One of 2 of the most common questions I receive in my weekly instagram Q&As is along the lines of “how to get better at rucking?” (the other is the same, except sub in “running”). It’s a bit frustrating because it’s a very non specific, context void question, but it’s still a valid concern nonetheless.
Of course, everyone is at a different starting point in regards to their running and rucking prowess and my answer’s specificity will depend on many factors. That being said, there are plenty of key overarching principles that apply to almost everyone when it comes to improving their endurance ability. This article’s primary focus will be maximizing your timed 12 mile ruck performance.
Why a 12 mile ruck?
For those who aren’t familiar, the Army (I can’t speak for other branches) employs a timed 12 mile ruck to assess the aerobic fitness levels of soldiers in a multitude of different selections and specialty schools.
The timed 12 mile ruck is one of several assessments the army uses to gauge combat readiness. Is running 12 miles with a 45 lbs ruck on your back something you’ll ever do in combat? Absolutely not. Although I don’t know for sure why this test is held in such high regard, My best guess is that it’s a logistically friendly means of assessing how disciplined or undisciplined a soldier is with regards to maintaining their physical fitness. If you can ruck 12 miles fast, it probably means you take your physical fitness seriously.
Most somewhat fit individuals can struggle their way through a 12 miler and meet the minimum standard of 3 hours, but doing it in 2 hours or faster actually requires a considerable amount of physical preparation (for 99.99% of people). Regardless of the reason for it, if you want to excel at any higher level school or course (SFAS, SFQC, Ranger School, EIB etc.), a respectable 12 mile ruck time is part of the curriculum.
What is Considered a Respectable Time?
Do you need to finish this event in under 2 hours to succeed? Absolutely not. Again, the minimum standard time is 3 hours, so you could clock in at 2:59:59 and you’d pass. But I’ve always emphasized (and will continue to do so) that minimum standards shouldn’t take up any real estate in your head if you want to truly succeed. Being “just barely good enough” isn’t the best way to go through life, and that includes your career as a soldier.
Not everyone is genetically capable of rucking 12 miles in 2 hours, but everyone is genetically capable of finishing well under 3 hours. The following are some 12 mile time references, based on my personal experience attending multiple Special Operations courses and specialty schools (I partook in at least 6 12 mile ruck assessments throughout my career):
- Skating by (fix yourself): 2H55M-2H59M
- Below average: 2H45M-2H55M
- Average: 2H35M-2H45M
- Above Average: 2H20M-2H35M
- Top ~10%: 2H5M-2H20M
- Top 5 finisher: 1H55M-2H5M
- Top 1%/winner: 1H35M-1H55M (big range because some classes have super studs)
These times will vary depending on where you’re at. At Ranger School, for example, students undergo the 12 mile ruck in a sleep deprived, calorie deprived, highly fatigued state, resulting in slower times. If it’s summertime and you’re rucking in the south, also expect slower times (more on rucking in the heat later). But these are some general times to consider when preparing for this event.
Why listen to me?
I spent 12 years in the military, all of which were preparing for and serving in the Army Special Forces. As mentioned, I participated in at least 6 timed 12 milers throughout my career (and did several more on my own time), and my worst finishing time was 2H9M at Ranger School. As mentioned previously, the conditions for fast ruck times at Ranger School are about as unfavorable as they can be. The event takes place after 5 days of minimal sleep, lots of smoke sessions (the Army’s term for involuntary PT such as pushups, air squats, holding your ruck overhead, bear crawls, etc.), and very low calories. In other words, Ranger Students are very depleted by the time the event kicks off.
When conditions were ideal and I had time to prepare for a 12 mile assessment, my times ranged from a PR of 1H36M to 1H55M. I was actually more proud of my 1H55M time because it was done on a very hilly course at a dew point of 78 degrees - aka, basically rucking through a swamp. Either way, I’ve personally prepared for several 12 milers, and helped a lot of other people improve their 12 milers considerably. The simple fact that I’m able to produce times like this doesn’t make me qualified to give advice. But I’ve also spent the last 15 years obsessively learning about and experimenting with human performance. You can take my advice or leave it, but if you consider the information herein, you’d be hard pressed not to slash several minutes off your ruck time.
The attributes required for fast ruck times are quite unique. Those who excel in running are not automatically going to excel at rucking. Interestingly enough, those who struggle with running may actually be surprisingly good at rucking. The main reason for this is the wildcard physical attribute required for rucking prowess: full body strength.
Yes, rucking 12 miles in under 2 hours requires a high degree of both cardiovascular and muscular endurance. But it also requires a measurable amount of strength, because you’re not just running with your body weight, you’re adding 45+ lbs to your frame (the ruck weight varies depending on the school - for the SFQC it’s 45 lbs “dry” meaning your ruck must weigh 45 lbs before you add your water sources).
The main reason elite runners are not inherently also elite ruckers is because they don’t have the strength requirements to carry a ruck for that long. The main reason some guys with average or even below average run times (e.g. 2 & 5 milers) are above average at rucking is because they possess above average strength levels.
But to be a very high level rucker, a combination of very good aerobic fitness and above average strength is required. Therefore, if an elite runner were to just add some consistent strength training to their program (even if it cost them a little bit on their run time), they’d be far more likely to become an elite rucker.
Likewise, if the strong guy who struggles with running were to add some more aerobic work to their routine (even if it cost them a bit of strength), boom, they’d likely go from above average to top 10%.
Putting it altogether, the main attributes required for being a fast rucker are aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, and full body strength. Of course, having some “tissue tolerance” is also a consideration. This is the result of lots of time spent running and rucking as well as a proper progression - adding some lower leg strengthening exercises like calf raises and tibialis raises are icing on the cake. There are several correct ways to go about preparing for this event, but let’s first highlight some things not to do.
What Not To Do
In my experience, most people approach training for this event incorrectly. This is why it’s uncommon to see many people finishing near or under the 2 hour mark. The following are the 3 most common ways to incorrectly approach training.
"Assessment cramming" - Similar to cramming for a test, this one was always a head scratcher for me. You can't cram for a physical fitness test like you potentially could for a written test. Many people have a misunderstanding of how the body adapts to training, in particular, how much time it takes. Can you start training for a 12 miler 2 weeks out and expect to get anywhere? No. You’re not going to slash much off your ruck time if you begin training for it 1, 2, 3, probably even 4 weeks out (unless you’re a genetic anomaly).
I witnessed this constantly throughout my years in the Q course, and not just with rucks, but other PT assessments. For example, sometimes we’d learn on a Friday that we had a PT test the following Monday, and guys would go do pushups, situps, and running all weekend in hopes to improve their fitness…over 2 days. This sounds made up, but it’s not.
This is not the way. The last 5-10 days before a difficult event should be what’s known as a taper, which includes a reduction in volume and/or intensity, allowing your fatigue to dissipate so you show up to test day feeling fresh. Starting a taper means your hard training is done. You’ve made all of the adaptations available to you, and tapering allows you to maintain them while fatigue levels fade away. Starting training at this time is a great way to show up to the ruck highly fatigued, likely leading to significantly worse performance. Not the best idea.
It has always been my opinion that you should always be 6 weeks out from crushing any physical event. In other words, if you learn about a 12 miler 6 weeks from now, you’re fit enough to be able to get a respectable time tomorrow, but with some focused training, you’ll be able to get a very good time after a 6 week training block (to include a good taper). If you’re not following the 6 weeks out rule, don’t expect to put up a respectable time. You can’t go from unfit to incredibly fit in 6 weeks, but you can go from pretty damn fit to incredibly fit in 6 weeks.
Overtraining- As you’ll learn in the next part of this article, there are ways to maximize your ruck running performance without doing a whole lot of ruck running. Running prowess, walking with a ruck on, and being relatively strong from head to toe will carry over well to ruck running. A common mistake is to do a ton of ruck running leading up to the event, and while some folks can handle this approach, most can’t. Ruck running several times per week to prepare for a 12 miler is likely to do more harm than good. Showing up overtrained or in a highly fatigued state is not the best approach. To learn how not to do this, keep reading.
Hoping for the best- Also known as undertraining, this is basically showing up to the ruck and hoping you’re fit enough. If you’re a relatively fit person, this is likely to be enough to complete the ruck under the cutoff time of 3 hours, but it’s probably not going to enable you to finish in the top 10%. Some form of preparation is a good strategy.
Training & Example Week Structure
Training specificity is important for any physical discipline. To get better at squats, you need to squat a lot. To get better at running, you need to run a lot. Micheal Phelps didn’t become the GOAT in swimming by doing a lot of biking. Michael Jordan didn’t practice ping pong to become the best basketball player in history.
That being said, ruck running prowess actually requires less specificity than certain other disciplines. The main reason for this is the physical stress and extreme fatigue that accompanies ruck running. If you weren't aware, running is the most physically stressful form of traditional cardio. And that’s without a ruck on. Add an extra 45-50lbs to your frame and ruck running blows regular running out of the water in regards to impact.
Because of this, it’s usually a good idea to find ways to improve at ruck running while doing as little ruck running as possible. Fortunately, if you look at the attributes required to excel at rucking, you can start to piece together other ways to train besides ruck running. Overall, being a good runner and relatively strong will lend itself well to being a fast rucker. You can become good at running by running more. You can get stronger by lifting more. Therefore, most of your training should involve running and lifting, that is, until you’re a couple of months out from the 12 miler. As a general recommendation, when you’re more than 3 months out from a timed 12 miler (or any event that involves one or more timed ruck runs) you can easily get away with 1-3 rucks per month, so long as your other training involves running and strength building. Once you get inside 3 months (or for some people, 6-8 weeks), more rucking can come into the mix. Even still, ruck running more than 1x/week is usually not required. There are anomalies as with anything, and some people can get away with more ruck running. I personally ruck ran 2-3x/week when training for Special Mission Unit Selection and it served me well. I do have a relatively extensive endurance background, and rarely noticed any structural issues from ruck running.
However, the vast majority of people would likely dig themselves into a deep recovery hole or succumb to an injury if they were to ruck run several times per week. For most people, the last 6 weeks to 3 months before testing a 12 miler should include a ruck run at least every other week (weekly if you can handle it), a ruck walk 1-2x/week, and 2-3 running sessions per week (2 runs on ruck run weeks, 3 on non-ruck run weeks). There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but this is a general overview.
Here’s a look at a sample training week (ranges indicate where to start & where to work up to)
Monday: Full body lift & run repeats (400-1K repeats, 2-3.5 miles of volume)
Tuesday: Ruck 45-75 minutes (walk only; 50-60 lbs)
Wednesday: Non-impact conditioning (if your conditioning is weak) 45-90 minutes
Full body lift if your strength is weak (can add 20-30 minutes of conditioning after)
Thursday: Tempo or Fartlek Run (15-40 minutes)
45-75 min ruck if your rucking is a major weak point AND/OR if you handle rucking volume well (fast walking w/45 lbs dry)
Friday: Full body lift, no conditioning
Saturday: Long ruck w/running (odd week), long run (even week) - or, if you can handle ruck running weekly, can be a ruck every week.
This is just an example - there are several ways to skin it. The important things to note are the times/distances and their wide ranges. You don’t want to start with the maximum when you’re still 3 months out. Slowly add volume over time, take a deload week when needed, begin tapering 7-10 days out, and listen to your body.
To be more specific, here’s what a training week may look like 4 weeks out (your hardest weeks should be ~3-5 weeks prior to the event).
Monday: Lift 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps close to failure (1-2 RIR) of: A squat movement, a hinge movement, a vertical & horizontal pull, a vertical & horizontal push
Repeats: 5x1K repeats at goal 2 mile pace (1:1 work:rest)
Tuesday: 75 minute ruck with 55 lbs. Aiming for sub 15 min/mile pace walking (if you’re short, this pace may be a struggle. If you’re over 6 foot tall and you can’t walk continuous sub 15 miles, you are behind the power curve)
Wednesday: 90 minutes rotating back and forth on the Jacob's ladder, stairmaster, rower
Thursday: 30 minute tempo run at goal 5 mile pace
Friday: Lift 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps close to failure (1-2 RIR) of the same/similar movement patterns as Monday, preferably with less lower body volume
Saturday: 2 hour ruck march - run flats & downhills, walk uphills. RPE 7.5-8. Negative split (more on this below)
Hydration and Fueling
Rucking for speed is easily one of, if not the most grueling events one can partake in. Many timed rucks take place in full Army uniform, and when you add a 45+ lbs load to your back, the rise in core temperature along with the sweat loss is almost comical (especially in heat and humidity).
Despite this, timed rucks occur year round - and if you’re training to be in Special Operations, you’re likely going to partake in a 12 miler at some point between the months of May-September in the brutal morning heat of North Carolina. Hydration and fueling for rucks is crucial, and to be frank, most people miss the mark by a long shot. In fact, this is such a big issue that I plan on writing a full article on the subject. Failure to hydrate, fuel, and acclimate to heat properly can literally result in a trip to the hospital (or in some cases, heat related death). The ability to cool yourself is paramount for rucking.
If you don’t train for it, your body won’t be prepared for the extreme inevitable rise in core temperature, and you’re playing with fire. If you don’t eat right and hydrate with adequate electrolytes, you have no chance. Plain water isn’t enough. Eating a high carb breakfast 2 hours before you step off isn’t enough. The hydration and fueling must begin several days out. The acclimation to the heat must occur several weeks out. You can finish a ruck under 3 hours and pass if you fail to prepare, assuming you’re relatively resilient. But if you don’t take fueling and hydration seriously, there’s zero chance you’re finishing anywhere near 2 hours.
Pacing a 12 mile ruck is always debauchery. Newsflash, you probably can’t hang onto your 7:30/mile pace you shot out of the gates with for the first 400 meters for the remaining 18,800 meters (the # of meters in 11.75 miles). 97% (made up number, but based on my experience and observation) of people start out way too fast, and spend the back half of the ruck hanging on for dear life, deep inside the pain cave.
This is not the way to do it, regardless of how fit or unfit you are. A negative split should be the goal, regardless of your overall finishing time. This means your last 6 miles are FASTER than your first 6. This also means if you go all out in the first half, your back half won’t be anywhere near as fast (seems obvious, but this is literally the way most people approach it). Save some gas for the back half and watch your overall finishing time improve drastically.
The 12 mile ruck can be a daunting event. It’s not something to take lightly, and failure to prepare is bound to lead to disappointment. If you’re someone who just likes to skate by and be the gray man, that’s fine. But no matter what you hear, being the gray man is not a good standard to hold yourself to. By accepting gray man status, you’re essentially accepting not living up to your potential because you don’t want to put in the work required.
When new guys show up and teams are choosing who they want, the good teams fight for the high achievers, and the gray men go to the gray man teams. The good teams get the important, highly sought after missions, the mediocre teams don’t. It’s important to note that a personalized approach based on your own strengths and weaknesses will always beat a generalized approach. That being said, implementation of the strategies included in this article will certainly result in a better 12 mile time.
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions on how to improve your 12 miler, leave it in the comments below of connect with me on Instagram (@terminator_training).