British soldiers are super-fit for one very good reason: their lives depend on it. Those of us happily strolling along civvy street, sausage roll in hand, wouldn’t stand a chance when the Taliban kick off, which is why our squaddies are famously lean, fast and strong.
But the Army’s focus on basic, old-fashioned exercises, simple nutritional plans and speedy results means their training tactics are perfect for the rest of us.
“Army fitness has really changed from the Falklands era to the last years in Afghanistan,” explains Captain Alan Humes from the Army School of Physical Training. “It’s now about aerobic fitness, muscular strength and the speed to react quickly to situations, so a really broad fitness is required.”
Here are 21 ways to be combat ready…
01 Eat brekkie
“Breakfast is so compulsory for all-day stamina that it’s called ‘the Queen’s Parade’, which means if you skip it and keel over it’s a punishable offence,” says ex-Army Physical Training Instructor Gavin McColl. At a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Afghanistan, soldiers eat eggs, lean bacon and wholemeal toast or porridge and fruit.
02 Get extreme
The British Army encourages soldiers to try stag party activities like rock climbing, abseiling and white-water rafting. Dr Erik Monasterio from Otago University’s research has found that extreme sportspeople score lower on harm avoidance tests, meaning they really don’t give a monkey’s when they’re in danger.
As a result they perform better in ultra-stressful situations and they’re less likely to squeal and cack their pants when they find themselves in a tight spot.
03 Avoid salt
Soldiers eat no more than 6g of salt per day. Salt makes you retain water and fat, slowing you down. You’ll be glad of your pace when an AK-47 is aimed at you.
04 Three square meals
To machine-gun the crap out of confusing nutritional advice, the army keeps things ultra simple. “Soldiers eat three square meals a day split into three separate parts, so you can’t go wrong,” says McColl.
Your plate should be one-third starchy foods like potatoes, bread and rice (preferably wholegrain), one-third fruit and vegetables and one-third protein like meat, fish and dairy. It’s as easy as that.
05 Do your Fartlek
To pass the Army Fitness Test all infantry must run 1.5 miles in 12.45 minutes. They train for it with Fartlek drills (what are you giggling at, soldier?).
Fartlek is a Swedish training method that blends continuous training with interval training. So they run for 45 minutes with random sprint intervals. Record your weekly 1.5-mile run time until you’re up to Army standards.
06 Hit the hills
Recruits beef up their leg strength with hill-running. Having stronger legs reduces the time each foot spends on the ground when you run. Reducing this by just 0.02 seconds takes one minute off your 1.5-mile running time so you’ll run faster without working any harder.
07 Visualise victory
“Soldiers visualise missions before combat by closing their eyes and imagining the sounds, smells, bangs and smoke,” says Dr Calum Arthur, a military psychology expert. “It reduces anxiety when you do it for real.”
It also works before a big footy match, job interview or date. Just don’t close your eyes in the real thing.
08 Regime change
“Change your fitness programme every six weeks,” says Captain Humes. “Beating boredom is a big part of army life.” It’s also good for you, as your body gets used to the same length of run or workout, meaning that after a few weeks you’re not getting the same benefits.
So surprise your system and change things around.
09 Boil your food
Soldiers at frontline Patrol Bases (PBs) receive boil-in-the-bag Operational Ration Packs. They’re easy to cook and boiling your food is healthier than frying. Rustle up boil-in-the-bag Uncle Ben’s wholegrain rice, Young’s fish steaks and a garden vegetable pack for your own rations.
10 Burpees are brilliant
“Soldiers need to get fit anywhere, so bodyweight exercises are the best,” says Logan Ovenden-Clarke of British Military Fitness (britmilfit.com). Good old-fashioned burpees can be done in a park or at home and are amazing as they are both aerobic and work all your major muscles.
11 Work with what you’ve got
“A key army philosophy is innovation and adaptability,” says Captain Humes. Troops in Afghanistan built a gym out of ammunition tins, water carriers and used batteries. So that should give you some idea what to do with that clapped out telly that’s in the spare room.
12 Drink more
“We constantly drill soldiers to drink more fluids,” says Captain Humes. Muscles are 75% water so staying hydrated makes you stronger and also helps you think more clearly – ideal for dodging ambushes and winning tennis matches.
“Snacks are allowed on long marches,” says McColl. “Eat dried fruit, apples or bananas for sustained energy.” Not a packet of crisps and a doughnut.
14 Suck it up
Recruits are ordered to breathe from their stomach, not their chest, when running. Chest breathing forces you to lift your shoulders and wastes energy, which is better saved for fleeing mortars.
15 Run with a backpack
Soldiers in Afghanistan carry a PLCE (Personal Load Carrying Equipment) packed with kit. Running around with a heavy bag simultaneously burns fat and builds muscle. Load up a super-supportive Osprey Talon II 33 backpack (£85, cotswoldoutdoor.com) with books, tins or something heavy on your jog to work for double the fitness benefits.
16 Discipline yourself
“Personal organisation is essential to army discipline,” says Captain Humes. Download the free MyFitnessPal iPhone app for a handy journal that tracks your training, diet and calorie-burning goals.
17 Run straight
Soldiers are taught to run with their head up. It helps them to see dangers, but by keeping your shoulders back, your elbows by your side and your core tight, you also transmit power better so you run faster.
18 Breathe easy
“To rapidly compose yourself in any situation, breathe in for five seconds then out for five seconds,” says Dr Arthur. It works when you’re aching in the gym, as well as on the battlefield.
19 Eat bananas
Soldiers eat bananas 30-40 minutes before exercise to ward off cramp as they contain minerals that help muscles to contract and relax.
At the Army Training Regiment in Bassingbourn, troops relax at the on-site arcade or bowling alley. “Learning to relax reduces stress and maintains mental health,” says Captain Humes.
21 Get enough sleep
Soldiers are ordered to get eight hours of sleep. A good kip helps your muscles to recover and helps you burn more calories. Skipping sleep could be making you weak and fat.
Words by Mark Bailey
Photography by Conor Sheehan