Nutritional Strategies for Fitness Testing and Selection Days

Private 1st Class Tyler Royston of HHB, 1-119th Field Artillery, gulps some much-needed hydration after finishing the Army Physical Fitness Test September 11, 2019 at Ft. Custer, Mich. (Photo by Capt. Joe Legros/Michigan National Guard)

When preparing for a fitness test, you need a combination of specific training for weeks in advance and proper fueling strategies to help you be at your best on testing day. Never try something new on the day of a fitness test.

When preparing for a fitness test, you need a combination of specific training for weeks in advance and proper fueling strategies to help you be at your best on testing day. Never try something new on the day of a fitness test.

Throughout your training and normal workouts, you should note what is or is not working for you regarding foods and drinks consumed before and during the fitness test.

Here is a list of strategies to consider so that you're ready for game day:

1. Carb up

Carbs are our body's high-octane fuel source, ideal for the high-intensity efforts required for fitness tests (lifting, throwing, running, swimming, high-rep calisthenics). You get more energy per liter of oxygen through carbohydrates.

The day prior to the test (and really before any workout day), you want to consume mostly complex carbs (8-12 grams per day per kilogram of body weight). Complex-carb options include brown rice and whole-grain wheat and pastas, but you also want simple carbs found in fruits and vegetables (green leafy lettuces, apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, carrots, etc.).

The more color variety, the better with your combination of fruits and vegetables. The nutrients are there to keep you healthy before and during the PT Test. As Lt. Col. Barringer, Ph.D., says, "The best ability for a fitness test is availability. If you are sick and cannot show up for the fitness test, that is problematic."

  • On the day of the test (hours before), take the following approach. We can digest a gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour, so an 80kg person (176 pounds) can digest up to 80 grams of carbs in the hour prior to the test. At two hours prior to the test, that would be 160 grams of carbs. For reference, anything under 100-150 grams of carbs per day is typically considered a low-calorie diet.
  • You should practice your game-day fueling routine during training days to make sure your system agrees with the types of energy sources you are using.
  • You also can consume about 30-60 grams of carbohydrates or sugar during the event. Sipping on a Gatorade or juice can help you recharge with carbs during a long, high-intensity fitness event.
  • Make sure you are well-hydrated, especially if you are dealing with extreme temperatures during the event. Thirteen to 20 ounces of water is a good baseline recommendation. It's important to replace salts like sodium, potassium and magnesium after sweating profusely in hot and humid environments, especially on the day before the fitness test. During longer events, you should add about 5-10 ounces of water every 15 minutes to your hydration.

2. Protein and good fats

Calorie-dense foods are awesome for recovery on training days, as well as on the long days of spec-ops training. You should consume lean protein sources in the amount of 0.8 grams of protein per pound of your body weight per day.

Protein is going to be an important part of the recovery from the training day, so make sure your meals after the workout, test or training day are high in good sources of protein. Meats, fish, chicken, eggs, nuts, almonds, beans, milk with additional whey protein powder (optional) or peanut butter are good options.

I ate brown rice and lima beans at the end of the day (after dinner) as a snack during SEAL training. I also carried peanut butter packages with me for extra calories when long days of spec-ops training started to drain my calories from regular meals.

Many of these protein sources will have fat, especially red meat, chicken, eggs, dairy and fish. You may want to limit some of the saturated fats from red meat or chicken skin and go more with fish, nuts or olive oils (mono-unsaturated fats) for overall better health.

During high-intensity, spec-ops training, you want to eat as many calories that agree with you.

3. Training recommendations

Before the fitness test, you also should arrange your workouts during training cycles to look like the events of the test. That means swim first, then do calisthenics, then run if you are preparing for the Navy physical screening test (PST) of a 500-yard swim, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and a 1.5-mile timed run.

If you are doing a lift day, that is fine, just make sure you are swimming first and running last to develop the type of aerobic conditioning you need to score well. These military fitness tests can be the difference as to whether you achieve the next rank or get accepted into a special ops training program.

This video is an interview I conducted as part of the Tactical Fitness Report with Barringer, a dietitian with a Ph.D. in nutrition. We discussed some fueling strategies to optimize performance before, during and after fitness test events like the Army combat fitness test and the Navy BUD/S PST. We also discussed some fueling strategies for Ranger School and Navy SEAL training.

VIDEO: TFR219 - Nick Barringer Talking Nutrition For Testing and Selection

4. Consider a food and training diary

To better test what does and does not work for you, consider making a food and training diary. Write down the foods and drinks you consumed before, during and after a workout, as well as the rest of the meals and extra activity throughout the day.

Consider talking to a registered dietitian or nutritionist to verify that you are receiving the proper nutrients to perform at your best and stay healthy.

This diary will allow you to reference total calories consumed and burned throughout the day. Weigh yourself before and after workouts as well to see how much water you lost during training, especially if you are dealing with hot and humid environments.

Regular weight checks done at the same time each day will confirm if you are in a caloric deficit (losing weight) or caloric surplus (gaining weight).

On days you performed well and reached new personal bests, look at the previous 24 hours. Consider how you ate, hydrated, slept and trained on the day before. You may find the formula that works for you to perform at your best when it really counts.

Do the same if you performed poorly, had no energy or your stomach felt ill during training. These could be signs that you did not properly fuel or rest during the previous 24 hours and are not fully recovered from the previous day of training.

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

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