An introduction to Rucking: How it originated, how it can benefit you, how to set up your ruck, how to program and progress with rucking.
Interested in taking your cardiovascular endurance to the next level? Wouldn't you like to be able to move for longer distances on foot, all while getting stronger, staying structurally healthy and maintaining muscle?
In this edition of underrated exercises, I’d like to introduce rucking. Rucking, or hiking with a loaded backpack, is popular among military units and has been utilized for decades in order to train for combat. The type of rucking used in the military is by no means the healthiest, nor would I recommend anyone training this way regularly. Fortunately, however, rucking can be done in a very safe manner if you just consider a few key points.
Life Under the Ruck
In the military, rucking is often used as a way to measure overall physical endurance in soldiers. It’s used as an assessment tool at many special operations’ selection courses, as well as prestigious schools like the US Army Ranger School. It’s also used frequently by countless units as a regular form of unit physical training (PT).
The main issue with the military’s use of rucking is that when it’s used as an assessment tool, soldiers are encouraged to ruck as fast as possible. When given a certain distance to cover under and encouraged to finish it as fast as possible (to increase your likelihood of getting selected), most soldiers resort to running. Running with a weighted backpack (called a ruck) is extremely injurious and will eventually lead to structural damage, joint pain, muscle imbalances, postural issues, overuse/overtraining and burnout.
For the purpose of this blog post, I will provide insight on how to safely implement rucking into your fitness routine. This post will include information on why rucking is beneficial to improve your endurance, total body strength and cardiovascular health, as well as how to begin rucking and scale it as your fitness improves.
I want to make it clear that with some practice and dedication, almost anyone who’s able to walk is also able to ruck. However, unless you’re a high level tactical or military athlete who is actively preparing for a selection or special school that requires timed ruck assessments over a given distance, running with a ruck on is highly advised against. Therefore, throughout this entire post, I will be referring to rucking as simply walking or hiking with a weighted backpack.
Why Rucking Over Running?
If you’ve followed my content for any significant amount of time, or if you’ve read one of my recent blog posts about walking, you know all the benefits simply going out and walking more will provide you. If you’ve been walking for a while now and want to make it more cardiovascularly demanding, you may be considering upping the pace to a run.
I have nothing against running, but many people don’t run correctly and therefore will put themselves at a significantly increased risk of injury if they begin to implement it. Enter rucking. Walking is great, but unless you’re very cardiovascualrly unfit, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get into a heart rate zone that will improve your cardiovascular fitness by simply just walking. However, if you add some weight to a backpack and do the exact same walk that you normally do, you’ll find that the added load will increase the effort required to walk, which will lead to an increase in heart rate.
Intro To Zone 2 Cardio
Zone 2 cardio is the most heart-healthy, joint and nervous system friendly form of cardio one can participate in. “Zone 2” refers to a heart-rate range, and is slightly different from person to person. There are 5 zones of cardio, but zone 2 is where at least 80% of your cardiovascular training should take place. Studies also show that 150 minutes of zone 2 training weekly has a significant positive effect on your overall health.
Unless you have specific endurance performance goals, conducting all of your cardiovascular training in zone 2 is likely the best option. There are several reasons for this, including:
- Zone 2 is a relatively low intensity, so it’s easy to do for long periods of time
- It’s not highly stressful on the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, or joints
- You can recover from zone 2 quickly
- It’s not mentally stressful or daunting
- It can be done several different ways
- It will not interfere with your weight training, muscle mass, or strength (unless done excessively or in an extreme calorie deficit)
How do I know I’m in zone 2?
If you prefer to track your heart-rate, and have a device that’s able to accurately do so, the range you’re looking for (for most people) is 130-150 beats per minute (bpm). If you want to be more precise, use this calculator to get your own personal zone 2 range.
An even simpler way to know you’re in zone 2 is to execute a “talk test”, where you say a 10-12 word sentence while conducting your cardio activity. If you’re able to say the whole sentence without needing to pause for a deep breath, you’re likely in zone 2. If you’re unable to say the sentence without a breath, you’re going too hard. If you can say significantly more words, you’re taking it too easy.
Why Rucking for Zone 2
Many people will defer to running in order to get into zone 2. Unfortunately, while running is the most commonly utilized form of cardio, it’s also the most injury-producing. Why? Because running properly is a highly technical activity. Average people tend to go out running to make themselves tired, rather than actually taking the time to practice their form and technique.
Because running is highly impactful and repetitive on your joints, over time, overuse injuries are likely to appear. Additionally, many people will run with too much intensity and find themselves well above a zone 2 effort. If you’re a skilled runner, and have been practicing running for a long time without issue, feel free to continue.
If not, simply adding some weight to a backpack and walking will give you all the same cardiovascular benefits as running, but greatly reduce the risks. Rucking is far less impactful than running. It’s also a great way to improve your core strength, shoulder health, foot, hip and leg strength, and even reduce low-back pain.
Another major positive is that you can ruck any time, anywhere. You can also build up your fitness to where you can do it several times a week. Simply adding some weight to your back will increase your heart rate as compared to unweighted walking, and is a great way to get into zone 2.
How To Start Rucking
IF you’ve never rucked before, you’ll want to start slow and conservatively. Although rucking is relatively safe and healthy, if you start with too much weight, speed, or distance, you may find yourself injured. First of all, ensure you have the proper equipment. You can theoretically use any backpack you’d like, but there are certainly some that are far better (and safer) than others.
The best backpacks for rucking are sturdy hiking packs, which are designed to hold a considerable amount of weight. You could also buy an actual military style rucksack. If you prefer to go this route, I recommend the “ Malice pack” from tactical tailor. I’ve been using the Malice pack for 8 years consistently and it’s extremely versatile and durable, and it still looks and feels brand new. If you’re looking to get serious about rucking, this is the way to go. But if you just want to add a bit of weight and ruck occasionally, any backpack will suffice.
For most people, starting out with 10% of your bodyweight is a good idea. If you weigh 200 lbs, a total weight of 20 lbs is a good starting point. Each week, you can add small amounts of weight as your body adapts to the activity. I also recommend starting with short distances, but rucking relatively frequently.
Instead of just doing one long ruck a week, begin with 2 to 3 shorter ones. As far as exact distances, It’s difficult to make a recommendation because everyone has different fitness levels. But if you usually walk 2-3 miles a day, for the first week, wear a ruck for 2 of your walks. The 2nd week, up it to 3 (and perhaps add 2-5 lbs to the load). Once you’re adapted to rucking, you can then change it to where you’re doing one longer (1 hour+) ruck per week as part of your overall fitness routine.
Along with load and distance considerations, how to pack the ruck is also an important factor to your success. You want the majority of the weight close to your body, and high up in the ruck. If you’re just using a barbell plate (my preference), ensure it’s tight towards the frame and not loosely bouncing around. I promise, this will save you some mental and physical pain.
If you don’t have a barbell plate, another effective method is to fill most of the ruck with lightweight but high volume items like fluffy blankets, pillows, clothes or towels and put the weight at the very top. You can use literally anything you’d like in order to make the ruck weigh the desired amount. I recommend weighing the ruck and not just guessing, because you don’t want to be off by too much. Overall, you just want to load the ruck so that it’s as comfortable as possible and not dragging your shoulders and traps into a painful position.
Ensure you’re adequately hydrated. You’ll work much harder when rucking than you would if you were to just walk without weight. This will lead to more sweating and increased need for proper hydration. If it’s hot, ensure you hydrate enough prior to and during your ruck.
You’ll also need to consider footwear. Having the right socks and boots/shoes will ensure your feet remain healthy. Blisters or foot injuries may lead to inability to continue rucking. A good, thin pair of sturdy wool socks tend to work well for most people, along with a good pair of hiking boots or trail shoes. Again, if you start conservatively and remember not to push the pace, distance and intensity early on, you should be able to assess how your feet respond and adjust as necessary.
How I Ruck
Assuming I'm not training for any sort of selection, I like to implement rucking twice a week. I walk a ton (multiple times daily) so adding a ruck to the mix for 2 of my walks is a pretty easy task. I use a Tactical Tailor Malice Pack, usually with 35-45 lbs in bumper plates placed vertically in the pack and tightened down so it’s snug and the weight is not bouncing around.
I wear thin wool socks and either my Salomon speed cross trail shoes or my Asolo hiking boots. If it’s warm/hot, I wear minimal clothing (I do not recommend rucking without a shirt due to the ruck straps irritating bare skin) and ensure I bring some water and electrolytes. On longer movements, chafing may be an issue so I apply body glide to certain areas (shoulders, lower back, groin). One of my weekly rucks is shorter (2-3 miles) and one is longer (5-7 miles). To avoid injury, I don’t run. I just walk at my normal walking pace (15-16 min/mile).
Wrapping It Up
If you want to take your walking or cardio to the next level, rucking is a great option. It’s more enjoyable than sitting on a bike or other piece of cardio equipment because you get to be out in nature. It’s safer than running, and more heart-healthy than walking.
It can be done anywhere, anytime, all you need is a backpack and a positive mental attitude (PMA). It burns more calories than walking, and combined with proper nutrition and resistance training can be a viable strategy to aid in fat loss. Rucking will lead to improved total body strength, increased cardiovascular performance and health, and potentially a great new habit.
Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear from you. What Questions do you have in regards to rucking?