Why is Tactical Strength and Conditioning important?
The United States has been involved in global conflict for 16 continuous years [3, 11, 14]. The nature of today’s fight requires that soldiers are able to withstand multiple 4- to 18-month deployment cycles interspersed with home-station periods of rest, recovery, re-training, and then subsequent re-deployments. In 2016 alone, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) had troops deployed in 138 different countries, nearly 70% of the world’s nations, averaging 1-3 months at home for every month they were deployed .
Not only is tactical strength and conditioning important for physically preparing the athlete for the high-operational tempo, it also plays a role in protecting the athlete from themselves . Musculoskeletal injury frequencies hover around 25 injuries per 100 operators per year for total injuries and around 19 injuries per 100 subjects per year for preventable injuries . Of those injuries classified as preventable, 75% occur during some form of physical training (command organised, non-command organised, or unknown) . With such a high frequency of injuries tied to ineffective physical training, it stands to reason that a professionally organised performance programme can play a significant role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of tactical athletes.
What is the future of Tactical Strength and Conditioning?
As with the unpredictable nature of warfare, it is somewhat difficult to gauge the future of tactical strength and conditioning. That being said, all signs point to a growing effort within the US government to expand the initiatives currently in place. As of 2017 the initial SOCOM POTFF 5-year contract worth $475 million (USD) will be renewed for an additional eight years, with further extensions likely. With increased funding and personnel comes increased improvements across all elements of tactical strength and conditioning.
Special attention is being paid to wearable technologies, third-party software platforms, nutritional supplementation, and high-level recovery methods [5, 8]. Another major area of emphasis is the accuracy and effectiveness of current physical fitness testing protocols [1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10]. In nearly every case, these tests reflect outdated training methodologies and an overemphasis on muscular endurance and aerobic fitness. As the battlespace evolves and demands more anaerobic qualities from tactical athletes, military fitness tests will likely be redesigned to include load carrying components and more occupation-specific tasks. Future tests should not only capture performance data, but also training effectiveness, injury status, and the ability of operators to return to duty after being taken off status .
Another glaring weakness within tactical performance programmes is the lack of emphasis placed on nutritional support . Hydration has always played an important role in tactical research and implementation, however, very few initiatives have successfully been put into place to cater to the unique nutritional demands of tactical athletes . As the importance of sound nutritional principles becomes clear to tactical athletes, and as new technologies emerge to make the acquisition of nutritional patterns more accessible, it is likely that this area of performance will garner more support.
International organisations and leadership summits in various areas of tactical performance have determined a few key areas for future research. In order of importance, the top five topics are as follows :
- Physical demands in operational environments.
- Measuring physical performance/fitness.
- Musculoskeletal injury mitigation programmes.
- Physical employment standards.
- Physical strength-training programmes.
In addition to performance-related topics, emphasis should also be placed on nutrition and supplementation, sleep, gender integration into special operations, and perhaps most importantly, various areas of psychology as it relates to mental fitness .
As the demand for high-level operators increases around the globe, and as the resulting high-operational tempo takes its toll on tactical athletes both mentally and physically, the role of tactical strength and conditioning will only increase. For centuries, the importance of the human element to the battlefield has been emphasised, however, actionable intervention into the health and performance of the tactical athlete has only gained significant traction in recent years. New and evolving methods of periodisation, as well as the innovative application of more traditional approaches, will inevitably lead to new findings and an increased knowledge relating to the training of tactical athletes. As more funding becomes available for performance programmes and the specialists involved in delivering them, additional research will begin to identify the most effective ways to deliver the services that tactical athletes need (i.e. prevention, treatment, sustainment, and enhancement).