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Running Strong in the Military
by Russell Stewart

(Editor's Note: LetsRun.com co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson are known as being big believers of high mileage training but they both approved of this article as they think high mileage training is totally misunderstood. Read to the bottom to get their take on it.)

Feb. 2009- As a former college runner I have found staying competitive enough to race and trying to stay injury free while on active duty in the US Army to be challenging. Most of my teammates who I ran many miles with in college seemed to have given up the sport. Others seem to have let life time events of work, marriage and children curb their desire to pound roads. After reading on LetsRun.com about how Kelly Jaske - 32-year-old Harvard law school grad who never ran in college or high school but was 2nd at the recent US Half Marathon championships - talk about how she manages to run 120 miles a week while working as a full-time lawyer, I was inspired to address how anyone can stay competitive as a runner while serving in a high stress career such as the military.

KJ: I just get up early and run in the morning, go to work, and then run at night. It's like anything else: You can make time for what matters. I think everyone does that in their lives. Some people have kids, and I don't. I know having kids takes a lot of time and is a big commitment, and so they make time for that. I make time for this. I think everyone does it in their own way.

It seems to me that most career military folks are type A personalities who have a solid plan on most things except for in many cases fitness and more specifically running. In the military, each branch of service requires some level of physical fitness and how much physical fitness a soldier is required to do during any given week depends on the type of unit they are in. As soldiers we normally have mandatory physical fitness in the mornings which can include runs, pushups, sit ups and organized sports. Most runners do not get much out of the unit runs (but I have found I can use those low intensity runs as recovery opportunities) so if we are going to train to be runners, we're going to have to develop our own training plan.

Having a goal to shoot for is a very important step. I've discovered that many military personnel (not just runners) have outside interests/goals and therefore will do extra physical fitness in order to achieve goals. Find a race to look forward to – it's a huge motivator to train. Then there are two challenges. One, I think it's critical to find some running partners as it's way easier to stay motivated in a group and then all you need to do is stay injury free.

Staying injury free as a runner while balancing running with physical fitness sessions with the unit is not easy. I have been running since 1990 when I joined the high school cross country team and during the past 18 years of running I have had my share of stress fractures and other running injuries. However, recently I've found a training plan that works great for me and wanted to share it with everyone.

In 2004, I was very lucky to be assigned to Furman University in Greenville, SC where I became close friends with Dr. Scott Murr, Dr. Bill Pierce, Don Pierce and Mickey McCauley. These gentlemen are phenomenal endurance athletes and based on their experience and zeal for knowledge they established FIRST (Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training) and wrote a bestselling book titled Run Less, Run Faster. The key to their training plan is a focus on intervals, tempo runs, long runs and cross training to stay competitive enough to race but also to minimize injuries. I have adopted this approach and feel that it would benefit most military runners.

I have taken the approach from the Furman smart guys and do what I call the weekly menu. Every week I must fit in one set of intervals (average of 3 miles worth of intervals), a tempo run (6-8 miles) and a long run (10-15 miles). Additionally, I do 2 strengthening sessions and depending on the location some cycling and/or swimming. I adjust the days and distances based on the race distance I am training for and what the requirements of the week are with the unit. I've found that I must stay under 40 miles of running per week to stave off injury.

In 2007-2008, I found myself deployed in Iraq for 15 months. Six days a week we worked from 7AM until 10PM. After recruiting some people to run with we adopted and used the menu approach and continued training in the desert of Iraq. We found the menu routine worked quite well and allowed flexibility in the training based on individual goals. While in Iraq, I normally competed in a 5k or 10k every month. My times were in the low 18’s during the cooler part of the year and during the summer my 5k times moved to the 19’s. We did most of our intervals and tempo runs between 0530 to 0630 and on long run days during the heat of the summer we would begin as early as 0400 to beat the heat. The longest race we did was a 10 miler. My running focus for deployment was preparing for the Disney World ½ Marathon in January 28th and several of us who ran in Iraq together are heading to Prague in March for a ½ marathon. I highly recommend the book Run Less, Run Faster for any runner who is trying to stay competitive yet trying to balance family, a high stress career etc.

Let me talk briefly about the marathon.  A mantra I repeat to military runners who all seem to want to do a marathon…..RESPECT THE DISTANCE and train appropriately. Many soldiers will have never done more than the occasional 5k race and then they will enter a marathon without training properly. Normally this leads to an overuse injury and disappointment.

Some additional tips for success:

-Go to a running specialty store and get fitted for a pair of running shoes. The great folks at the Base/Post Exchange do not have the knowledge to sell and fit running shoes.

-Track the mileage on your shoes; I never put more than 300 miles on any pair. Also, consider running in 2-3 pair of shoes to avoid injury.

-Track your mileage and maintain a log to include runs with the unit; when/if you have an injury you can look back at your training and see what could have caused the injury.

-Set realistic goals. Chances are I will never set a PR in any distance half-marathon and below; but I now focus on age group PRs and staying injury free.

-If you have pain; back off for 3-4 days. A week off now could prevent a month off later.

I would love to hear from any other military runners out there who have found ways to balance running and the military. My email addresses are: [email protected] or [email protected].

Russell Stewart is currently assigned to the 1st Armored Division in Wiesbaden, Germany. He attended Bellarmine College in Louisville, KY.  His PRs are: 5k (15:51); 8k (28:04); 10k (33:53); and ½ marathon (1:16:31).

On a side note, he warns: "If you become friends/running partners with Health and Exercise Science professors be careful of the many lab tests you will become involved in!!”

LetsRun.com co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson are known as being big believers of high mileage training but they both approved of this article as they think high mileage training is totally misunderstood. More important than high mileage is RECOVERY. Recovery is the most important part of running.

For someone who is deployed in Iraq and working from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM to try to run a lot of mileage would be simply stupid. There simply isn't time for it, and undoubtedly, one is already exhausted from the physical and mental demands of working a 15-hour shift. A short run or workout would certainly help one feel well but then one needs to recover both physically and mentally.

Additionally, mileage is very much misunderstood because mileage is often a misleading number. The real thing to think about is how much you are stressing your body. When Robert is coaching at Cornell, he always tells his guys "Look at 70 mile week during the academic year is like an 80-85 mile week in the summer as the stress of school is worth 10-15 miles per week." He can only imagine how many miles per week being deployed in Iraq is equivalent to.

The average elite professional runner who runs 100 miles in a week in their base phase is probably actually running for less than 1:40 per day. Even with stretching and weights, it's hard to see how they could be stressing their body for more than 3 hours per day.

The average military person's work day is way, way longer than that. So don't feel like you aren't training enough or that the elites are more dedicated than you. Within a few minutes, we can provide you with countless examples of former elites who nor are 50 pounds overweight as they can't balance running with a normal job/family stresses - let alone a much more stressful military job.Jaske is able to work obscene work hours and still able to run 120 mile weeks, because she has a plan and makes running a priority.

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