Embrace the ‘suck’….ruck !

Part 2 of my mountain fit/fit for mountain series.

The not so very gentle art of the ‘ruck’.

Blog time : it’s late July 2020 and i’m just moving into the second stage of my 4 factors training, that is training in 2 factors simultaneously ; in this section dealing with carrying load (rucking) and carrying that over some terrain , essentially up and down hills….which is nice !

The basic idea of ‘rucking’ as training and exercise is simple enough ; load a whole lot of weight into a rucksack and carry it from point to point, preferably over terrain that has enough ascents and descents to create a hard training effect.  The reason and purpose of rucking as a form of training is that it is just about the only way to mimic the demands of carrying a fully loaded hiking pack over mountainous terrain ; in fact the only thing missing here is the distance element and to some extent the environmental/climatic one.    If you’re wondering how it can be that training like this over the terrain of a small English river valley can be anything like hiking over the High Sierra mountains then please allow me to explain.

The best way that i can explain the whole idea is to talk about the kind of rucking session i did today as i tried to mimic as many problems as i could in just one session.

Today was both very warm and humid so it intrinsically created a high walking workload which i then made harder by carrying weight and by humping that weight up and down the steepest hills that i can find locally.   Today i carried a total load of 16 Kg which isn’t quite my planned maximum load but not bad for my first planned ‘2 factor’ training .  Iv’e carried or rucked more weight already this year, in fact during the late spring i was rucking out more than 100 Kg of wet firewood every week, one load at a time and in single loads up to 26 Kg ; one week i pushed that out to 160 Kg, obviously not all at once !.  With that though i was taking the minimal line of resistance, just going out with pack and saw, cutting and collecting the deadfall branches from by the river and carrying them home in my rucking pack and/or over my shoulder.  For sure i was having to carry each load up one of the steep hills and just one of the short steep lanes between river and home but i wasn’t doing then what i am doing more deliberately now.

In today’s rucking session then my first section was a quick and easy warm up with the pack already loaded with a convenient lump of tree , across the playing field and then straight into the first hill.  My approach to the training is to attack that hill with enough drive to push my heart rate and breathing well up into the training zone and to get a significant training effect in my glutes, quads and gasrocnemus muscles …..in plain English enough hard uphill work to make my bum muscles, thighs and calves ‘burn’ a bit with the lactate production : in fact it’s not the lactate that causes the ‘burn’ but the hydrogen ion, literally acid, that goes with it.  If it sounds a bit brutal then yes it is : i fact it’s supposed to be because carrying a load for hour after hour can totally suck.

The training effect essentially takes those muscles out of their normal aerobic capacity and pushes them into the glycolytic stage of muscle metabolism : the lactate/lactic acid is simply a useful by-product of the anaerobic stage metabolism.  What few know is that the lactate/pyruvate cycle is also a fuel cycle and that the lactate directly drives muscle growth, although there can be a less useful trade off in that the same metabolic route can also drive the production of the stress hormone cortisol : the trick seems to be to ‘ruck’ in intervals and then let the lactate settle for a while.  In fact, if you like to think in terms of more conventional gym based training then what ‘rucking’ is, is more like high intensity interval training….all while walking .

In today’s rucking session that first hill only takes me about 5 minutes, bottom to top, after which the lane flattens out and i go back into normal load carrying mode. That’s just as well because iv’e just maxed-out my heart rate, i’m already breathing hard and my quads feel like rubber !.  After a hundred yards of normal, steady state, walking which gives me the interval respite section i hit the next hill which isn’t as steep and that leads to a short downhill section : the downhill sections being just as important because muscles now have to work in the eccentric phase ie stretch under load and that’s a great way of damaging them just enough such that they have to repair stronger….really that’s all that resistance training is about !.

The main event of the day now presents as a choice in that i can carry on down the lane another 5 minutes and then double back along the track that descends to near the river ; that then leads in to the base of the longest and steepest hill that i know of around here. Being a river valley it has it’s steepest section at the bottom and only after that does it level out into a more consistent uphill.  That steep start is one of the few places where i can find anything like the slope angle of a steep mountain trail ; if i’m feeling really masochistic i can just do the hard section, drop down again and do it again….as many times or ‘reps’ as i like until iv’e had enough for the day……oh, and then have a ‘nice’ finish up the long hill which gives a longer time under load.

Did i say finish ?, correction then, the long hill leads into a real ‘sting in the tail’ of a steep lane and the route back home.

If this all sounds like ‘the grind’ then it is exactly that : at best it’s hard sweaty effort just like a steep mountain trail often is.  If there are 2 diametrically opposite ends of training , and people that train, then at the clean and pretty end we have the lycra clad gym-bunnies ‘jiggling’ on their exercise bikes, treadmills and steppers…..heck, some of them are even girls for goodness sakes !…..i don’t even count the narcissic pretty-boys doing bicep curls in the squat rack while gazing lovingly at their reflection in the mirror !

Nope, this is the opposite end : this is the grind and the suck, hard sweaty effort alone out on the trail with nothing but the odd, bemused dog walker for company.


It’s a simple truism of training that the best form of training for anything is to train by doing that thing first : thus, if you are a runner, then run, or if you play a team sport then go play that team sport.  For the mountain hiker , carrying the load over the terrain and over the distance is the difficult part….so the principle is to simply train my mimicking that activity as closely as possible : i don’t mind if my training is harder, if in fact i make it harder as, like the Marines say “Train hard and fight easy”.

Last week when i started to write this piece i just happened to be listening to Jocko Willink’s Youtube podcast on training for special forces selection : Jocko being a former US Navy Seal team commander.  ‘Get some’ as he is want to say !

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