FORT EUSTIS, Va. – I wrote this article to share my experience with taking the Army Combat Fitness Test running alternate events. I started this endeavor because I still see Soldiers who are on a running profile walking during fitness training and wanted to know if walking for physical training will prepare someone for the alternate cardiovascular events. As it turns out, it will not. The ACFT running alternate events can be difficult and Soldiers taking these events need to understand the challenges they may face for each specific event – hence my journey into the unknown.
Cardiovascular Alternate Army Combat Fitness Test Events
As a post-brigade command sergeant major, and one who had an ACFT pilot battalion, I can easily say I am a huge supporter of the ACFT. What intrigued me most about the ACFT was not the standard six events, but the cardiovascular alternate events: the rower (5K), the swim (1K), and the bike (12K). Each event is time restricted to 25 minutes. Over the past year, I’ve heard mixed reviews of the alternate events ranging from challenging yet tenable, to ridiculously hard and needs to be changed. With this feedback in mind, I decided to test the events so I could better understand the comments and feelings Soldiers have with the ACFT, and the alternate exercises. From March 5 to April 9, I took three ACFTs to capture the data I needed; yes, all three went into the great database known as the Digital Training Management System (DTMS).
Allow me to share a little of my fitness background. I have served this great nation for over 28 years and have suffered my fair share of injuries due to numerous combat deployments, training events and the daily physical toll required of every Soldier who has, or currently serves. Despite all the nagging aches and pains, I still compete because let’s face it, winning matters and competition breeds success! Over these long years, I have learned how to maintain my physical abilities through proper diet, exercise, and active recovery. Thank you, Army, for updating FM 7-22 and codifying Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F).
My average score (complete six-event ACFT) is 545, with a max score of 549. With the running alternate events, I averaged a 521. Soldiers can only score 60 points when taking one of these events. Theoretically, a Soldier who takes a cardiovascular alternate event can score a 560, which is far better than my current average.
Alternate event #1- The 5K Rower (March 5, 2021)
On a gorgeous Friday afternoon, I stood on the Field of Dreams (a name fitting for an ACFT field), located on Fort Eustis, with my TRADOC G3/5/7 teammates. After the first five events, I, and a few others, moved to the field house to begin our alternate exercises. Of the five of us taking the alternate events, three were on the rower. Adhering to the 10-minute interlude between events, we prepared for and started our respective events. My goal for this event was to maintain the same level of effort I normally use during my 2-mile run; for the rower, that kept me at a 2-minute per 500 meter pace. The minimum effort required to pass is 2.30 per 500m.
While holding pace throughout, I realized this event became more of a mental challenge than physical. At 14:20 minutes (my run time), I was only 3550m into the row. Therefore, for the next six minutes, I continued to battle the recurring theme bouncing around my head, “Man, I could be done already if I was running!” The mental battle was not my only challenge during this event. I have issues with my elbows and back caused by wear and tear over the years. Fortunately, my back held for this event. Unfortunately, after gripping anything for too long (pull-ups, Olympic lifting, etc.), my forearms and hands start to go numb. This happened around the 3K mark and I spent the last half of the row in significant pain. After the row, it took me about 10 minutes to get feeling back in my hands and forearms. Still, I kept to my pace and finished in 20.06.
Alternate event #2- The 1K Swim (March 12, 2021)
Another beautiful day at Fort Eustis arrived the morning of Mar. 12. Again, I stood on the Field of Dreams with my TRADOC G3/5/7 teammates fully rested from the previous test and ready to enjoy another ACFT session. Like my previous tests, there was a distinct air of anticipation, trepidation, and positive vibes that often comes at the start of any competition or performance event. This day was no different, and the Soldiers on the field did an excellent job during the ACFT. As occurred the week prior, after the fifth event (the leg tuck or plank) those taking the alternate events headed to the gym. On this day, I would be the sole swimmer.
Now, I grew up in a pool and swam competitively since I was six, so, for me, this was the most fun alternate event. To pass this event, swimmers must maintain as least a 2.30 pace per 100m to meet the 25-minute limit. My stated purpose remained the same; use the same level of effort as the run. With that in mind and after a quick change, I met my grader by the end lane, jumped in, and pushed off the wall - 18.21 later, I finished. Swimming is a phenomenal cardio event because of the low impact on the joints. However, if you cannot swim or “beat the water into submission” to move forward (or just to stay afloat), I recommend using one of the other alternate events.
Alternate event #3- The 12K Bike (April 9, 2021)
On this particular Friday, I found myself with our TRADOC G1/G4 team in an indoor facility. Oddly enough, I did not see a difference in scores between an indoor/outdoor session or between grass and fake turf but that is for another article. The main difference with an indoor facility was we did not have to change venues to take the alternate running event.
The bike was the most difficult (for me) due to the level of exertion used to keep the same time as the other alternate events. My goal, like the previous tests, was to maintain the same level of effort I use during the run. I am here to tell you, if I did that, I do not think that I would have passed the event. To meet the 25-minute standard, bikers must maintain as least a 2.08-pace per kilometer, which translates to 28.8 km/h or 17.90 mph. I was able to achieve a 20.21 min time, however, that was due to a much greater energy output and level of effort than the previous two alternate events. Additionally, my calves cramped at mile four, which further hampered my effort.
What does this mean for Soldiers who may be in the gym barely pedaling during their workouts? It means we must be on our A-game when it comes to using the bike. 17+ mph is not easy to maintain; if you are not prepared, you will fail. I witnessed three Soldiers fail to meet the standard during my alternate event testing. When asked why they thought they failed, the response was, “I thought it would have been easier.”
The days of walking for physical fitness training are over. So, get yourselves and your Soldiers on the proper equipment to ensure everyone can meet the cardiovascular alternate events’ time limit of 25-minutes. Create a workout program that includes a challenging cardiovascular plan for your entire team that encompasses all cardiovascular modalities. Focus on the This is My Squad model for fitness training to build cohesive, fit, well-trained, and disciplined teams. Gone are the days of separate physical fitness training populations. Here are the days of team holistic fitness to ensure we all remain the most ready and lethal force on the battlefield.
I will see you next time on the ACFT field!