The new marching orders

Lessons from the IDF's fitness revolution are just as crucial for the rest of us.

army fitness 88 248 (photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
army fitness 88 248
(photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
Few things are as difficult as admitting you're wrong. It's especially difficult for large, slow-changing military bureaucracies to do so. That's what makes the changes outlined by The Jerusalem Post last week in an interview with IDF combat fitness officer Col. Avi Moyal so refreshing. Faced with failures in combat fitness that compromised the success of missions as well as the lives of soldiers during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF asked Moyal to take a long hard look at what it was doing wrong, and then fix it. That was a big step for an institution wedded to its well-established way of doing things. But, as Winston Churchill once said, "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." The results, in this case, were soldiers incapable of carrying their own equipment into battle over rough terrain. So, where had the army gone wrong? In some cases, it had simply neglected basic fitness standards, letting some soldiers grow fat thanks to poor nutrition and minimal physical activity. (Anyone who has had even limited experience with various IDF bases can testify to kitchens relying heavily on white bread and chocolate spread, as well as an appalling lack of exercise equipment for soldiers.) Moyal is trying to remedy this by putting the most overweight soldiers on strict diets and demanding more adherence to regular exercise. But those steps primarily address noncombat soldiers. What of the infantrymen struggling under the weight of their packs and weapons? The army's revelation was that long marches had not adequately prepared our fighters for the demands of war, which - the battles in southern Lebanon exposed - requires a good deal more strength than the IDF had provided its troops. Previously, the IDF limited its use of lengthy marches due to the risk of heat stroke. Now it is cutting back even more, and compensating by having soldiers get used to the strain of heavy loads. In this regard, Israel is not exactly blazing a new trail. Rather, it is following in the footsteps of the Canadian Armed Forces and the United States Marine Corps. Around the same time that IDF troops were struggling up the rocky ridges north of the border, the Marines were making radical changes to their very concept of fitness. Realizing that modern soldiers are called upon to operate at high speed over short distances in heavy body armor, they determined that their overwhelming focus on long runs in T-shirts and running shoes was doing more harm than good. They had grossly overemphasized aerobic training and grossly underemphasized strength training, they concluded. Today, a "leatherneck" is much more likely to prepare for war by lifting heavy objects or carrying a buddy over his shoulder. Similar changes have taken root in Canada. In 2005, the Royal Canadian Infantry School pitted its own fitness program against a system requiring more weighted exercise, shorter and more intense workouts and less than half the amount of running. The soldiers in the outsiders' program performed equally well or better than their counterparts in the homegrown program in every measurable aspect of fitness - not only in the strength-based elements but in the aerobic ones, too. What's more, they suffered far fewer injuries. So now, Canadian troops are incorporating Olympic-style weightlifting into their training and cutting out much of the running their predecessors did. At this point, though, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with you. The answer: Everything! You and I may not have to carry around machine guns or wear bulletproof breastplates, but we do have to carry groceries and children and other fairly heavy objects on a regular basis. In both cases, a smart weightlifting regimen is necessary because aerobic training like jogging or spinning classes or swimming cannot, by itself, provide the muscular strength and endurance necessary to perform those functions. For soldiers in combat, inadequate fitness has dire consequences. Even before battle, though, and for the rest of us as well, it means a probable path to injury. In modern militaries, the highest rate of injury occurs not in combat but in training - training that is dominated by running and marching and that includes little to no weight-bearing exercise. If that sounds like your own fitness plan, then don't be surprised to see the kind of overuse injuries that force so many soldiers off the battlefield, such as stress fractures in the shins and lower back injuries, pop up on your own medical chart. So, whether you're an elite infantryman or just a weekend warrior, make sure your training includes a balance of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. A well-rounded approach will surely make you fighting fit! The author, an editor at The Jerusalem Post, runs Personal Best Fitness.