How a Cross-Country Runner Prepares for Military

USMC cross country team

Working with people who are seeking to serve in the military in their near future has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. People arrive at the recruiter’s office from different types of backgrounds with different body types, athletic history, as well as cultural differences every day, but they are united by their motivation to serve. The next several weeks, the topics of preparing for the military will focus on the different types of recruits and the different training and preparation journey each may need in order to be ready for whatever branch of service they choose. This week’s focus is on the endurance athlete who runs.

The Longer Endurance Runner – Cross Country Athlete Strengths

The cross-country or longer distance runner athlete comes to the military with many strengths and some weaknesses that typically need to be remedied prior to showing up for military service and especially military special ops programs where weaknesses are quickly exposed.

Pure Running Ability - There will be no running race in the military that this athlete will fail. In fact, in typical 1.5 – 3 miles timed runs of the various military services, the cross-country will likely lap most people if running on a track and easily pace a 5 minute mile for multiple miles – even on a bad day.

Mental Toughness – You do not get to be a good runner without being mentally tough and able to endure the pain of fast running for long distances. To make a running team and to win races requires daily gut checks in training and especially in competition.

Body Composition / Weight – As you will see, this is a strength and a weakness. First, the XC runner will likely not be even close to overweight like a large portion of the population. Second, the running athlete if eating properly can put on weight quickly and add significant strength and muscle by starting a PT / weight lifting program. However, being light with lower muscle mass can add to many PT testing, load bearing, weight training weaknesses at first.

The typical runner is lean with very little upper body mass. This enables them to run fast while in competition as they can stay in an aerobic training zone for most of the race and push hard on the last 10% of the race to finish strong.

I asked a strength and conditioning coach Jeff Nichols CSCS who has worked with both high school and college running athletes. He states, “Because they are aerobically conditioned they can get away with less muscle. In fact, most world class male runners are 115-120 lbs. Many coaches push a lighter body mass for their running athletes.” Also he states, “Because they are so conditioned with running, they can maintain aerobic cycle for energy and they get away with having little muscle. Moreover, more muscle for the runner means longer glycolytic cycles with inhibits getting into the aerobic (oxidative) cycle.” Obviously being that light is not a strength with a light back pack will weight 50-60lbs.

The Weaknesses of the Runner

The major issue from personal experience with pre-training XC runners for the military is getting them to accept their weaknesses and learn how to get stronger for all the other tactical demands of a future military career. Sometimes an athletic lifetime of staying skinny can make it difficult to men and women to want to eat more to gain weight. In fact, there are many eating disorders in such athletic activities. But some of my best students who crushed challenging special ops level military training programs were former runners who added strength training and eating more food to their training program.

I will never forget the 220lb former XC runner who ran an a sub-8:00 mile and a half after doing the Navy SEAL PST of 500yd swim, pushups, situps, pullups, first. He was an endurance guy who lifted for a few years prior to trying out for Navy Special Warfare and got huge, but he was still fastest guy on the track that day.

To make this transition: This means eating more food, trying to gain weight, lifting more weights for both upper and lower body strength, and crushing upper body PT tests with exercises like pushups and pullups.

Strength Training - Typically running athletes are weak especially in the upper body. However, if a former runner at 145 lbs. can put on put on about 15-20 lbs of lean muscle mass, he/she can take any previous weakness and quickly make it a strength. Former running athletes also have to realize they do not need to run their 1.5 mile timed runs in 7-7:30 minutes, though many runners are still able to do this even with an added 15-20 lbs of muscle mass and strength added to their body. See Tactical Strength for starters.

One of the recommended methods to helping an endurance athlete make this transition is to have a calisthenics base training program mixed with weights then run on the back end of the workout. But he / she must reduce the running significantly compared to previous running training cycles. Instead of running 70 miles a week, you would need to drop it back to 30 miles at the MAXIMUM end and focus on strength and other events like rucking and/or swimming depending on the branch of service entering. Instead of long 10-15 mile runs, drop that down to faster and shorter 4-5 mile timed runs.

Do Not Run On Empty

The biggest concern for the young pre-high school / high school athlete seeking to be a fast cross country runner is do not stop eating in order to be lighter for running and inhibit your natural growth cycle. Plus running on empty will make the final kick of a race difficult, if you have no fuel in the tank. You need the fuel in healthful foods and you need carbs, protein, even fats for energy - not just for running but for living. Do not confuse World Class running athlete training and diet programs with yours whether you are training to become a tactical athlete in the military or just want to make the XC team in high school.


Finding motivated and selfless servants who are preparing for a career in today’s military gives me hope for our future. Regardless of your athletic background, becoming a tactical athlete requires taking your current strengths and molding them to the service requirements and focusing on current weaknesses that could be detrimental to the new recruit or spec ops student. If you are a current running athlete, make sure you lift weights in the off season and work on your strength – especially your legs, hips, and core. Add in some calisthenics for the upper body and core to get stronger but stay leaner for your upcoming running season.

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