The Army’s Running Problem

by Capt James Rodgers | January 27, 2021

(Image [1])

Author’s Notes: This article is an elaboration upon the initial arguments presented in Mark Rippetoe’s Why you Should Not be Running and and LtCol Ryan Whitmore’s Combat Worst Case Scenario. The target audience of the first article is the general population and the second article is about a combat scenario, something much more interesting than mundane initial training, but the central themes of both articles inspired me to conduct the following analysis of our own training system. The Qualification Standards and associated tasks are specific to the Canadian Army, but I suspect that a similar analysis of the initial soldier training for any Western military will result in a similar conclusion.

It is a staple of Army life: groups of soldiers running together alongside a road in the pre-dawn darkness. It is something that has been a part of the Army’s culture for as long as anyone can remember. We encourage running as a healthy and important part of any Physical Training (PT) regimen, as an absolutely necessary base of fitness that every soldier needs to obtain in order to be effective. We have the Army 5 kilometer run, the Army half-marathon, unit runs, the Terry Fox Run [2] and unit-level running tests. We celebrate members of the Army team that compete in running and officially sanctioned PT programs that include distance running.

Distance running is a popular PT method for a number of reasons:

  1. It takes minimal effort or technical competence from leaders to plan and execute.
  2. It is pretty easy, once you get used to it.
  3. It can be justified by institutional history.
  4. It makes chunky recruits lose a bunch of weight.
  5. The person leading PT has watched Band of Brothers too many times.

At the same time, “the ability of the Canadian Army (CA) to force-generate soldiers for operations is significantly impacted on an annual basis by injuries caused by, or exacerbated by physical fitness training and activities. The number of knee, ankle and lower back issues that precludes CA team members from deploying on training and operations is noteworthy.” [3]

Within our training design process, there is an activity known as a validation. What happens is that the graduates of a certain course within a given timeframe are asked a series of questions about whether they are applying the skills that were trained while on course. This is useful because it lets us know if the training system actually reflects the realities of military duties and helps us keep our training relevant. It is applied to knowledge and skills taught on course, but it is not applied to PT, an important component of initial soldier training and an excellent opportunity to develop our personnel. Let us analyze the value of distance running by looking at what its effects are, whether those effects are useful and the costs of developing a middle-distance running capacity.

Here are the questions:

  1. What physiological effect does running long distances have upon the body?
  2. Is there a logical link between the accumulated physiological adaptations caused by training for distance running and improving a soldier’s ability to perform Army tasks as detailed in their trade’s initial training?
  3. How does distance running compare to other training strategies in terms of injury rates?

Bottom Line Up Front:

  1. Distance runners get better at distance running. It makes you lose weight and become weaker (unless you are extremely weak before you start, then you’ll get a little bit stronger).
  2. No, there is no productive relationship between running and soldiering.
  3. Running produces injuries at a rate that is 16 times lower than soccer and about 105 times higher than weight training.[4] These injuries are expensive and take a long time to fix.

More to the point, strength training for a healthy young soldier does not prevent that soldier from being able to run in the event it becomes necessary, but failing to train for strength prevents the development of strength. People who do not train for strength themselves seem unable to understand the fact that you don't have to run all the time to be able to run occasionally, but that you do have to train for strength frequently to get stronger. And stronger is more useful to a soldier.

The Physiological Effects of Distance Running upon the Human Body

It is a common practice for a physician to prescribe exercise to an unhealthy patient, “take 30 minutes of exercise four times a week.” That usually is interpreted as 30 minutes of walking, jogging or swinging your arms or legs around in some manner. That may be perfectly fine as a means to mitigate obesity, but it is not what we do in the Army. We run, we run far and we run hard, because we do hard things, and doing hard things toughens people up and we want tough people. Distance running has an effect upon our energy systems, muscle mass, and skeleton.

welding equipment structural steel

Welding equipment and structural steel are heavy. Getting stronger makes them easier to handle. (Image [5])

Metabolic Adaptations

The main selling point of why it is necessary to run is that it trains “endurance,” and endurance is a good thing to have because it is desirable that a good soldier have the energy to keep doing the things that they need to do in the course of their duties. There are also benefits for heart and lung health. However, these benefits are irrelevant because we do not recruit from a demographic at risk for cardiovascular disease. Upon closer examination of the various metabolic systems that humans use to generate energy, it becomes clear that distance running is only a partial and inadequate approach to endurance training.

To explain why this is the case, first it is time to give a brief and grossly oversimplified explanation of how a human body makes muscles contract. A muscle cell contains a chemical called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). When stimulated by a neuron, one of the phosphates is broken off of the ATP so it become Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) and an electron is released which causes the muscle cell to contract. A metabolic system is then used to turn ADP back into ATP so that muscle cells can use it to contract again. There are three main systems which supply the energy to make this process work: the oxidative, glycolytic and phosphagen energy systems. They all work simultaneously, but are taxed to varying degrees based upon the intensity and the muscular recruitment requirements of the activity which is being performed. The phosphagen system is able to replace ATP near instantaneously but is expended after a few seconds. It is used for high power activities like throwing, jumping, short sprints or heavy lifting. The glycolytic system is used for demanding activities that last in the 10-45 second range like a 400m sprint or a maximum-rep pushup attempt. The oxidative system is used for easy activities that last longer than a few minutes like lying on the couch, walking, or a long distance run. These systems support one another to keep the body’s metabolism going. If you do an all-out sprint for 50m, your phosphagen system will be expended, which will trigger the glycolytic system to replenish your phosphagen system and your oxidative system will replenish your glycolytic system by making your heart pump fast and making you breathe hard as you turn fat and sugar stores stores into ATP for about 3-5 minutes.[6]

Distance running primarily trains the oxidative system because that is the only energy system taxed to keep the body moving during a distance run. By virtue of the fact that the pace can be sustained for hours, it is not hard enough to tax the other two systems, which means that the endurance adaptation is only for low-intensity work. The body’s other metabolic systems are untrained by distance running. If you want to train all of your endurance capabilities, go do something harder than running, like hill sprints.[7] Long-distance running does not improve a soldier’s endurance capacity in the metabolic range that is necessary for things that require hard effort.

tank tracks

Tank tracks are heavy. Getting stronger makes them easier to handle. (Image [8])

Musculoskeletal Adaptations

What does running long distances do to a person’s muscle mass and skeleton? Going for a long run here and there is not going to have much of a cumulative effect, but what happens if we introduce a chronic stress of multiple runs a week composed of tens of thousands of impacts and a lot of oxidative metabolic work?

Distance running does not build muscle mass. This simple fact is immediately and abundantly obvious to anyone who looks at any competitive distance runner, but some of us who are overburdened with education will need a bit more convincing.

10k runner physiques

These are the best 10,000m runners in the world. They are all exceptional athletes, but they would be very bad at manhandling a M777 Howitzer or kicking down a door. (Image [9])

Distance running imposes a training stimulus on different types of muscle fibers that are present in a person’s muscle mass. To keep things as simple as possible, the types of muscle fibers that are found in a person’s muscle mass can be generally sorted into three types: Type I Slow Twitch, Type IIA Fast Twitch and Type IIB Very Fast Twitch.[10] They activate according to different levels of stimulus. Slow twitch muscle fibers are small, resistant to fatigue and do not have a high force production capability. Types IIA and IIB are larger in diameter, fatigue more quickly and have a much higher force production capability.

Training stimulus influences the type of muscle fibers that are utilized in a person’s muscle mass. Heavy weight training uses the bigger and badder Type IIA and IIB fibers while running favors the slow, weak and energy-efficient Type I fibers. According to Staron et al, runners had a higher proportion of Type I fibers than weightlifters and even untrained individuals.[11] The implication of this is that long distance running preferentially selects for people with Type I muscle fiber, resistant to fatigue but with a with a low capacity for force production, while neglecting the other higher-force production fiber types.[12] The demands of distance running fail to develop a soldier's strength, speed and power.

Distance running produces skeletons that are frailer than other methods of training. According to Hamdy et al in a survey of active young men, running produced the lowest bone densities out of a comparison of running, weightlifting, cross training and recreational sports. Weightlifting produced the thickest bones out of all activities due to the requirement of the skeleton to adapt to mechanical loading.[13] Thinner bones break more easily and with greater frequency than thick ones.[14] Having thick bones is a generally desirable trait to develop in people that we want to send into combat.


Ammunition is heavy. Getting stronger makes it easier to handle. (Image [15])

Running and Soldierly Training Tasks

Given the preceding details, we now have a general idea of the effect lots of running will have on a soldier. They will have lower levels of muscle mass and their skeleton will show relatively low bone density. They will be much better at running medium to long distances and have an increased capacity to do low intensity exercise. Let’s now validate that newly developed distance running ability as it applies to any requirements of military service or against any of the tasks which they will be required to be able to do on their first day of work once they finish their initial training.

Do you need distance running to pass your annual fitness evaluation? The CAF has a physical fitness standard which is “based on, and have (sic) been scientifically validated against, the performance requirements of general, environmental, military occupation and operational duties.”[16] The common tasks which any CAF member may be called upon to perform are a sea evacuation, land stretcher evacuation, a low-high crawl, an entrenchment dig, and a sandbag carry. You’ll notice that none of those involve distance running. The Canadian Army’s FORCE COMBAT test also has no distance running component.

Perhaps the need for distance running is buried in the task lists of individual trades. The task list is a list of everything that we need a soldier to be able to do once they are trained. They are specific to each different trade within the military. They are a reasonable snapshot of what we need that particular soldier to be capable of doing, and by extension, what they are actually doing once they are trained and posted to their first active service unit. The nature of tasks can range from pleasant and fun (operate outboard motors – DP1 Combat Engineer Section Member) to extreme violence and aggression (perform trench clearing – DP1 Infanteer). I went through the list of tasks for each trade’s initial training and I generally sorted the tasks into three categories:

  1. Run a long distance slowly – 3-30 minutes of continuous jogging
  2. Manipulate heavy object – lift, sprint, throw or move heavy things for short bursts or a series of bursts
  3. Neither – no requirement for a demanding physical performance

Infantry - DP1 Infanteer [17]

Total Tasks 217
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 110
Neither 107

Signals - DP1 ACISS Det Mbr [18]

Total Tasks 112
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 7
Neither 105

Combat Engineer - DP1 Cbt Engr Sect Mbr [19]

Total Tasks 122
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 79
Neither 43

Electrical and Mechanical Engineer - DP1 RCEME Common [20]

Total Tasks 52
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 22
Neither 30

Artillery - DP1 Gunner [21]

Total Tasks 36
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 22
Neither 14

Armor - DP1 Crewman [22]

Total Tasks 52
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 9
Neither 43

Basic Soldier – Basic Military Qualification – Army [23]

Total Tasks 13
Run a long distance slowly 0
Manipulate heavy object 10
Neither 3

A reasonable conclusion to draw from this analysis is that developing a long distance running capability is not relevant to the tasks that a soldier is expected to accomplish in the course of their training to reach their Operational Function Point (OFP). Since the training to get a soldier to reach their OFP is based on the tasks they need to be able to do once they reach their first unit, we can reasonably conclude that long distance running does not make a soldier more effective at their duties. It is therefore not a necessity. They do seem to be manipulating heavy objects a lot, and perhaps an approach to physical training that somehow makes a person as strong as possible would be more valid.

Casualties are heavy. Getting stronger makes them easier to handle. (Image [24])

Comparison of Injury Rates of Different Physical Training Methodologies

So now that we have established that long distance running is an ineffective way to train endurance in energy systems relevant to soldiering, the goal nevertheless remains to make a soldier stronger, more resilient and thus better at their jobs. Now let us consider the injury rate from running and the nature of running injuries.

injury rates in sports and training

This study was done on schoolchildren aged 13-16, which is roughly comparable to the 18-24 year old men and women that we want to recruit. An injury was defined as “any traumatic act against the body sufficiently serious to have required first aid, filing of school and/or insurance reports, or medical treatment.”[25] Cross country running is not the bloodbath that soccer is, but it still produces injuries at a rate that is 100-200 times greater than powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, sports where the objective is to become as strong as possible and lift the heaviest weight. In any case we should definitely lay off the soccer. This is a British study, so there was not data on ice hockey (our national fixation), but I presume that a contact sport played wearing boot-mounted razor blades on a rock hard slippery surface while players whack each other with carbon-fiber sticks and launch a frozen piece of rubber as fast as possible is more dangerous than weightlifting as well.

The CAF is already tracking the high injury rate associated with running and they have already produced the Injury Reduction Strategies handbook, which includes helpful ways to reduce running injuries, like running less frequently, following a reasonable progression or warming up properly.[26] However, a 100% reduction in the running injury rate can be achieved by a 100% reduction in distance running. This is not a difficult logical leap because the injury mechanism is completely removed. A 100% reduction in distance running will not cause any problems with soldier performance, since the preceding analysis has established that it has no bearing on a soldier’s performance of their tasks.

Injuries sustained while running are painful, have a high incidence of recurrence and can be debilitating. In order of prevalence among the general running population they are: medial tibia stress syndrome (shin splints) 9.5%, Achilles tendinopathy (soreness of Achilles tendon) 6.2-9.5% and plantar fasciitis (stabbing pain in the bottom of the foot when you walk) 5.2-17.5%.[27] A diagnosis of any one of these is enough to put a soldier on Medical Employment Limitations (MEL) for a long enough period of time for the acute symptoms of the injury to resolve. The soldier is taken away from being able to properly perform their regular duties (which do not involve distance running) because they cannot walk properly.

The good news is that these injuries are very, very common and the therapeutic treatments are well-established and somewhat effective. So if you get plantar fasciitis on a run and if you diligently follow your course of treatment, things like rest, icing, medication, exercises, supportive footwear, splints and physiotherapy (generously provided at cost by the military) you have a 90% chance that your injury will be resolved in a mere 10 months! If it is not better in a year, then it may be time to consider surgery.[28] If this works you will be pain free until you aggravate the injury on another run, and it is time to start the process all over again.

Running injuries are insidious and they impose a high cost upon the Army in terms of the medical care devoted to fixing them and the loss of trained personnel due to MELs. Untrained personnel are not gainfully employable because they are not qualified yet. They have to wait around, be miserable and do menial make-work tasks and heal until they get another chance to go on course in a few months. Physiotherapists operating practices near Army bases are guaranteed a steady stream of patients. Another thing to consider is that according to legend, the first person to complete a Marathon, Pheidippides, dropped dead after delivering his message to Athens that the Greeks had defeated the Persians at the battle of Marathon.[29] The death rate among participants in the London Marathon is one in 80,000.[30]

Train a Strong Soldier

“Physical strength is the most important thing in life. This is true whether we want it to be or not.” – Mark Rippetoe [31]

Since it is now clear that long distance running is an unsuitable exercise selection for soldiers due to its ineffective development of high-power energy systems, its undesirable effects on the musculoskeletal system, its lack of application to soldierly tasks and its rate of injury production, a wise course of action would be to re-think our approach to the physical training of soldiers. I do not see a rational basis for improving soldier performance by training a capacity for distance running. It is an anachronistic training practice that needs to be relegated to the history books along with horsemanship and musketry. We have been mechanized for over 80 years. We do not cover long distances on foot as fast as possible to advance into battle anymore because we are mechanized. That method of battlefield maneuver was last relevant for Western armies in 1914. It is time to get realistic with training priorities.

personal equipment

Personal equipment is heavy. Getting stronger makes it easier to handle. (Image [32])

Analysis of the battlespace environment tells us that a soldier’s physical tasks are dependent upon strength, power, anaerobic conditioning, and the ability to walk. Since the only people in the age range we recruit from who need to be trained to walk are those recovering from brain/spinal injuries, and are thus currently unsuitable for military service, a sensible training plan will focus exclusively upon developing strength, power, and anaerobic conditioning. Strength training paired with anaerobic conditioning also has the side effect of producing an ability to perform distance running, should the need arise in an emergency. It is incredibly obvious – or it should be – that a strong, powerful, conditioned soldier can also run any distance necessary in an emergency.

The strength training approach produces injuries at a far lower rate than distance running. This will address the problem of the high rates of injuries to knees, ankles, and lower backs because the incidence of injury is lower in stronger soldiers – they are literally be harder to break. A strength training program will maker personnel far more resistant to injury than an endurance and aerobic one because they will have thicker bones, stronger ligaments and tendons, and much more muscle mass.

Any experienced service member knows that a strong soldier is more useful than a weak one. They do not need an expert to tell them this. There is simply no good reason for soldiers to be weaker than they need to be to support an outdated training method that renders them less physically resilient and capable of performing their duties.  

bridge components

Bridge components are heavy. Getting stronger makes them easier to handle. (Image [33])

Long distance running is not a valid form of physical training for soldiers. It produces a physiological adaptation that is unsuitable for soldiering, an ability to run for long distances that is not relevant for soldier tasks, and it produces a relatively high injury rate when compared to other training methods. I propose that personnel responsible for executing PT plans discontinue distance running as a PT method at their units or schools. It degrades operational effectiveness and reduces throughput of trained personnel while also providing little training value.

This is one of those nice solutions where the problem can be easily fixed by doing less work… just stop doing distance runs, let the troops sleep in and injury rates will plummet. You are absolved of your latent military guilt that tells you that you need to run because distance running is irrelevant to modern soldiering. A strength training approach would produce more injury-resistant soldiers who are healthier and better at their jobs.


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