Fueling Strategies for the Army Combat Fitness Test

Soldier participates in Army Combat Fitness Test.
Lt. Col. Stephen Miko, 25th Infantry Division G-39, makes his first attempt at the three-repetition maximum deadlift event during a diagnostic Army Combat Fitness Test on Feb. 25, 2020, on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. (Staff Sgt. Alan Brutus/U.S. Army photo)

With the new Army Combat Fitness Test rolling out this year to replace the older Army Physical Fitness Test (PFT), you will not only need a strategy to train specifically for the new test, but you'll need to recalibrate how you fuel your body so you can handle the additional challenges to your different energy systems.

The days are gone when you can show up with a banana and a bottle of water and push through the Army PFT. The new ACFT will require you to fuel properly for the power, strength and load-bearing events, as well as the high-repetition calisthenics and two-mile run.

The body works with three energy systems, and the new test makes demands on all three of them. Developing stronger energy systems will require you to practice events similar and specific to the test on a regular basis.

The good news is if a soldier just "trains for the test," he or she at least will be a more well-rounded tactical athlete complete with strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, muscle stamina, grip, flexibility and mobility. This new test will test it all, but it also will require a higher octane fuel than you are used to eating before testing.

Here are the energy systems that have to be fueled long before taking the test.

Eating Strategy (Before, During, After)

First of all, the ACFT will take significantly longer than the APFT. The APFT could be completed in less than 30 minutes and therefore did not require as much effort as the new ACFT. The new test will require a lifting and mobility warm-up session, and transition times that will take longer than the old test. So fuel up.

During the ACFT, there are not many low-intensity events. They all are graded on your best effort -- even the run at the end will require some higher-intensity effort -- especially on the final kick as you dip into the anaerobic system from the aerobic system.

You will get most of your fuel from good carbohydrates in the form of high-grain breads, honey, yogurt, fruit and non-caffeinated sports drinks (with real sugar). I have found a honey packet before the event and sipping on a carbohydrate drink (such as Gatorade) helps maintain glucose and glycogen levels for tests like this.

TIP: Mixed results - Avoid caffeinated sports or energy drinks as they will increase your heart rate to much higher levels and reduce your performance on the higher heart-rate events as well as the running. Though some have seen better results with moderate doses of caffeine in some workouts, testing on a maximal effort with caffeine has not produced similar results, and in fact, the combination has been performance-reducing and even deadly if too much caffeine is used.

The alactic ATP/PC energy system is your speed and power short burst max effort energy system for events such as the deadlift, medicine ball power throw and sprinting. The alactic events, such as the dead lift and power throw plus sprinting, first use up stored ATP in the muscle (about 2-3 seconds worth) and then it uses creatine phosphate (CP) for about 6-8 seconds until the short-term energy storage is burned. Once this occurs, your body will move to the next easier source of energy (typically glycogen and glucose) with anaerobic metabolism (glycolysis -- higher heart rates or efforts) or aerobic system (fat metabolism -- lower heart rates).

Glycolytic/Anaerobic (leg tucks, T push-ups, sprint drag carry, two-mile run -- final kick): You may start off with the sprint drag carry event in the alactic phase, but once you no longer can sprint full speed (run out of ATP-PC), you will downshift into the energy system and start to use the glycogen stored in the muscles and liver as well as the blood sugar in the bloodstream. Adding some carbohydrates before training, competitions or testing is a good plan, as you will use that fuel source.

All of these events listed will require anaerobic metabolism as high-rep calisthenics, and load-bearing shuttle runs will get the heart racing and increase the need for more glycogen. Sipping a sports drink or honey packet - if it agrees with your stomach - is something you should test during practice test workouts to see how you perform. What you want to avoid is complete burnout of glycogen in your muscles and liver or glucose in your bloodstream during the test. A little extra boost to the final lap of the two-mile run will require a solid storage and most likely a small refueling during the actual test itself.

Aerobic Energy System -- At the end of the ACFT, you likely will be near tapped out of much glycogen in your body. But the good news is if you start off at a moderate pace that you trained for, you will have a lower heart rate. Your body can keep up with the oxygen demands, and the fuel source from fat metabolism can get to work. However, if you want to have some pep left for that last 400-800 meters, you will need some glycogen to tap into. Between events and while you are waiting for the next station to open is an ideal time to fuel up on fast carbohydrates for that final kick in speed. The two-mile run will start off in this energy system, and the more you run and train this energy system, the less you have to rely on the anaerobic system to get you to your faster goal time.

In the end, what energy system you use and how you perform depends on your conditioning. Being well trained in all systems is now a requirement in order to do well on this test. That means lifting weights, sprinting, doing high-repetition calisthenics workouts and running a variety of methods to keep up with the demands of this new test.

Not only has the Army changed the fitness test, but it also changed the need for higher-quality foods in order to master this test. See related articles for specific ideas on what to eat in the days, weeks, hours or minutes before (and during) the test.

Meals Prior to Fitness Tests

Nutrition for Fitness -- Before, During, After Testing / Training (Protein, Carbs, Fat Ideas)

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.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues