Commander's Fit Tip: Game Time! Crushing the USAF Fitness Test

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Most of our "deep dives" over the past few months centered on training, so if you've been following along, it's a good bet that your overall fitness, strength and endurance are improving.

If you've joined me in the "Fight's On" campaign, you might even weigh a little less than you did when we started in November. So what do we do with all that newfound capability?

At some point, it comes down to execution, and in this edition, I'll offer my "prescription" for maximizing your performance on a tactical execution event, i.e., a "test."

Just so I don't lose all but 50 of you, trust me, the methods to my madness apply to a wide variety of performance-oriented events. If you are working up to a local 10K, the Mach 10 Triathalon (currently scheduled for June 5, visit www.machtenn.org for details!) , or just want to see the fruits of your efforts, these ideas will help you get the most out of your hard work and help keep you out of the ER.

Phase "0" (T-30 Days) Taper! If you are training hard (remember the holy trilogy? Train Hard, Race Harder, Rest HARDEST!), it's time to back off. Even if you are consistently including "recovery days/time" in your workouts, nothing beats all out rest.

So, plan ahead, and keep your toughest workout about a month away from the big day. Then slow down every week prior, to the point where when you are only executing "recovery" events the week before the test.

For the USAF fitness test, I'm in total rest mode for three full days prior and making a good night's rest the priority. You may have already seen the benefits of "Rest HARDEST" without knowing it. Did you ever miss some workouts due to a minor injury or illness? The "fresh legs" feeling you had when you got back into your routine is the clue.

The older you get, the more important this final recovery becomes. Trust me, I know all about that!

Phase 1 - Prep. This is where Sun Tzu is your friend. "Know thyself and know thy enemies, and, in a thousand battles, you shall not perish." Game day is NOT the time to either discover "what works for you" or experiment with a new regimen. After copious trial and error, I know a few things about myself ... I can't max perform when I'm starving, and I tend to peak around nine in the morning.

I'm just not a roll out of bed and crank kind of guy.

Many of you who think you are might find out otherwise with a little experimentation, but the bottom line is, during your training phases, find out what really works for you and do it. One more thought about timing ... the temps REALLY make a difference.

Anything over about 70 degrees will cost you precious seconds on the run. I don't like to shiver any more than the next guy, but your best runs will likely fall into the 50-60 degree range.

You'll get over the shivers half way through the first lap, and from then on, the dense air and extra cooling will shave seconds off every lap.

If you are like me (scary thought, I know!), I eat a light, carb-biased breakfast about two hours prior to show time. And I'm in the "super hydrate mode." I'm trusting the kidneys to get rid of whatever I don't need by the time I get to the track. I chug a pint with breakfast, and a few sips every half hour or so until I get to the event.

Phase 2 - Warm Up. This is HUGE. You just can't throw your shoes on and go if you are looking for max performance.

For the PFT, you have to warm up your chest, shoulders, arms, and abs too. So here's my routine: quick drink (a couple swigs); 10 easy minutes on the elliptical (gets arms and legs going!); 10 slow, deliberate reps of bench press (just the bar, no weights); and 10 slow mini crunches. Topped off with initial running stretches (lower back, quads, hams, calves).

After the push up and crunch events, it's time to REALLY get the legs and lungs ready. Repeat hams, quads and back stretch. Then deep calf raises (over a stair works well), just before the run warm up. I use what runners call "farlicks" (I still have no clue what that means!).

This technique gradually increases your effort level over short distances until you exceed the expected "race pace" and then backs down. I use about 15 second "licks." Brisk walk on the first one, followed by alternating runs/walks of equal time, increasing the intensity to about 80 percent full sprint (well beyond what you can hold for 1.5 miles).

As the pace picks up, I focus on proper stride execution, foot placement, and deliberate, controlled breathing. Along the way, listen to your body. If anything feels tight or achy, you aren't ready ... either get some more stretch time in or seriously consider taking the test in a couple of days. This may be your body telling you that you didn't rest/recover long enough, and nothing in the regs is intended to invite an injury.

If things are going well, it takes me about 15 "licks" to work up and back down. This will cover nearly a mile of prep work for the 1.5 mile run. I can hear you already! "All that work will just tire me out for the run!"

Remember, the time to figure that out is in training, so budget some training days to experiment. But as long as you stay in the "aerobic" mode, this short warm up puts money in the bank. If you've ever felt tight in the first lap, this will eliminate that problem.

Remember, properly trained (and fed!) muscles store about 30 minutes of glycogen, so even 20 minutes of mid-tempo running won't drain those tanks, and you only need 10-15 minutes for the test. Topped off with final stretches, and if I've done this right, I'm headed for the men's room for one last tinkle.

Phase 3: Execution. For the push ups and crunches, a one minute event doesn't leave you with much time to muck it up, but one word of caution.

Don't go full bore on the first few reps. Accelerate your way into max cadence, and aim to peak between the 30 and 45 second point. Too much too fast will cost you with lactic acid build up, and you will suffer in the final 15 seconds.

The run presents a similar trap, with much higher risks. Blasting off the line is inviting an injury, and, if you are in "sprint" mode in the first lap, your last lap will be just awful. Runners use a term called "negative splits," meaning each interval should be faster, not slower!

On a quarter mile track, this is easy ... your prep tests will tell you about what your capability is. It's OK to consider a "stretch goal" for this event, but literally only 15-30 seconds faster than your prep runs. Build yourself a lap schedule to get to your goal by accelerating every lap.

For me, a 9:00 goal puts my first lap in the 1:40-1:45 range, with the last lap in the 1:20s. It just doesn't work done in reverse!

I know it sounds totally counter intuitive, but the only way to prove it to yourself is in training tests. You'll find it takes enormous self restraint to hold back in the first couple laps, but if you do, by lap three you'll be thanking me.

I've turned in 1:50 final laps with initial laps in the 1:20s. Don't repeat my mistakes! I've got my money on the "negative splits."

Phase 4: Cool Down. You can't just fall to the ground when you cross the finish line. I walk a full quarter mile and hit one more round of stretches before the showers. Just do it! And no training for two full days afterwards.

"Maxing out" the PFT hinges on execution. As former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said "you go to war with the military you have, not necessarily the one you want" so training is critical.

But to really crush this test, you have to execute some practice tests during training to learn just how you respond to different scenarios.

Perfect your "race day regimen" during training, recover religiously, and execute on the big day. You might be surprised just how "hard" you can "race."