The Soldier’s Ideal Speed10 min read
How fast should a soldier be? That depends on what we are talking about. There are a number of places where speed is and is not important in the soldier’s life. For the purpose of this post, let’s confine the issue of speed to locomotion. Furthermore, because locomotion includes crawling, let’s restrict the discussion to walking and running for this post.
Walking is the most fundamental of all human movement and gait patterns. It is the human’s ability to walk for astonishing distances at great speed that has led to our species domination of the planet. Humans in the wild walked at least 5 miles per day when not hunting or relocating. Humans can easily walk over 20 miles per day without tiring, even when carrying moderate loads and without much conditioning. Humans also rapidly adapt to walking long distances.
Traditionally a soldier lives on his feet and his stomach because he walks everywhere. The ability for an Army to cover ground is critical and throughout history, it has always been a matter of extreme concern. The simple act of walking has made or broken thousands of campaigns. The Roman Legions were the fastest and most capable foot mobile Army known to human history. They had a specific method of training the men to march fast and far. They were legendary for marching great distances and with no rest at all lining up on the battlefield and crushing the enemy. This is something that has rarely been matched throughout human history and puts modern troops to shame. That shame deepens when you realize the Romans did this in sandals and in all seasons.
Locomotion, of all forms, is the sum of the stride length and stride rate. The average human will self-regulate their locomotion to 3.1mph. That’s also 1.39m/s or 5kph. I’ll be using several units of measure so buckle up! If we assume an average step length of 30 inches, 5kph equals a cadence of 100 steps per minute (SPM).
The difference between walking and marching is speed. Marching is also called “military step” and differs somewhat depending on the nation or sometimes the unit. The US military uses a military step called “quick time,” with an average 30″ step, the cadence is 120SPM, resulting in a speed of 3.4mph or 1.5m/s or 5.5kph. This makes it approximately 2 minutes per mile faster than the average human walking speed.
Between quick time and the maximum human walking speed is the forced march speed of 4mph, also expressed as 1.8m/s, 6.4kph and 15min/mile. This is often referred to as “the Ranger standard” though this is not exactly true. This speed is achieved by marching at 140spm with a 30-inch step.
At this point, we need to examine the limits of walking speed. At a certain speed, the neuromuscular pattern known as a gait pattern has to change to maintain a specific speed. Race walkers have developed a gait pattern that is technically walking that allows them to attain jogging and running speeds while technically walking. However, this gait pattern is highly specialized and is only applicable to the sport of race walking. It is unsuitable for any other purpose. In the military or even the average person’s life, there comes a point when the walking gait must be abandoned for jogging and jogging must be abandoned for running. For the average human being, this breaking point is 2m/s, which is also 4.47mph, 7.19kph, and 13:25min/mile. This speed is reached with a cadence of 160spm with a 30″ step length.
The physical difficulty experienced by humans attempting to achieve these speeds is the act of swinging the leg forward 30″ and then propelling themselves forward with enough power to allow the other leg to do the same. What typically happens without proper training is the SPM cadence is met but the stride length shortens. This is also a concern for shorter soldiers who will find this more difficult. To illustrate this, let’s unpack the issue. Various formulas exist to estimate stride length based on height or leg length but they are all wrong. According to these formulas, a 30in step requires one to be over 6ft tall. However, exhaustive studies on the subject reveal that the average male height is between 5’7″ and 5’10” and the average male stride length is indeed 30in. The average stride length for women is 27.5in due to their shorter legs on average. This makes all walking speeds more difficult for women to achieve and maintain even before we get to the issue of specific training.
Therefore, the issue of increasing speed is one of maintaining stride length while increasing cadence. This is an issue of low-intensity (load) power output and while that doesn’t sound sexy, it’s critical because, as stated earlier, most people lack the strength, power, and stamina to maintain a 30″ step at a cadence in excess of 120spm. This leads us into the realm of energy systems and a world most soldiers are not familiar with: professional training methods.
When one possesses the strength and stamina to easily perform a cyclic movement like fast walking, the muscles do not have to work hard and the task is accomplished using predominantly the aerobic energy system. This means that very little fatigue is experienced, the tissues of the body experience very little stress and recovery is very swift. However, if you lack the required physical ability secondary to proper adaptation, the same task will require significantly more effort if the speed is to be maintained. What most soldiers experience is a situation where they are inadequately prepared for the activity and they experience high levels of fatigue. As a result of their inadequacy, they perform the activity at a much higher heart rate and rely on the less efficient glycolytic energy system and experience tremendous stress to the tissues. This requires extended recovery times and often results in injury. The solution to this problem is often thought to be running. However, running, as a completely separate gait pattern, is never a solution to a walking issue due to the specificity or lack thereof. The fact is that to excel at walking fast, you must train to do so properly using methods that are established to be effective.
This problem is then exasperated by external loads and the loads imposed by terrain such as incline and unstable footing. External loads place the soldier in a very unique category occupied only by soldiers, backpackers, and mountaineers. External loads like backpacks, load bearing kit, rifles and other equipment present unique challenges to this category of professions, sports and hobbies because increased loads require greater power output to achieve the same speed results. In short, the more weight you carry, the more strength, power, and stamina you must possess. External loads have the direct effect of reducing stride length and increasing the oxygen and metabolic demands on the body. Unloaded marching and running can never properly preapre the soldier for the loaded environment.
As this post is about standards, let’s now define them for you.
The average soldier should be able to walk at a speed of 6.5kph for 20km carrying 32kg (LBE, pack & rifle) with a heart rate below his lactate threshold. The special operations soldier should be able to complete the same task at a speed of 7kph.
Military Running Speeds
The properly trained soldier will not need to run unless he needs to move faster than 7kph, which requires a cadence of greater than 160spm. When fully loaded with LBE, pack, and rifle, the soldier should never run unless required to in a life or death situation. Generally speaking, the soldier should only run in combat when wearing a patrol order load of 16kg/35lbs or less. The demands of physical preparation of the soldier are many because the very job description of a soldier is to perform accelerated movement and obstacle negotiation while wearing approximately 16kg of equipment while engaged in active combat. The physiological demands of modern combat are severe and cannot be prepared for by traditional means used today.
Running encompasses three sub-categories: jogging, running and sprinting. Typically jogging is considered to be the use of the running gait pattern at a cadence between 160-180spm. The problem with jogging is one of step length, which varies dramatically depending on the load, slope, footing and fatigue. Jogging in the military, as in ultra-distance racing, is essentially worthless. Soldiers, like amateur athletes, think they are moving faster when jogging, but they are not. It is far more preferable to maintain a walking pace than to increase tissue stress and fatigue and burning more energy going no faster or indeed, slower.
A soldier should use a running gait pattern when he is required to move significantly faster for short periods of time. Military “double time” is a cadence of 180spm with a stride length of 36in. This results in a speed of 6.1mph, or 2.7m/s, 9.8kph and 9:50min/mile. This is a 79% increase in speed from quick time, 52% faster than forced march, and only 36% faster than max walking speed. This speed increase comes at the cost of more than double the impact force on the tissues and more than double the energy expenditure. Double time running is only appropriate for short periods of time and short distances. While troops may move at 4mph for many hours, troops should not double time unless they must and if so, only to get into combat or out of danger. This will usually be less than 3km (1.5 miles). When unloaded in physical training,
Double time running is only appropriate for short periods of time and short distances. While troops may move at 4mph for many hours, troops should not double time unless they must and if so, only to get into combat or out of danger. This will usually be less than 3km (1.5 miles). When unloaded in physical training, running in general, should not last more than 20 minutes for the average person or soldier. Such duration should be progressed into carefully. For advanced troops with a good aerobic base, running may be performed for up to one hour in the aerobic heart rate zones and for up to 40 minutes in the gylcolytic zone for the truly elite runners. Even SOF troops should probably limit glycolytic runs (tempo & interval runs) to 20 minutes or less.
In defining a standard to shoot for, I feel it is most desirable to be able to run 5km in 20min or less while under your lactate threshold. In our research, it has been demonstrated that the same performance is most certainly possible wearing up to 16kg of equipment. We will cover tactics, techniques, and procedures for training in other posts that will allow you to progress from 6.1mph to 9.3mph with ease.
When it comes to sprinting, we are discussing very short distance and duration events capped at 200m or 20sec. Sprinting is critical to the soldier, especially in duration of 3-5 seconds to stay ahead of the enemy’s ability to react to a soldier changing positions on the battlefield. Sprint training should occur at all distances between 20-200m as all are important. It doesn’t take long to understand the profound differences between 20 and 60m or 100-200m. Each distance is significantly different and should be trained.
Sprint training by definition is a maximum effort run limited by the body’s central governor mechanism and the body’s energy supplies. It is characterized by step cadences and heart rates between 200-220 and a stride length of 1.14 times your height. Sprinting is an anaerobic energy system dominant activity, meaning that metabolically it is a very inefficient activity that burns massive amounts of energy.
When it comes to sprint standards, with or without 16kg of equipment, 60m in 8sec and 100m in 12sec is both reasonable and essential in combat. Faster is always better, as is the ability to repeat.
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The key principle of The System is individual optimization. The goal is to ensure that training provides consistent improvement without harming you and that your psychological disposition doesn’t damage the body and psyche of you or your team. The system is designed to strengthen your mind, body, spirit and tactical capabilities to create a fully developed and highly capable person regardless of the task at hand (especially combat).
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By applying a carefully crafted blend of medical and sports sciences, The System is used to dramatically enhance the capability, capacity, technical skill level and resiliency of special operations troops and citizen-soldiers alike. The system is designed to always enhance and evolve these characteristics so that when the extraordinary occurs, you are able to draw from almost unlimited reserves and recover quickly and fully from the event(s). This has the effect of preserving the quality of life of the soldier, preserving families, extending the soldier’s service life, increasing combat effectiveness at all levels and ages, saving billions of dollars in medical treatment, and providing the nation with the highest level of capability possible. The Highland System is a new level of martial excellence for those who dare to be held to a higher standard.
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2 thoughts on “The Soldier’s Ideal Speed”
[Sprinting] … “is characterized by step cadences and heart rates between 200-220 and a stride length of 1.14 times your height.”
There is much theoretical garbage in the article (which seems to be a wide-ranging problem in the US military) and this is not the only place in the article where a proofreader would have earned his stripes weeding out the additional garbage that results from careless writing.