(Editor's note: This article is part of a series of articles that offer methods and tips for improving physical performance. As with all physical training advice, one should consult a physician or otherwise trained and qualified professional before beginning any type of training regimen. In addition, understanding your limits and being acclimated to your surroundings is essential to the success of any training program.)
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 27, 2013) -- Headlines in the recent months have made it clear that the Army is undergoing some dramatic changes. The number of Soldiers allowed to be in uniform is going down.
With these changes, the Army is scrutinizing who should be in its ranks a little harder. One of the discriminators in evaluating a person's ability to serve is the Army Physical Fitness Test.
If one were to ask experienced Soldiers which PT test event is the hardest to maintain a level of performance commensurate with Army standards, the answer is likely to be the 2-mile run. But Capt. Daniel Klinkner, the deputy director of Training for Army National Guard Aviation and USA Track Field certified Level-1 coach, said maintaining your current run time can be accomplished with just a few work outs each week.
"Try to knock it out three days a week," said Klinkner on the minimum amount of time one should train. "Out of those three days, two of them can come from the weekend when you have more time available."
Klinkner recommends those who want or need to improve their run time on the APFT should work out five times during the week. A good amount of time is 30 minutes per workout. In addition, he has some other tips for those who want to improve their 2-mile run times.
Running a pace
Before beginning any training, Klinkner said it is vitally important to set a goal and make that goal visible to oneself and others.
"The most important thing to improve your run time for the PT test is to run a pace. Set a goal and run a pace to achieve that goal," said Klinkner. "Runners should train a pace."
For example, if one wants to run a 15-minute 2-mile run, then a pace of 7:30 per mile is the pace that runners should train. This pace can be further broken down into smaller distances. The quarter mile time would be 3 minutes, 45 seconds. Work out No. 1 at the bottom of the page is an example of how to execute a pace workout. Times may be adjusted for individual goals.
Klinkner adds that runners shouldn't make the mistake of "running to relax."
"I've heard guys say that their goal is to run as hard as they can so they can relax at the end of the 2-mile run," Klinkner explained. "What they're really doing is running until they burn out and coasting into the finish with what little energy they have left."
With enough practice and self-discipline, Klinkner said runners can feel when a certain speed has been achieved and know not to get caught up in the heat of the moment at the start, but rather focus on one's run and pace strategy.
Klinkner said some of the most common errors he sees while coaching is improper running form. One should ensure hands and arms are not clenched while running as this can lead to other areas of the body tightening up.
"Relaxing is key," said Klinkner.
Proper form can help prevent injuries and improve run times, explained Klinkner. In addition, he says those who swing arms in front of their body, causing a rotational movement, are wasting energy. Those who run the 2-mile portion of the PT test or longer runs on their toes may increase the chances of developing medial tibia stress syndrome, commonly known as shin splints.
In order to prevent shin splints, Klinkner recommends running so that your foot lands between the heel and the middle of the foot. From there, one should have a rolling motion toward the toe. One should not stomp the ground. Instead, the foot making contact with ground should be quiet.
Shoes and gear
Making the wrong choices when selecting running gear can lead to injury and poor performance. For this reason, Klinkner said one should choose carefully.
"Most people, when they do their shoe shopping, have two factors: what's the curb appeal of it and the other thing is comfort," said Klinkner. "Put comfort first, that's the key thing."
He says that inexperienced runners should find a store that can analyze one's feet using advanced-scanning technology. Shoes with extra cushion are good for those prone to heel injuries, but are not the best option for those prone to ankle injuries. Shoes with arch supports may prevent some knee injuries.
When fitting a shoe, Klinkner says to allow 3/8 to 1/2 inch in front of the big toe to allow for slight toe movement. There should be no foot movement inside the shoes while running.
"Keep going until the shoe fits like a glove, but not superbly tight," Klinkner said of shopping for footwear.
He also recommends newer runners avoid minimalist or thin-soled shoes when training for longer runs. Klinkner said untrained runners may not get the training value out of them and may injure themselves because less cushioning is designed into the shoe.
Klinkner said other gear used for training should fit comfortably and should not restrict movement.
The Fort Rucker Blue Book, formally known as U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence Pamphlet 600-2, states those "conducting physical fitness during hours of darkness will wear highly visible clothing with reflective material or reflective belt."
Recovery and core training
Klinkner said an important part of running is the strength of one's abdominal and lower-back muscles. While coaching athletes in Germany, Klinkner said one of the complaints he used to hear was that of lower-back pain in his athletes. He attributes this to weak core muscles and said strengthening these areas can help improve run performance.
His thoughts are shared by Maj. Erika Lynn Salerno, the senior reserve component liaison officer with more than 20 years of experience working with and training Soldiers.
"Your core supports your entire body," said Salerno. "As Aviators and crewmembers, our gear and poor mission posture place a higher demand on our core. It is critical we keep our core strong."
Salerno says she favors workouts designed in circuits similar to that of the PT test where one conducts three exercises that build on one another.
"When you take the PT test, the pushups pre-exhaust your abs," explained Salerno. "You conduct sit ups and they pre-exhaust your hip flexors and then you are off for the run. I design the two to three circuits of three exercises each with the same overlap principle. I enjoy movements that incorporate more than one muscle group."
One circuit Salerno uses while training Soldiers requires one to execute the number of pushups on their last PT test, then 20-30 wall ball squats and 20 coordinated-elevated pushup crunches on an inflated-ball. Repeat this three times with zero rest in between sets.
"Because of human nature, we tend to gravitate toward exercises we are good at or enjoy," Salerno said. "One of my philosophies is to identify a weakness and focus on it until it becomes a strength."
Whether one is at Fort Rucker looking to earn Aviator wings or improve their health, Klinkner said ultimately one's attitude and dedication are the determining factors of success. He added that runners shouldn't expect to perform their best on the PT test without dedicating enough time to train properly and that the tests, while sometimes unpopular, are a necessary part of ensuring the Army is ready to perform if called upon.