Military basic training presents physical challenges unlike that of sports and everyday life. Running or hiking long distances with a rucksack weighing 35 to 70 pounds places strain on the body from the ankles up through the knees, hips, lower back, shoulders, and neck. So does jumping from vehicles and aircrafts and landing on uneven surfaces.
Just as basic training prepares recruits for deployment and combat situations, it should also establish strategies for reducing injuries, not just during training itself but also out on the field. Here are four strategies to do just that.
The shoulders take a beating during basic training, just as in everyday life. After all, there’s a reason it’s called shouldering a burden. During basic training, military personnel wear heavy rucksacks, perform countless pushups, and navigate obstacle courses where the shoulders are placed under a heavy load. Many military personnel, like civilians, have dysfunctional movement patterns from hours spent hunched over computers and steering wheels, which round the shoulders and tighten the hips. Such a condition predisposes them to injuries in basic training.
That’s why a stretching program or, better yet, a dynamic series of Movement Preparation exercises that prepare the body for activity, is crucial to preventing basic training injuries. Even five to 10 minutes of Movement Preparation and Pillar Preparation, which stabilizes the shoulders, torso, and hips, prepares the body for the heavy burdens to come.
“Recruits often are going from a cramped space of transport to jumping out and running with no warmup,” says Tyler Wilkins, a performance specialist at EXOS. “There’s often no time in that situation, but if you can work in Movement Preparation during training or downtime, it can make a big difference."
Our natural instinct is to drop our shoulders forward, especially after long periods humping a pack. But we should be doing the opposite. Encourage your recruits to elevate their sternums and let their shoulder blades hang back and down, which will give them proper posture. Tell them to imagine themselves “feeling tall,” as if there’s a fishhook inserted under their sternum, pulling them up. This improves long-term shoulder health and is something that they should do over the course of any day, not just following a day of basic training.
When recruits jump from an obstacle or vehicle and land on hard, uneven surfaces, they need to absorb the force of the impact from ankle to hip and spring back like an accordion.
When recruits jump from an obstacle or vehicle and land on hard, uneven surfaces, they need to absorb the force of the impact from ankle to hip and spring back “like an accordion,” Wilkins says. A hip or ankle condition prevents the body from dissipating that force, placing undue pressure on the knees, lower back, and shoulders.
The key is to have good proprioception, the system of pressure sensors in the joints, muscles, and tendons, which provide the body with information to maintain balance; and also elasticity, the body’s ability to store and release power efficiently.
Movement Prep and Pillar Prep will help here, too, in reducing injury risk during military basic training. “A lot of it comes down to posture and movement quality,” Wilkins says. “They’re not training in an optimal state if they have postural and movement impairments. And that can lead to injury.”
Maintaining soft-tissue quality is a key part of reducing the chance of injury while maintaining high levels of performance. Tissue is like a rubber band that you want to keep supple and elastic. Unfortunately, tissue tends to get knotted up with spasms from basic training, and spasms and poor tissue quality can lead to injury.
Spending five minutes on a foam roller following a day of training can jump-start recovery. Provide tennis balls for trigger-point, self-massage exercises that will work areas such as the IT bands, thoracic spine, and bottoms of the feet.
“Having optimal tissue quality is going to set your recruits up to succeed,” Wilkins said. “It’s hard for their bodies to respond day after day to the demands of basic training without being proactive with recovery beyond sleep and nutrition.”
Hydration is a big component of basic training performance that must be addressed.
Losing just 2 percent of your body weight due to fluid loss decreases performance. For heavy, salty sweaters or those training in an extreme environment, such as military basic training, it’s important to pay attention to the sodium content of beverages. Cramping has been linked to electrolyte loss, especially sodium loss. Provide recruits with a hydrating beverage that has at least 200 milligrams of sodium per 8 ounces to maximize electrolyte replacement.
The amount of fluid lost (measured as a loss of body weight over the course of a session) is an indicator as to the risk of a decrease in performance and eventually heat illness. The more weight a recruit loses, the more serious the impact to performance and health. Before training (1-2 hours before), advise recruits to drink 17-20 ounces of a hydrating beverage. Immediately before training, they should drink 7-10 ounces. During training (every 10-15 minutes), they should drink another 7-10 ounces. Post-training, they should drink 20 ounces for every pound lost.
“Hydration is a big component of basic training performance that must be addressed,” Wilkins said. “If hydration is off, they’re starting off at a huge disadvantage.”
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