Ask Stew: Selection Programs Preparation — Special Ops, SWAT, BORTAC

Air and Marine Operations conducts joint fast-rope training.
Air and Marine Operations conducts joint fast-rope training with Tucson Police Department SWAT team Oct. 27, 2015, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz. (Dan Barrios/U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs)

Tough selection programs in military special ops and SWAT law enforcement have training requirements that go above and beyond what the mind thinks the body can endure.

Mind-over-body determines who will succeed and who will fail. In these types of training programs, rhabdomyolysis can occur. Your preparation and knowledge on this topic is critical to your ability to avoid it. Check out this email question and answer on the topic of preparation and recovery for such hardcore training programs:

Stew, I am a Border Patrol agent getting ready to apply for the BORTAC selection, which is very challenging with rucking, load-bearing, running, swimming and PT smoke sessions that create a 25% graduation rate typically. In one week alone, we do over 80 miles of load bearing/rucking with serious loads of 75-100 pounds.

Problem: How do you train for this? And many people who fail, fail because they get rhabdomyolysis. How do I prevent that from happening? Thanks, Darryl

Wow, that is a tough program. I have heard about it over the years, and it really is a combo of BUD/S Hell Week and SF selection. It's a respectable challenge that should not be overlooked, for sure. The best answer is to prepare yourself for months -- maybe even have a solid high fitness-level foundation for more than a year.

Building or maintaining the level of fitness takes several days a week -- even a few hours a day -- and a few long days of work and training.

Two types of people get this ailment: those who are underprepared and those who have a bigger, more muscular frame for their body height.

Here is a list of ideas for you to consider, not only for preparation but also for daily recovery and nutrition/hydration/electrolyte requirements:

  1. Thorough preparation with programs like Tactical Fitness: This is a good overall plan to build a generic high level of fitness that is foundational and challenging. Now if a bigger person, the cardio/endurance sections should be repeated or with added miles to build that aerobic base they need to decrease the chances of rhabdomyolysis. However, the thinner/endurance types should consider the Tactical Strength programming to build the mass/strength needed to handle the heavy rucking/equipment carries.
  2. Goals: I think you will seek two things: A) A decrease in injuries on the lighter/endurance guys if they focus on strength (with obvious cardio conditioning: run -- ruck -- swim). B) And a decrease in rhabdo with the below list (nutrition, hydration, electrolytes, compression socks) and aerobic-focused conditioning for bigger power athletes. Losing some muscle mass but building endurance for the bigger athlete and adding some mass/strength on the endurance lighter athlete would be the goals to seek.
  3. If I were to make a template for this program, I would focus on both body types by creating a program that mixed in the option of strength exercises with TRX or calisthenics for bigger power athletes, along with lots of cardio options. And the same program would have more weighted calisthenics, weight training/strength/core work for the endurance guys -- along with a sufficient amount of cardio/load-bearing options (aka rucking).
  4. The key to success for such a challenging gut check as BORTAC is a longer, progressive training program - something 12-24 weeks at a minimum with this strength/endurance focus for your candidates. Otherwise, the quick progression of BORTAC will continue to crush the unprepared.
  5. Selection prep: Building up to 80 miles in a week is not necessary. Building the foundation that allows for that type of gut check requires a significant time at a high volume of miles and long days of work, with long strength/endurance workouts (non-impact cardio, too). This may take morning sessions, lunch sessions and after-work sessions to progress thoroughly to that kind of work capacity. In other words, putting in the time.

The rucks of 70-80 pounds and team building adding another 50-100 pounds to a candidate's load require strength and mass. But the average miles for the week being more than 80 requires endurance. Having a combo of both is required.

Since these candidates have to be current Border Patrol agents, training should be done carrying extra loads during work, standing long periods of time and still working out during the day. Getting proper amounts of strength and endurance requires time training for both in a periodization format that could take a significant time to prepare. This is almost a lifetime of fitness requirements, and you top it off with 6-12 months of specific training.

Here are more tips to help:

  • Aerobic base being king for the long haul of selection
  • Don't train Hell Week to do Hell Week, "overtraining being our worst enemy."
  • Need for non-impact cardio days: Mix in bike, swimming and other to avoid daily impact during training.
  • Learn about rhabdomyolysis and how to prevent it.
  • Proper hydration with electrolytes and nutrition (monitored and enforced/controlled)
  • Compression socks (2XU brand, for example)

Mobility Days

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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