Skip to content

A Long, Long Running Story for Change

A few years back I was a young strength coach earning my stripes in the new world of Military strength and conditioning. I entered as an outsider into a military unit that had, for several years, bought into the teaching and practices of a well-known “extreme” fitness program. This program was so integrated into the unit that unit members were coaching classes themselves, and even owning and running their own “extreme” gyms in their personal time.

As the newly hired strength coach for the unit’s schoolhouse, I was responsible for a student curriculum that was rooted in science-based human performance, not fad workouts. Unit leadership initially thought of me as a parallel training system to the “extreme” program and that student groups would benefit from both styles of training. In short, there was a very obvious mismatch between our formalized curriculum and the unit’s existing “extreme” fitness culture.

I learned very quickly that my degrees and certifications were not going to help me here and that relationships and rapport would be critical. None of these relationships were more effective than the one I built with unit command. After a year of patiently building rapport with cadre, students, and command, the impact of “extreme” training systems was slowly going away because people realized the advantages of a traditional strength and conditioning approach. However, there remained a lingering core group of “extreme” fanatics and an official paid-contract to bring in another coach to instruct daily “extreme” workouts.

It was a daily challenge in patience to coach while also having a competing set of training principles in the same facility. In my mind, this “extreme” program had to go. Luckily for me, the insanity that brought in crazy, mindless workouts also brought out a good amount of competition. Nowhere do you see this more in the military than in endurance and, specific to this story, ultra-running endurance.

It was a rite of passage for some of the fitter unit members to train to complete a prominent 50 mile running race, and this year it was my unit commander’s time to step up to the challenge. As a strength coach I cannot condone running at a pointlessly slow snail’s pace for 10 or more hours; however, as a person who needs to change a culture and instill some common-sense, I relished the opportunity to help the unit commander. I worked with the unit dietitian, called all my ultra-running friends, researched everything I could on the topic, created an individualized training plan for my commander, and followed up with him after every single training session.

He completed every rep and every mile of the plan, finished the race with no issues, bested his goal time, showed off to his old buddies (who had to limp their way to the finish), and all without getting injured. Six months of training culminating in a 50-mile race, and not one training injury. He was appreciative for the help and I was grateful at the opportunity. And though I was proud of the training plan and how successful it was, I was much prouder of the patience and dedication I had shown to my ultimate goal – Eliminating the “extreme” training program.

You see, as a final preparation run-workout for the race, I had conveniently written in a 13-mile orientation run on part of the more difficult terrain on the 50-mile race course. And because of safety and logistical issues, the commander needed a partner for it. Now, I hadn’t run more than about 3 miles in the past decade, so I can’t say I practiced what I preached about training preparation, but my worry over the run was outweighed by my ever-increasing frustration with the “extreme” training coaches. I was going on that run. It would be an uninterrupted 2 hours of honest conversation with my commander about training and coaching, away from any other military influences.

And I did it! It hurt, I was sore for weeks, needed some serious physical therapy… but just a few days after my soreness went away, I was approached by our contracting officer who said the commander had directed him not to renew the “extreme” training contract. Seeing as the contracting officer was still an active “extreme” training participant, I contained my excitement.

Thinking back on this experience now, I do not know how I had the stamina or patience to fully follow through with my goal. It took dedication, discipline, and deep tissue massage, but I am proud of what I did and know that this level of dedication is the primary reason for my success.

It had nothing to do with professional sports teams, degrees, and high-level certifications. To put it simply, effective change in the military fitness culture happens when: You are humble; You do good work; You show them you care; And you are patient enough to wait for the opportune time for instilling long-lasting change.

Paul Riordan is a civilian Physical Training Instructor at the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Academy. He has been with DC Police for the past five years where he developed a new curriculum which integrates a sports performance model into a tactical training setting. Previously, he was a Senior Physical Activity Scientist at the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD. For the five years prior to his position at CHAMP, he was a strength and conditioning coach within the DoD in the National Capital Region. He earned his Master of Science in Exercise Science from George Washington University and his Bachelor of Science in Physical Education and Psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is a NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, NSCA Tactical Strength & Conditioning Facilitator, and holds several other certifications in a variety of human performance disciplines.