body to navigate the natural terrain. You can find guided trails in most locations, or simply go off-road and make your own trail. A charged-up GPS and cell phone as well as other emergency precautions may apply. I personally do most of my rucking on the roads, occasionally driving to a trail. I enjoy the convenience of walking right out my front door.
How to walk. This seems so obvious that I should just skip over it. No. My clinical experience analyzing human locomotion indicates many people do not walk properly, even without a load on their back, so let’s check this box. Rucking is an excellent opportunity to improve and reinforce your natural walking gait—the one that strengthens your body rather than adding stress and dysfunction.
Walking gait is a heel-to-toe affair that should incorporate the entire body. A stiffened spine should resist trunk motion while the arms and legs transfer force into the ground. So, the core must be strong enough to tie together Dr. Mark’s four knots. Or, Geoff and Tim’s “X” must be tight and resilient. The opposite arms and legs must work together during contralateral locomotion by transferring their respective forces through the trunk. Rucking can develop spinal integrity and core resilience like no other activity.
Stand up tall, take short but frequent strides, and drive your arms hard. The description from top to bottom: keep your head up with your eyes looking out ten to fifteen feet in front of you, using your peripheral vision to navigate the ground directly below your feet. Do not walk with your head down. You may need to drop your head periodically to negotiate obstacles (don’t step on smaller items in your path—step around them), but always seek good cervical spine alignment.
“Anti-shrug” your shoulders under the straps of the pack. Don’t pull them down hard, but do keep them down and back. The straps of the pack provide a traction-like effect on the muscles of your upper body, as they press down on your shoulder girdle. Use the long duration of the walk under this effect as a tool to open up your chest and increase thoracic spine mobility. Continually check yourself for shrugging or rounding your shoulders forward, and reset them as you go. The postural improvement you can gain here can be phenomenal, if you stay aware of your positioning while you walk.
Keep your midline (the space on your abdomen between your sternum and pubic bone) neutral, that is to say, slightly hollowed. Practice this by standing up and crunching, as in the exercise—close your midline. This is trunk flexion. Now do the opposite—open your midline. This is trunk extension. Staying a bit hollow is to keep your midline slightly closed. Practice this often.
Think of a crisp and sharp kettlebell swing. The desired position while walking is similar to the plank position at the top of the swing. Keep your hips open and extended. Only a very heavy load on your back should cause some hip flexion, but this should be minimized. Your center of gravity shifts rearward as a function of the weight in your pack. Try to offset this shift by leaning forward at your ankles, and less than your hips:
Bipedal walking, as in human locomotion, resembles an upside-down pendulum. Find this balance between almost falling over forward and backward with the different center of gravity that the load creates, and offset it at the ankles through your stride. You will step out to the front less with a heavier pack and more with a lighter one, but this difference will be within a small margin.
With practice and attention to this, you will get this balance right, and minimize hip flexion. As I like to say, “Walk on your glutes.” Keep these muscles clenched and feel them drive your legs back. This important part of locomotion will help to keep your hips open and balanced. Your knees should naturally get into the correct angle: greater going up hill, and less going downhill. While you can just about let your knees do what they do naturally, your feet are a different story.
You need to concentrate on what your feet are doing. Your stride should be short, landing on the heel or heel/midfoot. As your leg accelerates through the stride, actively push off the ground through your great toe. Your legs are close to extension while walking, so focus on using them as long levers, swinging the ankles about the hips. The glutes (and hamstrings) are to the rear of the leg driving it back, and the hip flexors are to the front, swinging them forward. If you can’t feel this action during your walk, try my two-hand overspeed swings, focusing on the tug-of-war between the opposing body lines, posterior versus anterior:
The concert of your glutes, hamstrings, and quads forcefully catapult the kettlebell forward, then the lats, abdominals, and hip flexors catch it and throw it back into the hinge. This is a similar action to what you should feel as you walk, though with one leg at a time.
Proprioceptively, you should feel your elbow and humerus on one side of your body connected to your knee and femur on the other as you walk. The limbs on opposite sides move together. The momentum of the same side arm counters the motion of the same side leg; and the force of the opposite side arm both pulls the leg forward, and drives it backward by it’s action through the “X”. It may take some time to develop this feeling—do some more crawling.
To summarize the technique, keep your head up, shoulders down and back, midline hollowed, hips open, and walk on your glutes while deliberately swinging your arms. This takes practice to master, so practice while you’re walking around during the day as well. This description of rucking technique is in stark contrast to what I first learned: “Put your head down and stay with me,” Sergeant Bo demanded of me on my first team ruckmarch. Learn from my mistakes.
View the ruckmarch not as a task to be finished, like a more conventional fitness goal, but as postural and locomotion practice. Feel the posture of your body and its movements and it will make you a stronger walker. Through this practice of high-quality walking, you will complete your distance goals. Build up to a very brisk walk, but do not run.
If You Get Stiff While Rucking
You will likely experience some stiffness in your upper body during your walk with a loaded pack. From time to time during your walk, do this drill: continue to drive the legs through your midsection as you interlace your fingers in front of your upper chest. Then, raise your elbows to the sky while your interlaced fingers remain in front of your upper chest. Then, force your hands overhead, fingers still interlaced. Rotate your shoulders around—protract and retract your scapulae—with your fingers still interlaced. Then, release your hands, and slowly lower your arms until they point out to the sides, like a cross. Rotate your shoulders some more: like pouring a pitcher of water forward and backward. Then, make larger arm circles before re-cinching your pack’s straps and anti-shrugging your shoulders back down into normal arm carriage. Seek to keep your midline a bit hollow the whole time, and don’t chicken neck during this drill. This periodic flexing and rotating is great for shoulder health and mobility, and will help to open the chest and thoracic spine.
Ruck Training for Basic Conditioning
If you decide to add rucking to your training, please, start out light and short, depending upon your experience. However strong or conditioned you currently are, if you’ve never endured under a load, you will run the risk of joint pain or injury. Start out with a distance between 2-4 miles, carrying 15-25lbs of weight. Walk once per week, and increase only one of these variables each week: either 5-10lbs or 1-2 miles.
Use nasal breathing to guide your pace—you literally should be able to keep a conversation going. For basic fitness conditioning, working up to 60 minutes ruck once per week, with a load that gets your heart rate to an average of 125-135bpm (age dependent) is sufficient. You can use a heart rate monitor or the “180 minus your age” formula to calculate your target, but there’s no need to get particular about it.
First, maximize your speed and give your body time to adapt to walking briskly with a loaded pack. When, and only when, you have achieved your max walking speed, then add weight to your initial 15-25lb load until you acquire the appropriate heart rate. It’s really this simple—your basic LSD work applied to ruckmarching.
- Practice posture/walking.
- Increase speed to max.
- Slowly increase load or distance until desired length and weight is met.
Soldiering and Higher-End Recreation
For specific applications, such as basic soldiering or selection preparation, you’ll need to do more than the above. For basic soldiering, maintain the frequency, but increase the distance and load. Highly dependent on your career field, rucking 8 miles each week with 35lbs is the minimum. Be able to cover this distance on the hardball in around two hours, and over terrain in about 2.5 hours without running. And be prepared to go out to 12-15 miles every once in a while, or when required. The U.S. Army’s standard is 12 miles in 3 hours with 35lbs, rifle, Kevlar-helmet, and boots/BDUs (a former duty uniform moniker).
Ruck Training for Selection
For selection course prep, you are going to have to get to the point that you enjoy having that “tick” on your back. However, this may be true only for those courses that use loaded packing as a foundational activity. Though many of the operator selection courses across the military have you constantly under a loaded pack, some do not. Most (if not all) do require some sort of timed ruckmarch, so although you will have to be prepared for this specific event, it may not need to be to the extent found in this section.
For the majority of courses, you will likely carry 50lbs+ of dry weight in your pack most of the time. Meaning that during any movement, your home will be your back. So, your prep will have to change from the basic model accordingly. Understand that this course will suck no matter how physically prepared you are, so first, get right—mentally.
You will need to ruck two or three times per week, but there is no need to recreate your training into the event itself. Don’t overdo it. Work up to 50lbs for your longer rucks and walk over both terrain and on the road, though there won’t be much “easy” road walking during the course. Push your long ruck out to 20 miles in small weekly increases. Work up to being comfortable walking at near top speed with this load out to this distance. One of your weekly walks will need to be short and heavy, and this is fine to do on the hardball. Work up to 90-100lbs and be able to go 4-5 miles. Stay postured up as described (as best you can), and walk quickly without running.
If you’re capable of a weekly 10-mile with 40lbs at the start of your training, then you should be ready in sixty to ninety days. You will only need four to six weeks of those very heavy walks in your prep program, including the gradual increases up to the training load. Combine this with a simple but intelligent strength program and one weekly run session.
Remember, don’t turn your training program into your event. You don’t need to meet the intensities, distances, and suck-factor of the event during your training. Train intelligently towards a peak, then “compete” at your course with your acquired abilities. Guys have been making the cut for years with nothing more than rucking, running, and calisthenics. Train smart.
Fuel and Water for Rucking
I’m not going into much depth here but it is important enough to mention. It is better to train yourself to complete your walks without food. Try and ruck early in the day on an empty stomach. Unlike endurance races, you are not in competition with others, and some military applications will require you to perform with a lack of fuel. Rucking on an empty stomach will also improve metabolic flexibility and fatty acid fuel use. Eat well after your hike.
Make sure that you hydrate. Do not underestimate the importance of water intake, especially on the longer walks, and in warmer and humid climates. Dehydration can get out in front of you quickly, and with no warning. Drink plenty of water the night before, try to ruck in the earlier, cooler part of the day, and carry water with you on your walk. Drink water throughout your walk, even if you’re not thirsty. In general, if you’re sweating less, then you’ll need to drink less, but this is highly dependent on a number of variables.
Why You Should Consider Rucking
The number one benefit of rucking is aerobic conditioning. Engaging your body in activities that keep your heart rate at an elevated but moderate rate for an extended period of time improves your aerobic base through adaptations seen at the cellular level. These improvements can only be accomplished by moving at a low intensity for a sustained duration. Perform a search for “mitochondria health,” “metabolic flexibility,” “aerobic base,” and “long-slow distance exercise”. There is plenty of material conveniently available elsewhere on this subject and it is too lengthy for this article.
As opposed to jogging, swimming, biking, or rowing, rucking is easy on the joints, places you in a strong and correct posture, and doesn’t compel the user to “go glycolytic” (using primarily glucose metabolism by training too intensely), as you are already moving at the top speed of your walking gait. You could, of course, load too heavy, find an uphill route, etc., to increase the intensity but you won’t get that feeling of needing to move faster for more conditioning once underway, as the “high” of the exercise-induced endorphins washes over you.
I can’t overemphasize the postural benefits from rucking. If you constantly correct your posture as described, you might just remove some of your constant low-back pain, lack of hip flexibility, and thoracic spine issues. You will most certainly tighten your “X” and build resilience into your trunk. This resilience will reduce your potential for non-collision injury, and increase your performances in other activities.
I’ve been ruckmarching for years and have personally found that it is a fantastic mood elevator; and it seems to be more effective at it than jogging. This may occur because walking both steadies your head closer to static than jogging and produces slower locomotive speeds. These two differences allow you to receive greater and more accurate information about your environment. The further you remove yourself from the vehicles and bustle of the roads and the closer to nature that you can get, the greater the positive effect on your mood.
Coupled with my basic program of crawls, get-ups, and swings, ruckmarching rounds out the resilience producing effects within your chassis, improves your mental health, and establishes a wide-platform of aerobic fitness. Happy trails!