We recently had the chance to connect with a Special Forces Operator who competed in the most recent Best Ranger Competition. During our conversation, he shared his experience and thoughts on a variety of subjects.
The conversation shared great insight into the competition, as well as highlighted some important concepts within training. The notes from the B/G team are included at the end.
Some background on the Best Ranger Competition:
The Best Ranger Competition is now in their 39th year of conducting this grueling competition, starring the best soldiers of the world. The Best Ranger Competition was started in 1982 after Dick Leandri found a way to honor his friend, Lieutenant General David E. Grange, Jr.
The competition has evolved over the past thirty-nine years from one that was originally created to salute the best two-man "buddy" team in the Ranger Department at Fort Benning, GA. It later developed to determine the best two-man team from the entire United States Armed Forces.
Currently, any Ranger qualified military member is eligible to compete as part of a two man element. Different units are allocated a limited number of slots and send their best teams.
The competition is known infamously for its extreme rigors, and truly pushes Ranger qualified teams to their limit, and beyond.
Q: What made you want to compete in Best Ranger?
A: It was always a bucket list item for me. I’m a very competitive person to the point where I’ve scored on the 99th percentile on several personality tests I completed upon my entry into Special Forces. The psych’s called it a “win at all costs attitude,” which I didn’t have a problem with. But otherwise, I was a Division I athlete, I’ve always liked being involved with competitions. It’s something that’s fun for me.
Now was as good a time as any. I’m not old yet, but I’m getting there and know that window for physical dominance is closing. I wanted to see what I was capable of and really push myself.
Q: What have you done physically in the past outside of the military?
A: I’ve spent the last 6 years doing amateur bodybuilding competitions. I got in great shape, however my cardio suffered because of it. It was a huge switch to start training for Best Ranger, and to stop training to “look good.”
I also left bodybuilding because I knew my potential was limited - I couldn’t be a professional. In addition, it’s a very political sport. It isn’t just based on merit. A lot of it involves who your coaches know, who the judges are, and who the sponsors of the event are. That was very frustrating for me. A ton of prep and discipline go into it, but how it was evaluated seemed wrong to me.
Q: What was the most physical event you’ve trained for and participated in in the past?
A: It was probably SMU selection. It honestly wasn’t terrible. The terrain was rough. But it was really the speed in which you need to maintain. The actual land navigation you’re doing is not hard. But now that I look back, Best Ranger is the hardest thing physically I’ve ever had to do.
Q: How did you train for Best Ranger?
A: My partner was a prior competitor and an ultra-marathon runner. He had a good program for us. I personally have a cross country background, so my cardio has always been good. But I lost a lot of that through body building. I needed to flip a switch to become an ultra-runner. We ran and rucked a lot. We did 1-2 days per week of lifting to maintain strength and endurance. 40-50 miles per week. We worked up to 60 miles weekly.
I think the mileage was right for rucking and running. But we missed the mark in terms of leg endurance under tension. I don’t know how much more we could have trained in terms of rucking. But it was apparent during competition that our leg endurance just wasn’t there. Our base line speed at the competition of 10:00 per mile wasn’t fast enough, with a heavy ruck on our back.
Q: How did you consider nutrition, recovery, and mental prep in your training?
A: I really appreciate nutrition because of bodybuilding. I know how much the proper diet, with the right foods, with the right quantities, can affect every part of performance including physical, sleep, recovery. It is so overlooked but it’s such a crucial part of any type of train up. Or really towards any type of physical goal you are working toward. It is extremely important and cannot be understated.
I did work with a bodybuilding coach in terms of dialing in nutrition to ensure I was getting enough calories to train and to keep energy levels up. My problem was that at the start, I had a lot of muscle mass from 6 years of packing it on. My body wasn’t used to carrying all that weight when it came to running. So, I needed to restrain myself initially, so I didn’t overload myself. I had to work through some minor injuries.
I’m grateful for the SF THOR3 program and the physical therapy they offered (link to learn more about the 1st SF Group THOR3 program). Their mobility work and dry needling made a huge difference. I took advantage of what was offered to us. Having a good recovery plan is crucial. It was a life saver and helped me get right back into training.
Q: What was the experience working with a partner through all the training? How did you support each other?
A: My partner was my pre-scuba instructor (I later went to Combat Dive Qualification Course). It was a guy who drowned me in the pool for a while. I had gone TDY to another group way back when to complete my pre-scuba. All these years later, I coincidently ran into him at Fort Bragg, and was asked by him if I wanted to do Best Ranger. This was about a year out from the competition. After my immediate yes, our training really did start a year in advance.
And I needed every minute of that year to get ready. I needed to switch my body and mind from bodybuilding to ultra-marathoning.
Q: What was the hardest part of your training?
A: It was the transition to get back into the headspace where I needed to do a lot of mileage. I’ve done it before, but it was the mental aspect in terms of getting back to it. When I got to Group, I could run 5 miles in 30 minutes. But after 6 years of lifting and 25 more pounds of muscle, even doing 35 minutes was hard.
But even if you can run fast, Best Ranger was so much more than just running. So, endurance became a wider goal outside of just running a 5 miler. That endurance became a priority.
Q: How did you stay consistent in your training?
A: My job remains within the Army, which is busy enough as is. It was about finding time. If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll find the time. My baby was just born when I started training. It was a lot of early mornings and help from my wife. I needed her support. This resulted in a lot of parts of my normal life sacrificed. If you want something bad enough, you’ll find time. It comes down to how bad you want it, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice.
Q: Talk about the physical aspect of Best Ranger.
A: The competition is meant to break you down. Every single team was sucking, and every single team was hurting for a week after it ended. Physical prep is everything because during the competition, you’re doing several events that require your mind to operate. The more you’re physically hurting, the less you’re able to focus on what you’re doing. That’s why being fit is important for Soldiers. Your ability to solve even the most basic situations in combat depends on how distracted you are by the physical demands you’re under.
I was thrilled with our physical conditioning going in. I would say that I was in the best shape of my life. My capacity for longer sustained runs at a fast pace was higher than ever, thanks to the train up. Some metrics going into train – up. I was a sub 35:00 5 mile run, and I could maintain that pace up to 10 miles. 12 mile ruck about 1:40 range. That dramatically improved throughout the course of our training.
Bottom line is that you need to be a monster in everything. I think the mileage pace overall needs to be sub 10 with a ruck on your back. And you need to be able to sustain it forever.
Q: How did you feel about your performance at Best Ranger?
A: I don’t do anything or compete in anything without the intention of winning. The goal is always 1st place. I always want to be the best. And obviously here I didn’t. I’m not happy and very disappointed. But if we choose to do it again, which I would like to, I know where I need to be and what I need to do to be successful. If I got second place, I would say the same thing and feel the same way. It’a all about winning.
Note: This team finished in the top 30, including a top 20 on the long ruck event, giving them a spot in day 2 of the competition. More than 50 teams competed.
Q: Where do you think you could have prepared more?
A: I would have stopped the years of bodybuilding. Because I had focused on that and gained so much weight, I lost a lot of my cardio conditioning. And that’s me just thinking out loud about how I could have done better at the competition.
But really, I don’t regret that I had done bodybuilding. But I do recognize that getting into the kind of shape required for something like this doesn’t take 6 months, or a year. It takes a lot longer than that. So, improving for Best Ranger is a long-term goal and I’ll get back in 1, 2, or 3 years. We’ll see what the future brings.
In terms of upper body endurance, not a single team could keep up with us. There were guys falling off Malvesti Obstacle Course left and right. What we did for upper body was a sustain for our training program.
Q: What do you think Best Ranger means to the Army?
A: Now that GWOT is over and deployments are far and few between, this is a major target. I know Ranger Regiment and a couple other units like the 101st pick their teams a year or more out. This is a major event that makes unit look really good if they do good; it gives units credibility. I think this will be a huge metric for units going forward. Because without deployments, there aren’t those other major areas to focus on.
The same thing is happening in SF with best ODA competitions, best diver competitions, etc. These contests should positively fill the current deployment gap. These other opportunities give guys and teams the chance to look good.
These competitions will become more important. Teams will start to be developed more in advance. Training programs will be enhanced and units will start to dedicate more training time and resources towards success. Ranger Regiment does it right. The teams are decided well in advance, they are cut loose, and their only focus is to prep for Best Ranger. 9 out of the top 10 teams were affiliated with Ranger Regiment in some fashion, from the most recent Best Ranger competition. They devote the time and resources to make it happen. Those guys not already at Benning go TDY to Benning to get time on the course. They know the area and the obstacle courses. And as secretive as they try to make the course, more than 50% of the teams know how things will play out, in my opinion. Anyone affiliated with Ranger Regiment has a leg up. They know who is assessing.
I don’t like to call it favoritism, but I think there is a little of that. There isn’t much quality control regarding grading. There is obviously no diversity in graders, and I think this effects the competition. I also think that the scoring criteria should go to everyone before hand. Either you can perform, or you can’t. Or during the week leading up to the comp, you give it out then. This would alleviate a lot of the issues with some teams getting all the details ahead of time.
Q: What do you see as the value of Army Ranger School? Who should try and go?
A: Coming from a Field Artillery (FA) background, I went to my first unit as the only tabbed guy in the Battery, and one of two in the Brigade. It obviously means something within FA, but means something different compared to the Infantry where every officer is expected to have one. But Ranger School is important. They cannot quality control everyone. We all know someone who slipped through the cracks. It’s not perfect, just like Ranger Regiment and SF. But it’s the nature of how it works.
It is a great opportunity. I think you need to be in the right headspace to go. I went with the attitude that I’m going to get my tab or die trying. You need to be all in, 100%. I think it speaks to the character of the person who is willing to put themselves through something that is pretty hard. It’s a good experience, but it’s a difficult experience.
I don’t personally think you learn a lot at Ranger School beside functioning in the worst conditions. But I think it’s a good gut check for leaders knowing they can still do essential tasks when they are sucking. It means different things to different people, but it’s something you can be proud of if you finish.
Anyone who wants to go, should try to go. Do the leg work, prepare, get in great shape, and go give it your best shot. It shouldn’t be restricted to Infantry. Infantry and SOF should get priority of slots, but I think that if you want to go, you should try to go, and be provided the opportunity do so.
Q: Who should consider going Special Forces?
A: This is a tough question. Everyone has different reasons. The big answer is usually that I want to deploy and serve my country in a greater capacity, work with like-minded individuals, work with self-starters, work with guys that take the initiative, work with guys that don’t take a lot of guidance. It’s not like the conventional army where the ODA waits for guidance. It all starts with the ODA figuring out what’s next, and they are developing the concept and going to do it. Rather than the other way around.
Q: Do you plan on competing again in the future?
A: I’m still working through some injuries, but I absolutely want to compete again. I love physical competition, and this is peak competition. I would love to do it again, and I will seek an opportunity to do it again. We’ll see if my unit will allow me to because the time needed is significant. I won’t accept giving a half effort to preparing because I know how much work it would take to go and be successful.
The discussion highlighted some important points the B/G team wanted to discuss.
1 – Specificity. This is a basic and widely accepted theory in fitness, yet it is consistently overlooked. The concept tells us that the best way to get fit for a specific event (or physical goal, Army School, etc.) is to train specifically in the areas of fitness that will be tested at that event. Put another way, the type of demand placed on the body dictates the type of adaptation that will occur. Sounds obvious. However, it is extremely common for individuals to spend a large portion of their time working on a portion of their fitness that is not specific to what they are training for.
For example, we frequently speak with guys in our DMs about Ranger School and Special Forces Selection (SFAS) prep. Many tell us that they are doing few workouts focused on cardio and muscular endurance. While lifting heavy weights, or lifting in a manner to improve size may be fun / enjoyable, will it really help your rucking ability? Probably not much.
If you are headed to a course full of rucking, you should be spending a good chunk of your time on rucking. If you are going to a course filled with running, you should be spending a good chunk of your time on running. If you’re going to a course filled with rucking, running, smoke sessions, PT tests, and obstacle courses, doesn’t it make sense to fill your workouts with running, cardio circuits, muscular endurance workouts, and rucks?
The first step in preparing yourself for something is by determining what will be tested / conducted at the event / course / selection that you’re training for. Then, build a fitness plan that focuses around those areas. These areas don’t have to be your complete focus, but they should make up the majority of your focus. If strength and size isn’t a huge component of what you’re training for (which for most military courses, it isn’t), then it probably shouldn’t be a huge component in your training schedule. Dial it in.
This was done by this competitor as he adjusted his training from bodybuilding type lifting, to training that was specific to BRC.
2 – You can really improve your fitness over 2 months, 6 months, and a year. The difference can be major. But to really reach your highest levels of fitness, you need to train correctly for fair beyond that. The military makes it hard with the work demands we have, and how many interruptions we have. And that’s okay. It’s part of the job and often unavoidable. The reason we discuss this is to illustrate that for many people, just doing a 12-week Ranger School train – up, or 12 week SFAS train – up might not be enough. Even when you do everything perfect, it just isn’t enough time.
When you’re getting ready for something challenging, you should have that deliberate period of training directly before you go to school. Within our SFAS guide, we allocate 11 weeks directly prior to attending. However, if you start those 11 weeks in less-than-ideal shape, you may not finish in great shape.
Consider this, if you were able to work out with the Denver Broncos for all of pre-season, would you be good enough to make the team? Probably not. And even if you were incredibly talented, you’d still be a bit behind because you haven’t been working this consistently like they have for years. Fitness can work in a similar way. Whatever you next challenge is, remember that you can start prepping way in advance. So when it’s time to ramp it up directly before that school / event / etc. , you’re ready to make the most of that training.
3 – When we get busy, it’s easy to default to cutting sleep. For a variety of reasons, this isn’t a great choice. It degrades your mind, and your body. Specifically, to your body, it prevents your recovery, which then prevents your ability to make the most of your next workout, which prevents you from getting in the best possible shape. When possible (and it isn’t always possible), you want to make sleep the last thing to sacrifice. If you’re able to, analyze where you can save time. Maybe you can spend less time hanging around after work, or less time playing on your cell phone, or anything else. Just don’t give up sleep and blindly drive on. Our culture has made sleep seem weak or unnecessary, but for serious athletes, it’s essential.
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