Ruck March Marathon Training Program After Action Review

Bottom Line Up Front: I completed a marathon while carrying a 40lb ruck. This post is my ruck march marathon training program after action review complete with the rucking, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and supplementation preparation and race-day lessons learned.

I completed the Tough Ruck yesterday. I carried a 40lb pack for 26.2 miles. I did it for two reasons: it was a physical challenge I knew I would enjoy training for and, more importantly, an opportunity to honor fallen servicemembers, firefighters, and police (read more about the names of the men on the ribbons in the photo here). In general, I think marathons are pretty silly wastes of time. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon (which was actually a lot of fun) so I can speak from experience. I would say definitively now that I am not at all interested in running a marathon again but would do a ruck march marathon again for sure. I think the difference between carrying weight on your back and just running unloaded is actually a lot more than you’d think.

Ruck Training Plan

I have been rucking almost every day since 2013. I got very into walking as a healthy form of physical fitness and added loaded walking by wearing a weight vest then a ruck (backpack with weight). So I didn’t have to ramp up much to do the marathon, just fundamentally add in some really long rucks and adjust how I carried weight. I started this plan three months out from the race.

Each week:

  • 2-3x @ 65lbs for 45-90 mins (3-5 miles)
  • 2-3x unloaded for 45-90 mins
  • 1x @ 35lbs for long distance
    • These were always on weekends and increased in distance peaking three weeks out from the marathon at 20 miles then tapering down.
    • Specifically, it was 8 mi, 10 mi, 12 mi, 15 mi, 20 mi, 12 mi, 6 mi, then race.
    • 20 miles is the farthest I wanted to go in training because honestly if you can do 20, you can do 26.2, so there isn’t any more need to go any higher and risk injury. 15 feels a whole lot easier than 26.2, so I think you have to hit in the 20+ range once to see how your body, nutrition, hydration, and gear hold up.
  • Notes:
    • I initially was using 35 lbs every day and then just going long on one weekend morning, but a few weeks in I started to do heavy short rucks and then walking without any ruck which I found more effective. I was going to do 35 and 65 lbs only but I started to see potential overuse injuries, so I alternated in the unloaded walking.
    • I wore the same shoes for all my rucking (more on gear in a minute) but wore Reebok Nanos or Vibram Fivefingers when walking without a ruck
    • I did every ruck on an empty stomach
    • I only ate during my 15- and 20- milers to get some race-day fueling research in.
    • I usually walked at around a 16-17 min/mile pace. If I ran at all, it dropped my pace to below 15 mins/mile.
    • I ran occasionally to speed up my average pace. The rules are as follows: only run downhill, never run uphill. Run on flat terrain only if you must. I see people ruck running up a hill and it’s just silly. It adds insult to injury. Their logic is to make up for the lost speed, but it just fatigues you more. Running downhill is much easier on your body and more than makes up for the reduced pace up hills.
    • I was not concerned with my speed on the heavy rucks at all. I just wanted to walk with a heavy pack on for about an hour. But on the weekend long rucks, I did care and tracked my pace with GPS.

After Action Review: I think the ruck plan was perfect. I wouldn’t have changed a thing if i did it again. It isn’t really complicated. A few heavy short rucks during the week and a long one on the weekend with increasing distance until approaching or equaling event conditions. This is how I trained for my running marathon, so I just applied the same framework. The taper was very effective. I felt great by the time of the event. I did a short 6-miler the weekend before then no rucking the week of the race. Overall, I estimate I walked over 400 miles over the train-up.

Gear

After Action Review:

  • The Rucker was the right choice. Without a frame to redistribute the weight, the same equivalent pounds feel heavier for sure. My Rucker with 30lbs feels like 50lb in my military framed ruck because the rucker just puts weight right on your shoulders whereas a ruck frame puts the weight more on the hips and takes it off your shoulders. I was worried that 35lbs for 26.2 miles in the Rucker would kill my traps and upper back but it didn’t at all. In fact, the only area on my not really sore now is my traps and back. Once I got over 15 miles and then up to 20 miles in training I knew I would be fine.
  • Playpus bladder is bomb proof and some easy to use. Highly recommended. 3L is a good size too for something this long.
  • The Salomons were great once again. I did have some foot pain in the race that I never got in training and I am not sure why. Just pain in the muscles of my feet, not blisters. I did most of my training on roads and the race was on a hard-packed dirt trail, which I assumed would be easier on my feet, but maybe I am off. I had zero pain like this on my 20-miler. I got some blisters in the race too which I didn’t really get in training, but I chalk that up to the temperature. It was about 50 degrees and sunny on race day. My 20-milers was in 20-30 degrees so I had much drier feet. I changed socks half-way through and popped a blister and got back after it.
  • The Prana pants are one of the best things I own. I wore then in the mountains hunting and they are so comfortable it’s ridiculous. Highly recommended.
  • The GoRuck sweatshirt in the link above isn’t the one I have. Mine has no zipper but I guess they aren’t selling those any more. Everything GoRuck makes is very high quality, unbelievably durable and for performance. Their sizing is weird though. I bought and returned five other items to them (jackets, shorts, shirts) because the sizing was just off. I am not a pro bodybuilder and couldn’t find one thing to fit me right. It’s like they made their gear for tall skinny people, not athletes (wider shoulders, smaller waist). The sweatshirt was actually about to go back due to the sleeves but I just kept it. But their materials are out of this world as is the quality, so if you can get it to fit you, their clothes are highly recommended.
  • The Darn Tough socks are the standard and if you need real socks for physically demanding activities (or just want quality gear), get them. Worth every penny. Lifetime guarantee too.
  • I already talked about the Ionic in great detail in the review, but in short, it is a great fitness watch. It isn’t meant for marathon-type training but it did OK given what it was intended for.
  • The Anker bluetooth headset is really good but its battery life isn’t that great either. It wouldn’t go more than 4 hours, certainly not enough for the marathon, so I used it during all my short rucks but opted for an older bluetooth headset with a collar that is less comfortable but has double the battery life for the 15+ milers. You could use the Anker for a week of normal activity probably. Reasonably priced as well.

Strength and Conditioning

I didn’t really adjust my base strength and conditioning training plan for the marathon. I just added in more heavier rucks and the long weekend one. I had been and will continue to ruck each day while walking my dog and then do a separate exercise session. This is what I did to maintain my all-around physical conditioning, which definitely helped my ruck performance.

Session A, Objectives: Chassis Integrity & Arms Hypertrophy
Chassis Circuit (a.k.a. core/abs/lower back)
100 KB Swings (any variation)
10 Turkish Get-ups (5 each arm)
50 rotations (ex. Russian twist with kettlebell)
50 weighted sit-ups or ab wheel roll-outs
Arms Hypertrophy
2-3 sets of 8-15 reps of two biceps and two triceps movements
Session B, Objective: Total Body Strength
2-3 rounds of 2-8 reps of:
a. squat variation/horizontal push variation/pull-up + band pull-aparts (x10)
b. hinge variation/vertical press variation/chin-up + face pulls (x10)
This is one giant round of one set of each movement in each series a. or b. for 2-8 reps per exercise. So it would be one set of squats, then a horizontal push like floor press, then pull-ups, then band pull-aparts with no real rest in between but not rushing to complete them as fast as possible. Then repeat 1-2 more times. I would typically rotate a. and b., but sometimes I would do them in the same session if I had the energy and motivation. Training this way is much faster and a better use of time versus doing all of each exercise in a typical 3-5 sets before moving on to the next exercise.
Session C, Objective: Cardiovascular Endurance
20-30 mins, either run/row/bike or gym-based low intensity cardio trying to maintain 120-150 BPM average heart rate or high intensity intervals.
I usually did a gym-based event which would be something like 10 KB snatches, 10 burpees, 2 minutes of box step-ups at a moderate pace repeated over and over for 20 minutes. I did go to the gym and get on a treadmill sometimes. I also did intervals on the rower as well, sometimes an assault bike. It’s either low intensity steady state or high intensity intervals based on my mood/interest.
Session D, Objective: Muscular Endurance
100 reps of one Squat variation
100 reps of one Pull variation
100 reps of one Push variation
These are three separate events not done back to back. I usually rested a few minutes in between each. The 100 reps is done all in a row with as little rest as possible. Intent is to get deep into the pain of high reps with low weight. Banded bodyweight squats or weighted step-ups for squat variations, push-up variations, and TRX rows or band rows were what I did most of the time.
After Action Review: I have been training with a framework like this for a few years and didn’t really tweak anything for the ruck marathon, so no real comments other than I enjoy this structure and will stick with it for the time being. I got through this A-D rotation at least once per week except for race week during which I did no additional strength and conditioning.

Nutrition & Supplements

I was messing around with my weekly nutrition a little during this time but it wasn’t specific to the ruck march training or anything. I already wrote about it here if you are interested in some details. I am happy with how it sustained my performance. Some interesting concepts all weaved together.

I took seven different supplements during this training period:

I had been taking fish oil, magnesium, probiotics and a multi-vitamin/mineral for a long time. I decided to switch it up a little and try krill oil, which some people say is better than fish oil. I also opted to specifically add in some joint supplements, hence the Joint Warfare and the Collagen Fuel. I took everything every day as prescribed with the exception of the primal fuel & collagen fuel shakes I’d make a few days per week post-workout. I did the magnesium right before bed, the others with a meal.

After Action Review: My daily nutrition program was a sustain. I felt great training for and on race day. I am struggling to review the supplements because supplements like these don’t have an effect you can feel, like maybe a pre-workout. I can’t tell if I didn’t get injured because I was taking the Joint Warfare or if I had less inflammation due to krill oil. I am pretty confident the science is there and I think these are all good products. I will sustain probiotics, magnesium, fish/krill oil, and a multi-vitamin for sure as my staples. The Primal Fuel mix itself is a really good meal replacement, which I will buy more of. Jury is out still on whether I will re-buy the collagen fuel and joint warfare outside of the ruck marathon training.  I tend to think I will not as I like to keep supplement simple and both as too expensive – although high quality and recommended.

Race Execution

The rule I go by in long events is don’t go out too fast too early. This is easy to do if you taper right because you feel so good you want to get after it. However, this can cause you to pay the price down the road. So I always set a goal pace then stick to it (sort of like a budget) so you don’t overspend early. As I wasn’t really trying to get the best time possible, just finish the event in the top 25% and enjoy it, I wasn’t too concerned with my splits. I did set the rule that I was going to walk as fast as possible and wasn’t going to run at all until mile 18. Then I could see how I felt then let it all go.

For my in-race nutrition, I wanted to consume about 2000 calories in the first 3 hours (about half-way). I knew I’d burn about 5000 but I wouldn’t need much more than a few thousand to sustain lost glycogen (carbohydrates) and keep up energy levels. I have tens of thousands of calories of bodyfat ready to go and I am a good fat burner, so I wasn’t trying to eat too much.

I also wanted to drink 3 liters of water in the first 3 hours, which I believed would ensure I’d be hydrated at the end. Once you get dehydrated, it’s over. So front-loading water and keeping it going is key to long-term success. Learned this lesson well in Ranger School.

After Action Review:

I kept to my plan of not running at all until the 18th mile, at which point I dropped the hammer and ran most of the last 7 miles. I was very happy with how good I felt, aside from my feet. My shoulders, back, legs all felt good. I was able to run every downhill. I was at about 18 mins/mile pace by mile 18 and then averaged about 12 minutes per mile for the last seven bringing my overall average to 15.5 mins/mile. I passed a lot of people who were miles ahead of me who were running early. I could have ran much more in retrospect, but I am happy with how I finished. I ended up in the top 5% of about 900 total ruckers who started (403 finished) over two different weight divisions (Light = 15 lbs minimum or Heavy = 35 lbs minimum), so more than half of the people ahead of me only carried 15 lbs. I started with 50 lbs with the added weight of 3 liters of water and all my food. I ended at the finish line with 40 lbs. I do, however, wish I had pushed it more to get to below 15 mins/mile pace overall realizing now it wasn’t much more effort to get there. All the soreness today is in the lower body, calves, feet, and hamstrings and largely from the running I assume. If you are interested in numbers, the race took me 6 hours, 49 mins and was about 45,000 steps.

For the race nutrition, I ended up consuming three Clif Bar Chocolate Peanut Butter Nut Butter bars and two Larabar Chocolate Macaroon Bites during the race. They are easily digestible, high in fat while still having carbohydrates, and easily transportable. I consumed about 4 liters of water in total. I had a 3L bladder and then drank about 5 more bottles of water they were handing out during the race. I thought I would be fine with just 3L for the whole race but it was much hotter than during training so I needed more water. I peed right before we stepped off then not again until almost 3 hours in despite constant drinking and finishing my 3L bladder, which told me I was sweating way more than I realized. I immediately grabbed a few bottles of water and chugged them, and then got water at every other water station for the next two hours. I still didn’t pee again until 6 hours in. This normally would be a very bad sign and indicative of dehydration, but I felt great. It got actually colder and overcast as the race ended, so I felt like I wasn’t in danger.

My race nutrition was good. I didn’t get any real cramping and had good energy throughout. I was able to run most of the last 7 miles, so my energy didn’t wane. I would have brought one more of the Larabar Macaroons though for some more food. I did not “carb up” the days prior and ate totally normally. This is one of those old school idiocracies people think is a good idea. In fact, they had a pasta dinner the day before the event, which is a terrible idea. My last meal before the race was at 5 pm and was chicken breast, sweet potatoes, and pistachios.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the event and training for it. There is something very different to me in rucking versus running. A marathon or 20-mile training run would have taken a few hours less time to run, but I still feel it was so much less boring somehow to ruck. I really felt like when I ran a marathon I was worse off afterwards, but I am better off physically after this ruck marathon. This is largely because I really only did one, maybe two days a week of anything other than run to prepare for the running marathon whereas for my ruck prep, I kept to my normal strength and conditioning routine and just added in more rucking, which I already been doing. I didn’t lose any of my other physical fitness as part of this, but if I had been just running 3-4 days per week, I definitely would have come out the other end weaker.

For any long event like this, it isn’t that hard to just be at a baseline of fitness and gut through it. The difference is the toll that takes on your body. If you are conditioned for it, you aren’t wrecked at the end, don’t get injured, and don’t get sick afterwards. If you are going to do it, do it right and as healthy as possible by training with progressive overload once you accommodate to the previous physical demands.

Post thoughts/questions to comments.