Special Forces Warrior: Tactical Athlete

by Jefferson Griscavage

“Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well trained soldier.”

United States Army Rangers embody the Ranger Creed every time they lace up their combat boots. The Army Rangers are a member of the Special Operation Forces, an elite branch of the US military that includes the Navy SEALs, the Green Berets and the US Marine Corps Special Operations Command. Among the most versatile warriors in the world, US Special Operation Forces teams are tasked with missions that are often highly specialized or particularly dangerous. True to the Ranger Creed, Special Forces soldiers maintain rigorous training routines to stay in peak physical condition. Their workouts consist of anaerobic strength exercises, aerobic conditioning and operational skills training that prepare soldiers for both the mental and physical demands of combat.

However, these intense training sessions make Special Forces soldiers particularly susceptible to musculoskeletal injury. A musculoskeletal injury is defined as damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments or nerves. These injuries may occur suddenly (such as an acute ankle sprain) or may develop over time (such as chronic lower back pain) and are a major cause for concern within the US military.

Kathleen Yancosek, Director of Occupational Therapy at Baylor University, asserts “musculoskeletal injuries are the leading healthcare problem for military members.”  

In fact, a study conducted at Johns Hopkins University in 2000 reported that musculoskeletal injuries among military personnel result in more hospitalizations and lost active time than any other health condition. In addition, soldiers that suffer musculoskeletal injury often face challenges well after active duty service. The direct medical compensation costs of these injuries approaches 1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars annually.

Given their profound impact, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Neuromuscular Research Laboratory are actively investigating the causes and effects of musculoskeletal injury incurred by Special Forces personnel. In studies conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, researchers found that soldiers are most prone to ankle, knee or shoulder injuries. In addition, they found that 49 percent of these injuries occur during training, whereas only 6 percent occur during combat. From this data, researchers hypothesized that a majority of military injuries could be prevented with modified training techniques.  

This hypothesis led Pitt researchers to establish the Warrior Human Performance Research Center (WHPRC). Funded by the Department of Defense, the WHPRC initiative applies the scientific method to military training. By examining the specific physical demands soldiers encounter during their daily routines, training techniques that alleviate target stresses can be designed and implemented. The ultimate goal of the modified training is to mitigate musculoskeletal injury, optimize performance and enhance the quality of life for soldiers during and after service.

The WHPRC Initiative began with implementation of the Eagle Tactical Athlete Program, a physical fitness intervention designed specifically for soldiers of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Researchers qualitatively analyzed soldiers’ daily tasks (distance running, obstacle courses, jumping out of a truck, etc.), and quantitatively measured the demands of these tasks (oxygen consumption, heart rate, metabolic demands). Soldiers were then tested for muscular strength, endurance, flexibility and balance in order to determine risk factors for injury. Using this data, researchers designed a training routine that addressed the physical shortcomings of the soldiers.  

The Eagle Tactical Athlete Program differs from traditional military training in that it regards soldiers as the “tactical athlete.” Instead of focusing on fitness test benchmarks for pushups and sit-ups, this program emphasizes holistic training that meets the functional needs of the soldier. The success of this approach is evident. Over a short eight-week trial period, soldiers participating in the Eagle Tactical Athlete Program demonstrated statistically significant improvements in anaerobic strength and capacity, flexibility, agility and cardiovascular endurance as compared to a control group performing traditional training. As studies have indicated, developing these components of fitness in a military population results in a decreased injury rate.

To date, nearly twenty thousand Army soldiers have participated in the Eagle Tactical Athlete Program. The University of Pittsburgh’s WHPRC initiative is now studying training techniques designed to meet the elite tactical and physiological demands of Special Forces units. Hopefully, further research will result in improved training techniques that effectively reduce injury, optimize performance and better prepare Special Forces personnel for their service.