Tactical Athletes Need Specific Training Programs. Period.

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Tactical Athletes in a Sport Athlete’s World

Athletes in traditional sports use strength and conditioning as a tool to boost their performance in competition. Strength training helps to prolong performance ability by mitigating injury risk, and improving recovery time. These same benefits are sought by individuals who work in roles that protect and serve civilians, communities, and countries. Tactical athletes (aka those who serve in civil service occupations, or as members of the Military, Police, and Fire and Rescue teams) have a physical performance need that is required by their work.

Whether it be lifting injured people out of harm's way, or breaching a door in a dangerous environment, strength and endurance are mandatory for tactical athletes. Thus, it would only seem intuitive that using the same framework of strength and conditioning for sport athletes would also work for service members of these communities. Unfortunately, the environments of sport athletes and tactical athletes are distinctly different, and their needs are unique to each domain. The chaotic demands for time and recovery disrupt the transferability of a sport-specific program to work optimally in the tactical setting. Training must remain generalized, and develop all necessary training qualities for each specific occupation’s challenges. The demand for constant readiness changes the landscape for program design, placing a priority on flexible and convenient solutions without costing the athlete improved performance.


Accounting for Unpredictable Environments

Apart from the life-or-death stakes that are inherent to working in tactical careers, sport athletes do not share the demand for year-round readiness. Sport athletes benefit from a defined predictability, allowing coaches and athletes the time to plan and prepare for competition. Athletes and coaches know exactly how long they have to develop a foundation of fitness, and coaches can implement difficult workouts while still allowing for appropriate recovery. A strength and conditioning coach therefore leverages the team’s schedule to make the best decisions around program design and recovery needs.  

The tactical environment never has that same predictability. Tactical athletes must be fit for the call of duty at any moment. There are few opportunities for prolonged training, or for extended recovery from difficult workouts. To manage these constraints, strength coaches working in the tactical environment must design programs that develop the necessary fitness qualities, but not at the expense of making their athletes too sore to be effective. What brief opportunities that allow for preparation need to be seized for the development of weak areas of fitness, and the maintenance of strong ones. Training must be designed so it can be changed easily, in case a stressful day in the field requires a recovery session. Where sport athletes have the benefit of defined scheduling, tactical athletes must use adaptable and flexible scheduling in their program design. Regardless of what is planned, duty and service will always come first.


Minimal Equipment and Guidance

Tactical athletes often train on their own, and make due with what limited equipment is available. For many fire, rescue, and law enforcement officers, equipment for training at the local firehouse or station is hard to come by. Military units on deployment often utilize makeshift resistance implements from sandbags, ammo cans, and water jugs. A spartan DIY mindset comes with the territory for tactical athletes, but ensuring that their programs are effective is not something that should be left to chance. Moreso, ensuring that units and squads are able to make time to train on their own, or better yet, with their team, is a luxury that isn’t granted to many tactical athletes. Therefore, tactical athletes are typically left to perform their training without the guidance of a strength coach.


In comparison, sport athletes are rarely at a loss when it comes to training partners and they typically train with their teammates on a unified program, almost always with the guidance of a coach to guide them in the right direction. Strength and conditioning coaches in the traditional sport world can teach and educate athletes how best to use the equipment they have available. Finding a strength and conditioning coach who specializes in tactical strength and conditioning is just becoming available.

Additionally, many athletes in the tactical space are fighting against pre-existing cultures that do not promote training. Unlike sport programs, tactical strength and conditioning programs need to offer contingencies and back-up plans. Much like the members of these groups themselves, designing tactical programs requires preparation for troublesome scenarios. Building power, strength, or endurance all need satisfactory Plan B’s for the inevitable ‘no equipment’ possibility. It would be rare for a sport athlete to deal with the same levels of unpredictability, but it is very much a standard expectation in the tactical experience.


Greater Mixture of Training Qualities

The majority of tactical athletes must develop and maintain several training qualities at once. Soldiers, police, and firefighters must all be strong and powerful, but also have significantly well-developed endurance. These training qualities are developed using separate methods and movements, and can interfere with each other if not properly planned. Prolonged endurance training can minimize the growth of strength and power, which is not acceptable for the needs of tactical athletes. Similarly, they cannot afford to have poor endurance, or lose the ability to work at high rates for long durations. Much like a gardener cannot let one plant’s shadow rob other plants from receiving nutritious sunlight, tactical athletes cannot let one quality negate another.

Training for a more well-rounded skillset requires trading off any deepened specialization in one ability for more general capabilities in many. The demand for multiple fitness qualities at once requires the organization of training to develop each of them congruently. Achieving that goal is done with consideration to each athlete’s individual capabilities in strength, power, and endurance. The performance in these qualities sets the stage for programs that improve weaknesses and maintain strengths. This does not mean that high performance in one quality is unattainable, but it must be planned with care and attention. The goal is not to make a soldier faster simply for the sake of more speed, but rather to make them as fast as necessary while still maintaining their aerobic endurance. Sport-specific programs would under-serve tactical athletes in not managing the wide array of fitness qualities that require development, balance, and maintenance over the year.


A Need for Auto-Regulation

Within tactical groups, there is a large range of ages, ability and fitness from rookies to captains.  Both of these groups are united by a commitment to serve, and training must be targeted towards prolonging their ability to serve to their highest ability. Flexibility in the training prescription allows that to be possible. The use of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) as a form of resistance adjustment is one tool that helps scale a program to meet athletes at their level of capability. It can also act as a method for easily implementing a form of auto-regulation, helping athletes self-adjust to more adequate training loads on their own. A captain will respond to a given training load much differently than a fresh-faced rookie. Similarly, the stressors of the job have unique effects on each individual member of the unit. Utilizing a training prescription that helps each athlete meet the needs of their mission should guide their program. The stressors of the job often have prolonged effects, and training must be able to navigate recovery needs with nimble efficiency. Auto-regulation through RPE helps to solves that problem by modifying training load to the subjective reporting made by the athlete. Leveraging a more nuanced training prescription can keep tactical athletes closer to their optimal levels of fitness without adding significantly to the inherent stress of their job. 


The detriments of not being physically prepared for duty is termination or, even worse, bodily harm or loss of life. Much of the training that sport athletes have been implementing for years is now becoming delivered to tactical athletes. While commendable, tactical athletes are still in need of specialized programming considerations to ensure their training is fit for long-term success. Although a majority of the needs of tactical athletes and sport athletes are similar, tactical athletes have intrinsic differences and circumstances that make their training needs incredibly distinct. Therefore, they deserve the attention and dedication through programs that are designed with those factors taken into consideration. Try one of Volt's tactical programs and see how our programs optimize the operator for improved health, increased job performance and longevity from Recruit to Retiree.


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Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, TSAC-F is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog, and is the lead sport performance specialist at Volt Athletics. Jace manages Volt program design, content development, and educational resources for schools, clubs, and organizations. Jace is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®), and holds a Bachelor’s degree from Seattle Pacific University in Exercise Science. Follow Jace on Twitter @VoltCoachJace.