It was mid-night and I was hiking the Laura Secord trail along the Niagara Escarpment through dense forest. I was virtually alone, in complete darkness. All I had was a head lamp, running shirt, combat pants, combat boots and 24 kg on my back. The trail was 25 km long. It was one of the most grueling and yet rewarding experiences of my life. I’ll tell more about the ruck later on this article. Before I do, let me talk to you about why you should try out ruck marching, especially if you hate running.
Why rucking is a great alternative to running
Here are the reasons according to the Brett and Kate at the Art of Manliness. Ruck marching:
- Raises your heart rate (= cardio)
- Burns more calories than walking and just a little less than running
- Significantly reduces the strain on your knees
- Can challenge the mind, like running
- Yet, it’ll still allow you to enjoy the scenery
If you hate running, I know the feeling. There’s something about the dull monotonous pain that seems to never end that gets me mentally. Further, when I run, I always feel stressed. Instead of being able to enjoy nature, I just keep thinking of the next stride.
However, I can hike for hours. So, why not enjoy the hike instead? Add a bit of weight, and you’ll be ruck marching and enjoying all the benefits mentioned above.
Getting started with ruck marching
It’s very simple to get started with ruck marching. Simply:
- Grab a backpack
- Put something heavy in it
- Start walking
Now, let’s go into some details here. According to the Brad McLeod of SEALGrinderPT, your backpack should preferably have hip straps and shoulder straps. If you can get it, get a backpack with an internal frame. Internal frame backpacks have aluminum or titanium support frames weaved inside the pack. They offer rigidity that hug your back and prevent load shifting, which can be very difficult to bear for a long distance ruck.
When it comes to adding weights, Brad recommends starting with 10 pounds and working your way up. Starting off too fast will lead to injury. According to Brett, it’s best to cap it off at 50 lbs. Going overboard can lead to back injury. I’ve heard of veteran soldiers who couldn’t stand up straight due to years of ruck march over-training.
For weights, you can use dumbbells, sandbags, salt bags, water jugs, or even bricks. Make sure to pad the weights so that it doesn’t dig into your bag or shift while you walk. Center it along your back, and make sure it doesn’t shift from side to side. Like I mentioned, it’ll be difficult to bear load shifting over a long march.
Finally, when it comes to walking, get a good pair of boots or shoes. Make sure they’re broken in before you start your march. You can break in your shoes / boots by just walking in them for a while until they feel comfortable before you pack on the weights.
Cut your toe nails. During my ruck marches, long toe nails start to dig into the shoe and irritate your foot. After a few kilometres, it’s a real test of mental endurance you don’t need to bear.
If you’re walking far, to prevent blisters, use thick socks (that’s what we did in the army). Brad recommends double socks, which we did as well. One to suck up sweat, the other to pad our foot. Tie your shoes / boots tight enough to be snug, but loose enough so that it doesn’t strangle your feet. If it’s too loose, it can shift, which will be very annoying. Further, use foot powder as it’ll dry up sweat as it builds up.
You may not realize this, but as you march, especially long distance, your arm pits and space between your inner thighs will start to develop a friction rash. It’s also annoying. Preempt the issue by applying vaseline to those areas.
Choose a trail you enjoy, add a few pounds to your proper backpack and start walking. Just try it for a kilometre or a few with limited weights (if any) and do it once a week. As you feel stronger and get more confident, raise the distance or the difficulty of the trail. Then start raising the weights. According to Brad, you can challenge yourself further by adding squats or planks during the walk, and carrying a weight in your hands.
But again, don’t start off too strong. You may get injured. Start off slow and build up the experience and strength.
My endurance test through Ultra Niagara
Ruck marches are a more palatable way to get your cardio. But you can quickly ramp up the difficulty if you so choose.
As I mentioned above, the ruck march I was on was both grueling and rewarding. It was called Ultra Niagara. It was a 4-man relay, where each person had to complete the 25 km route until the team covered 100 km through the Laura Secord trail. As the officer of the team for 32 (CER) Combat Engineer Regiment, I took the night relay (leaders eat last) and gave my men the day light relays. I started off deep into the night and took off alone.
The first 10 km
For the first 10 km, I jogged and went over several hills and through dense trails until I hit a main road. Everything was going great. I was excited and on a thrill ride. However, at the main road there was a side street that took the march route into the forest again. That’s where I got lost and had to retrace my steps until I found the trail markers to keep going. But, then trouble hit. When you’re in a rhythm, your body tends to listen to you. As soon as you stop, your body begins arguing.
The second 15 km
I started jogging again, but my quads and hamstrings started to spasm up. Water and electrolytic gels weren’t working, so I started walking like I was on stilts for the remaining 15 km. There I encountered an infamous hill that was so steep, I crawled my way up.
Blisters started to form on my feet. Every step felt like a needle was puncturing my sole. But, I just knew that if I kept walking, the pain would numb away. It did and finally, after a few hours, the sun was rising and I came across another rucker. We stayed together for the last 2 km encouraging each other. Those last 2 km were the longest steps I’ve ever felt.
The finish line
The finish line was just in site and we took off on a final dash. But, I just couldn’t run. As soon as I started running, my legs locked up again and I just jogged to the end. After I dropped off my bag, and got something to eat (thanks to my second-in-command who saved me breakfast), I wasn’t able to walk. My feet were sore beyond words. Every step sent a shock wave up my feet and shoulders. It was a real challenge to walk for the next few days.
But in the end, I served my unit and represented 32 CER. Ruck marching doesn’t have to be hard. But if you want to raise the ante, it can become very challenging.