GoRuck HTL AAR – Training, Preparation, & Mental Strategies

Introduction

I recently completed the Independence Day GoRuck HTL in Charlotte, NC led by Cadre Flash. If you’re serious about completing a HTL, this post will help you with your training, preparation and mental strategies. This is a long post, but I hope you find the content useful!

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Background

Prior to this event I had done one other GoRuck, a Heavy in San Diego about a year ago. While I performed well in the event, I came away with a profound sense of having survived it more than dominated. There were times where I had to really rely on the team because I was feeling sorry for myself. While completing the Heavy was an accomplishment it also left me wanting more.

To give you some other context about my athletic and endurance background I played collegiate rugby, which introduced me to CrossFit. Since then (six years ago), I’ve worked out at a variety of CrossFit gyms across the country and around the world. I use a CrossFit based approach with an added focus on the power lifts and on endurance. After graduating college I started to look for new challenges and got into the endurance world. I’ve completed a number of long events including Ragnar Trail Ultras, 50ks, long distance back country camping trips, and a NorthFace Gore-Tex Challenge 50 Mile trail race. Through those experiences I’ve built a solid conditioning base and learned a lot about mental endurance. My general training mentality is that I want to be strong in the power lifts, be able to ruck for long distances, and maintain a permanent state of marathon readiness.

I signed up for this GoRuck HTL with a singular goal in mind, to crush it. I’ll get into this more in the mental strategies section, but I focused hard on setting myself up to be a strong leader and teammate. I didn’t want to just complete the event, I wanted to earn the respect of my team and be mentally there for them from start to finish.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with GoRuck and their various events head here.

Training

Now that you have some background, let’s get into the HTL. I signed up for this event in January, which gave me about five months to train. I was coming off a bad case of plantar fasciitis from the 50 mile ultra, so I wasn’t able to really begin heavy training until April. For anyone without a fairly extensive endurance background like mine, I would not recommend doing a HTL without at least 4-6 months of solid training time.

I’m not going to provide a full training plan, because there are a number of those on the internet already. What I am going to do is give you some ideas and a few self assessment questions to help you build your own strategy.

Let’s start out with what we know about the events. Using the minimum required distances you will end up completing:

  • At least 62 miles with an upper range somewhere between 75-80
  • 40+ pounds in your ruck (including food, water, etc)
  • 48+ hours long
  • 1-6 total hours of down time between the events with the majority of that coming between the Tough and the Light
  • You will carry a bunch of stuff, called coupons, ranging from sandbags to logs and everything in between
  • You will do a lot of PT, much of it with your ruck on

There’s also the PT test/assessment at the start of the Heavy:

  • Max Push Ups in 2 Minutes: minimum benchmark 55
  • Max Sit Ups in 2 Minutes: minimum benchmark 65
  • 12 Mile Individual Ruck in under 3:30

With all of that background information in mind, I designed a training plan with a few core goals:

  • Get my frame used to properly carrying heavy, awkward loads for an extended period of time
  • Build a strong aerobic conditioning base
  • Be able to crush the PT Test
  • Trim weight – due to my foot injury I had focused on strength lifts and was up to 194 pounds at 6′, which is not an optimal weight for me

Two other goals that I set were to get my body used to extreme heat and to get my body used to burning fat as a fuel source. Depending on when and where you do your GoRuck HTL the conditions will vary a lot. I highly recommend that you train your body in the conditions you’ll be operating in. In my case I was planning for temperatures between 80-100 degrees, high humidity, and a strong chance of rain. I also knew that food restriction often happens during the Heavy so I wanted to make sure my body was comfortable switching between burning carbohydrates and fat to avoid bonking. If you’d like to learn more on this topic I would recommend folks such as Ben Greenfield and Dr. Dom D’Agostino.

Here’s an example week of training from my training logs (I recorded everything) – all of my workouts were conducted on the side of my gym that had no AC so I could heat adapt. I also did a lot of this work fasted to get used to burning fat.

  • Monday – Aerobic Conditioning – 60 Minute AMRAP (As Many Reps/Rounds As Possible):
    • 80M Tire Flip
    • 10 KettleBell Swings 70#
    • 40M Sprint
    • 10 Push Ups
    • 40M Sprint
    • Score: 12 Rounds + 80M Tire Flip
  • Tuesday – Shoulder Stability Work:
    • 6×12, each arm, alternating, seated Arnold Press 35#
    • 5×12, each arm, alternating, DB (Dumbbell) Row 50#
    • 6×12, each arm,  alternating, DB Curl 25#
    • 4×8, each arm, alternating, standing DB Press 45#
  • Wednesday – Strength:
    • Bench: 7×135, 5×185,195,200,205×210,215,2×225
    • Deadlift: 5×135,185,225,275,295,305,315
    • 10 Rounds: 15 GHD Sit Ups, 15 Push Ups
  • Thursday – Aerobic Conditioning:
    • 15 Minute AMRAP: 10 S20H (Shoulder To Overhead) 95#, 5 Pull Ups (each round alternate strict/kipping), 20 Air Squats = 10rds + 8 Reps
    • 5 Minute Rest
    • 15 Minute AMRAP: 10 Burpees, 10 Box Jumps 24″, 10 DB Snatch 40# = 5rds + 15 Reps
    • 5 Minute Rest
    • 15 Minute AMRAP: 400M Run, 10 Ring Dips, 15 4 count Flutter Kicks = 5rds + 50M
    • 20 Minutes of Shoulder Accessory Work
  • Friday – Mobility + Strength:
    • 30 Minutes of mobility work
    • 5×5 Back Squat: 135,185,195,205,215,225,235,245,255,265,275
    • 5×10 Pendlay Row: 95,115,135,155,165
    • 5×12 Scap Pull Ups
  • Saturday – Ruck:
    • Ruck Weight: 50#
    • Distance: 11.4 Miles
    • Elevation: 4,000 ft of climbing
    • Time: 3:35
  • Sunday – Mobility
    • 90 Minutes of rolling, stretching and smashing everything that was sore, tight, or uncomfortable

As you can see from my training, I would only ruck once a week. Because of this, I did 100% of my ruck training on trails/roads that had a lot of climbing, often steep. Using steep hill climbing is a great way to increase the stimulus without increasing the time. I would also do my rucks as fast as possible and with more weight than I planned on carrying. As my training ramped up I would often ruck with 70 or more pounds.

For your training plan, I would recommend asking yourself some of the following questions to help devise a strategy:

  • Aerobic Conditioning: can I run or ruck at a fast pace without breathing overly hard? Do I have a lot of experience rucking/is my body used to comfortably carrying a ruck?
  • Strength: can I squat, deadlift, and press heavy weight with good technique? Can I pick up odd objects such as tires, sandbags, yolks, farmer carry devices, etc with proper form?
  • PT Test: can I easily beat the standards without exhausting myself?
  • Other: am I carrying around excess body fat that will not help me accomplish my goals? Is my body used to the conditions that I’ll be operating in (heat, cold, humidity, etc)? Do I have injuries that I need to work through or around?

Based on how you answer these questions, bias your training accordingly. In my instances I primarily needed to rebuild my aerobic engine after a few months of focusing on power lifting. I also needed to get used to carrying odd objects and I needed to heat adapt.

Over the course of my training I also dropped excess body weight and trimmed down to 178 pounds, which left my feeling faster and more efficient. You can absolutely hang on and complete a HTL without being super lean, fast and strong but the farther you are from that point the less you will be able to perform. Keeping in mind my singular goal for the event (crushing it), I did everything I could to prepare.

One last note, I also did two long, multi-day camping trips in the mountains that involved rucking long distances in less than ideal conditions. These were my testing events to see how I held up. I strongly recommend getting a trip in with 25+ miles over ~2 days. at least one time in your training. If you’d like to read about one of those experiences, check this article out.

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Photo Credit Kurt Story | That’s me with the flag

Preparation

From what I’ve gathered, preparation, specifically gear load out seems to be everyone’s favorite topic. Let me be 100% clear, this event is not about your gear. Having a well thought out plan and the right gear will make things easier and reduce distractions but your physical training and mental strategies are much more important. With that said, let’s get into it.

Gear:

Ruck:

  • I’m not going to even talk about the ruck except to say that you should have a sturdy ruck, with a hip and chest strap, and you should be used to it. GoRuck rucks are phenomenal and I use one, but use your best judgement.

Boots/Shoes:

  • I would advocate for boots because 1) they are more sturdy/able to absorb impact 2) they offer ankle support 3) they keep debris out. In my case I used boots for the Heavy and the Tough and then trail shoes for the Light.
    • Boots: Rocky 5C5s
    • Trail Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 3s
  • Whatever footwear you choose make sure that they drain water quickly
  • I also use SuperFeet insoles for better shock absorption and arch support. They also don’t retain moisture, which is awesome

Socks:

  • I cannot emphasize this enough. Find a sock brand that works for you and stick with it.
  • If you have not tested your socks in GoRuck conditions (long distances with soaking wet feet) you have not done your homework and you are not properly prepared.
  • I personally love Drymax socks and used a single pair for the Heavy, a fresh pair for the Tough, and a fresh pair for the Light.

Clothing:

  • I’m a fan of wearing pants, at least for the Heavy. In this case I wore Crye pants for the Heavy and then athletic shorts (Myles) for the Tough and Light.
  • I do not believe in compression gear because of sand and dirt. Once it gets in there you have some world class sandpaper action going on and I also find that not having airflow, especially when you’re wet, is a big problem. I would advocate for boxer briefs that don’t hold sand and other crap.
  • For a shirt, I like a nice cotton shirt because it doesn’t chafe. Again, this is all up to you, but make sure you test.

The Other Stuff:

  • Dry Bags – I would recommend putting everything in one big dry bag and then smaller dry bags inside of it. The cadre like to stress you out with dump ruck drills and this makes life way easier. In our case we got hazed with hill sprints over and over because people could not pack their rucks quickly.
  • BodyGlide – It works for me, some people like Trail Toes, just find what works.
  • HeadLamp – I use a BlackDiamond. My only request here is please don’t blind people, it gets old.
  • Gloves – I like Mechanix
  • Babywipes – you figure it out
  • Hydration – Source bladders rock, I also carry a 1 quart Nalgene as backup.

My full packing list, with links (I’m not an affiliate, these are just my preferences) will be at the very end of the article.

Nutrition:

As I mentioned at the start, one of my goals was to be fat adapted for this event. Cadre Flash is notorious for taking food (do your homework on the cadre). I also experienced major bonking during the San Diego Heavy and I hated feeling like that. I’m not going to go into the details of how I fat adapted; there’s lots of content from more authoritative sources on that. What I am going to briefly share are some simple strategies to make your life easier.

  • Unwrap your food – do you have bars or other things? Take them out of the wrappers and put it all in a ziploc bag. When you have 30 seconds to grab food with the cadre all over you, the last thing you want to do is worry about wrappers. Also, not having trash is great.
  • Make sure your food isn’t going to melt or go bad – this should be obvious but seeing a PB&J after 24 hours of being smashed is pretty entertaining and unappealing (yes that happened to someone).
  • Put ALL your food in one bigger bag with your name on it
  • Pack food for your Heavy, Tough, and Light as well as your in between food in advance
  • Do not overpack – think calorie dense food so you can reduce weight and simplify
  • Electrolytes are critical, especially for hot HTLs – I’m a fan of Nuun and Rapid Rehydr8
  • Test your foods in training – see how your body reacts and adjust accordingly. If you’ve never had a certain type of bar before, having it for the first time in the middle of a 48 hour suck fest is really not smart.

One last fairly simple concept that a lot of people ignore for endurance events is consistency. If you eat a consistent diet your body gets used to it both from an energy systems perspective and from a digestive perspective. I would strongly advise you to keep consistent going into an event like this. Your body is under tremendous stress; there’s no reason to totally change up what you eat all of a sudden. For example, I eat a lot of meat, fat, and low glycemic carbs. I also don’t eat processed food. While pizza between the Tough and the Light sounds delicious, that makes absolutely no sense. Instead, I ate sweet potato, avocado, ground beef, coconut oil, all with a lot of salt.

Transitions:

For me, the transitions are all about simplicity. You will have some time between the Heavy and the Tough and then more time between the Tough and the Light. I always like to plan for the worst case scenario (more on this in Mental Strategies) so I had things ready for 30 minute transitions and no sleep.

To accomplish planning for this worst case scenario here are some tips:

  • Pack everything you need, for each event, and label it. In my case I had a clothing bag for each event, food for each event, etc all in separate groupings and all clearly labeled.
  • Keep it simple. If you only have a few minutes to wolf down food, you’ll want it to be easy to eat and to not require heating or additional prep.
  • Have a plan of attack. Basically you should know your order of priorities. In my case it was get dry, repack my bag, and then fuel up.

It’s highly unlikely/borderline impossible that you only have 30 minutes of transition time, but when you plan for the worst case scenario, reality becomes much easier to handle. One last thing, if you can get people to help you out (drive you, organize food, etc) go for it, this just makes life easier. In my case I had to drive myself, but felt totally relaxed in between because of planning.

Mental Strategies

Fun fact – everyone who has ever completed a HTL had to suffer for it. To think that you won’t suffer, be uncomfortable, be hot, cold, chafed and much much more is unrealistic. Everyone’s feet hurt, everyone’s shoulders are sore, everyone is tired. Given that we know these basic things, here are some mental strategies that I used and that I think will help you be successful.

Real quick, please do not think that I was mentally strong 100% of the time during this event. I absolutely had my lows, went internal a few times, and was not a good leader a few times. No one is perfect, but you can absolutely try to be.

Prepare For The Worst:

I’m a big fan of preparing for the worst case scenario. For this strategy, I like to think about the worst things that could happen, visualize them, accept them, and then move on. This strategy has a few major bonuses 1) the worst case scenario is unlikely to happen so whatever does feels like a blessing 2) when things do go wrong it doesn’t impact you, or at least not too much 3) you’ve already visualized so it doesn’t feel new.

Rather than dig deeper into the philosophy of the approach, here are some real examples from my HTL experience and how I used this approach both before and during the event.

  • My friends drop out before the end – while I did not expect this, I visualized them telling me over and over and over until I was confident that it would not impact my resolve. This actually happened due to heat exhaustion and it was no factor for me.
  • During the ruck portion of the PT test we had to do 20 laps of a large field. Each time that we came around we would give our names to the cadre. My last name is Hans and another participant’s last name was Haynes. On the fly I realized that they could get mixed up and so I could be forced to do extra laps. I visualized the cadre telling me and how I would handle it including saying “no problem, I’ll see you soon”. This didn’t happen, but if it did I would not have been mad or mentally affected.
  • False finish – for each time hack, waypoint, and final destinations I would always prepare myself for the cadre to tell us that we had to keep going. This actually happened on the final destination for the Light and it crushed souls. Because I had prepared for this I was ready with my response, which was a laugh, smile, and a “no problem”.

I have dozens of other examples of how I used this strategy both before and during the event. In most instances the worst case scenario didn’t happen and so each milestone felt like a bonus and when they did it was a no factor.

Focus On What You Can Control:

One of the easiest ways to loose your mental edge is to focus on circumstances and other people. You can impact your circumstances and other people but you cannot control them.

At various times, people may not meet your expectations. This may lead to punishment in the form of carrying them, carrying more coupons, or all sorts of other stuff. When these things happen you have two major choices 1) to let it impact your mental game and find yourself frustrated or 2) accept that it is out of your control and move on.

There were many things outside of my control on the GoRuck and anytime something negative would happen I’d do a quick mental assessment to say “can I control this or not?”. In most instances the answer was “no I can’t” and so I’d just laugh internally, pick up my head, and keep on trucking.

Focus On Others:

This may not sound like a mental strategy, but it’s actually one of the most effective. When you focus on yourself all sorts of weird things start to happen. You start to feel bad for yourself, you notice that things hurt more, you start to get negative. The cadre call this going internal. If you’ve ever done a GoRuck event and seen someone staring at the ground in straight up zombie mode, you know what this looks like. Going internal is a choice and it’s an illogical one. It makes things take longer, it makes you a bad teammate, and it does not help you accomplish your goals.

The best strategy to combat going internal is to focus on others. For anyone who has been a Team Leader, Assistant Team Leader, Navigator, etc have you ever noticed that your body felt fine during this time? That’s because you were too focused on the team to notice your own problems (as a side note, asking yourself this question is a great way to reflect on how you did as a leader). Focusing on others can take on a bunch of different forms. You can verbally ask people who needs help, how their feet are doing, are they cramping, etc and then help. You can find someone who looks like they’re struggling and grab their coupon. You can push someone’s ruck from behind. You can start asking questions to someone who’s gone internal to help snap them out of it. The more you focus on others the less you’ll notice your own pain.

During the Light I felt this the most. While my body was absolutely wrecked, I did my best to talk to people, remember their names, grab things, volunteer, and do whatever possible to focus on others. I actually felt physically better finishing the Light than I did finishing the Tough because I was so focused on everyone else that I actually just didn’t care about how I felt anymore.

Use Positive, Concrete Language:

I absolutely hate words and phrases like try, attempt, we’ll see, or give it a shot. That type of language shows a lack of commitment. If you use language like that before or during the event you are giving yourself an avenue to quit. In parallel, using language like this sucks, I’m struggling, or so and so isn’t carrying their weight, accomplish absolutely nothing positive.

Get yourself in the habit of using positive language both externally and internally. Cadre Chris talked to us a lot about PMA (Positive Mental Attitude). Everyone is well aware that things suck when you’re going into hour two of PT on wet sand with your ruck on. How about using a focusing on others trick and checking in with people around you? A great way to set the example here is to answer people’s check ins with something positive along the lines of I’m doing well or that story from Cadre Flash was ridiculous (it probably was). Don’t let yourself get into the negative loop. I went there a few times during the HTL and every time it started me on a path towards going internal that I’d have to then snap back out of.

Be A Leader:

Being a leader isn’t exactly a mental strategy, but it’s an amalgamation of them that I found supremely helpful. For me, being a good leader is all about service. It was important to me that I earn the respect of my team and I thought that the best way to do that would be to lead by example.

During a HTL leadership takes different forms. Sometimes it’s rallying people, other times it’s double shifting on a heavy coupon, and sometimes it’s listening to instructions and being a good team player. From my Heavy experience in San Diego, I had learned that the best Team Leaders directed the group with clear instructions but that they did not need to yell or just bark orders. Conversely, I also learned that asking things like “can someone swap on the log” doesn’t work. People want to be led. With these learnings in mind, I tried to check in with my team, rotate people, acknowledge those who were crushing it, encourage, and guide. I also believe that a leader is 100% responsible for everything that happens with their team. During both the Heavy and the Tough we missed a turn while I was Team Leader. While I could have blamed the navigator I yelled to the class that it was my bad as we got back on track. I’m sure some people were pissed at me, but I also know that people are way more likely to follow someone who takes responsibility and cares about how they’re doing.

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Photo Credit Kurt Story | That’s me in the USA hat

Closing Thoughts

After completing a GoRuck HTL you will be a better person. You will learn about yourself and establish new physical and mental thresholds for endurance. Be prepared for your GoRuck HTL so that you can be a great teammate. There is absolutely nothing more satisfying than earning the respect of your team and your cadre.

I also want to give a shoutout to Jim and John who did the HTL with me. You guys are beasts and you picked me up when I needed it. Cadre Flash, Chris, Dan, and Dirty Mike you guys were great. I learned a ton from each of you, I have the utmost respect for your service, and I appreciate your approach to this HTL; thank you. Finally, the full crews from the Heavy, Tough, and Light – you all are awesome Americans and I’m thankful that I got to meet each of you.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you have questions or feedback, leave it in the comments and I will respond!

Heavy Class 191:

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GoRuck HTL Packing List (I am not affiliated with any of these, this is just what I used):


Disclaimer: I am not a licensed expert in medicine, nutrition, or training. Use your best judgement, consult with your doctor, and research things for yourself before trying them. I use logic and research before recommending things, but these are just my suggestions. 

Always Up Fitness is not formally or financially affiliated with any of the companies, sites, or people linked in this article. Information is shared purely for educational purposes. 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “GoRuck HTL AAR – Training, Preparation, & Mental Strategies

  1. Excellent AAR! did first light (MOG Mile) last year and now doing first tough in Sept (due to my buddy’s schedule. Thinking of doing a TL after that and then jumping to a heavy. All to prepare for a HTL.

    I found your review very well though out and truly appreciate the time you took to create it and share!

    Like

    1. Thank you for the comment Tom! Taking your time to build to the HTL is definitely smart, especially if you’re on the newer side with endurance type events. Keep crushing it out there!

      Like

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