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E45 | Craig Weller on Military Special Operations Preparation

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Craig is a former USN SWCC (Special Warfare Combatant Crewman). He is also certified under the Department of State’s Worldwide Personal Protective Service-2, and spent nearly two years on the High-Threat Protection team for the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad in Iraq. 

In Special Operations and in subsequent private deployments, Weller held a variety of instructional and diplomatic security roles in locations including Kenya, the Philippines, Central America, South Sudan, and Iraq. 

Along with Jonathan Pope, he co-founded Ethos Colorado Training Center, a full-service strength and conditioning facility based in Denver. Prior to that, he founded Barefoot Fitness in South Dakota, with two training facilities based on minimalist principles developed while training SOF personnel in austere locations.

Craig is a Precision Nutrition Level Two certified nutrition coach, and works with Precision Nutrition where he designs their exercise systems and works with high-risk occupations such as military and law enforcement personnel.

Topics Covered:

  1. Craig’s personal experience with military special operations (SOF) selection programs
  2. What physical qualities are required to succeed in SOF selection
  3. Short and long term programming to potentiate said qualities
  4. What technical emphasis is necessary to maximize performance
  5. Psychological preparation for SOF selection
  6. Maintaining health at high training volumes 
  7. How should physical training change once somebody graduates selection 

Links of Interest:

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Episode Transcription:

Doug: [00:00:00] Craig thank you for coming on. So congratulations on the release of your new book, Building the Elite, which is about preparing candidates for military special operations selection programs. I know that a lot of people who are listening might not deal with special operations candidates, but I think that talking about the process is a good way to just, get into planning for complex domains and especially, from like an athlete preparation standpoint. Preparing people who need a variety of bio motor abilities, kind of that whole Jack of all trades master of none. It can be easy to program for sports, like a strength sport where you only have to be strong and nothing else, or like just an endurance sport here is a mix of qualities. But before we get into that, would you mind talking about your experience, your personal experience with military special operations selection and just how that led to the impetus for you creating this resource?

 

Craig: [00:00:57] Yeah, sorry. When I joined the special operations community, I joined the Navy when I was, I think I was 17 when I enlisted and I shipped out right after high school. And I grew up in a tiny town in South Dakota, and I didn’t know how to swim and went into a Naval special operations selection course. I learned to swim while I was in that course. So I learned initially by taking the screen test, the minimum physical standards that you need just to start the pipeline and I’d failed to swim immediately within like two laps. They tapped me on the shoulder and pull me out because I was drowning and send me to stroke development where it was at the time of the EOD chief would teach me how to swim better. It took me, I passed that swim on my last try by about seven seconds and then from there took me two and a half years to finally graduate the pipeline because I was so bad at swimming and so I went through, I had a long pipeline anyway, because of the way the Navy worked at the time I had to also do a conventional a school for like a normal Navy job and then I did the special operations training stuff in the morning before school, every day.

 

So I get up at 3:00 AM and do two to three hours of training for the soft pipeline and then go to my normal school. But by the time I made it through, I had been through two swig selection courses and spend an extra four months in buds in a development program for the it’s called the brown shirt rollbacks and I had seen thousands of people start the process and fail and literally every one of them that started that swam worse than me lasted maybe a day or two. They almost all quit immediately because being the slowest guy in the water is terrible and there was this really interesting thing that I observed as I was going through which was that the people who made it were not universally the most physically fit or the most physically capable or gifted, there are guys like me, like I didn’t even know how to swim when I started who still found a way through. I knew guys who never did more than six or seven pull-ups the whole time, or were like the chubby kids that were always slow runners in the back of the pack, suffering their way through and then on the other side of it. You’d have these guys who were like D-1 athletes who had been competitive water polo players, triathletes, whatever, who seemingly had the physical characteristics that they needed to make it through and they’d quit within the first week and often pretty reliably.

 

So I became really fascinated with the idea or the question of what it is that makes a successful special operator, which is ultimately what makes someone resilient under stress and that started me down 15, 20 year research, rabbit hole, corresponding with academic mentors, people like Andy Morgan, that we both know, The guys who actually study the physiology or psychophysiology of performance under stress and I started taking that system apart and learning what it was that built a successful special operator or what it was that led someone to fail. Ultimately the book that we just wrote and that we just put out is the result of all of that. but as I was, once I was active, as a special operator, I did a lot of training other people. So we did field work for an internal defense where six to eight of us would go into a country and train up to 200 other guys and basically create another special operations unit. So for several years, I had a lot of really good lab rats, people who were in the soft pipeline that I got to train and coach and basically make up whatever it was that I would do with them, figure out how to train them.

 

So what I was learning about what builds a special operator, I was able to test and apply in a real world environment and sort like an accelerated learning lab where I could see very quickly what worked and what didn’t or what caused someone to fail or cause them to succeed. And the ultimate goal of this book and the way we coach people is for people to not have to gamble, for people to not just guess and assume and hope that they have what it takes to make it through a selection course, but that people can break down that entire process, the entire system o what it is that makes someone resilient or capable or able to succeed in this environment and to control and train for all of those factors, rather than just going in and hoping for the best or taking advice from people who graduated, but don’t know what it was that made them successful, which is kind of what happens on the other side of a lot of software, special operations coaching. A lot of people who recreate the test and mistake it for the training where you try to prepare someone to go to selection by yelling at them on a beach for a weekend and saying the words mental toughness over and over and that clearly doesn’t work because even the majority of people who go through that kind of training, who show up and say the same words that everyone else is saying, I’m going to just keep going. I just won’t quit, the little mantra is that everyone repeats. Most of those people fail anyway. Even if they spend a weekend getting yelled at on the beach by someone else who had graduated one of these courses.

 

So there are pieces to the process that aren’t commonly understood, that played a significant role at least with this book, we’re hoping to kind of surface and make explicit so that people can learn them and go into these courses with a much higher degree of confidence that they’re going to make it so people aren’t gambling their lives for four or five, six years of their careers on a chance that they might have what it takes to make it through that they might’ve thought of all the things that matter and we want them to know with confidence that they have the pieces put together.

 

Doug: [00:06:41] Makes sense. And let me backtrack a little bit only because for people who aren’t familiar with, what some of these courses entail, can you talk about what; there are obviously different special operations units with different mission sets, but I mean, overall, the courses tend to be pretty similar. So can you talk about like what these courses tend to entail in terms of like the physical and the psychological qualities? Because it’s not like a sport where if you’re like a college football coach. You can scout high school football players. In these special operations units you’re often taking people, some of them are prior service with military experience but most of them are being recruited off the street. So you’re taking untrained people and before the government invest a bunch of time and money into actually training them, you’re using these like, imperfect, but sometimes very effective proxies for the job typically through like physical and psychological duress. Can you talk about like what those physical and psychological sort of tests and challenges are, and like the commonalities among the different, special operations programs before we kind of proceed into the specifics.

 

 

 

Craig: [00:07:45] Yeah. Yeah. And that’s a good point. They are pretty consistent in their methods, there are obviously differences between special forces selection buds or the selection course that you went through. But for the most part they’re following similar themes and they’re extremely physically intensive. But the reality is that most of the physical testing that you’re doing is not because at some point you’re going to have to out push up the enemy or win a swimming race. The physical testing is a way of revealing personality traits or psychological characteristics. So if someone shows up to selection and their physical machine, it tells you something about what’s in their head and it tells you that they’ve been putting in a lot of work by themselves, without anybody watching them or telling them to, and that they’re capable of being conscientious and consistent and delaying gratification or making short term sacrifices in the interest of a long-term goal and doing that for a long time, because someone doesn’t show up with the physical characteristics of a successful special operator, unless they have those mental pieces.

 

So in selection and this does vary a bit by course the idea is primarily to mentally and emotionally stress people while physically challenging them, but in a way that’s not generally going to physically injure them. If you look at the statistics, the majority of the people who wash out of the course who fail or quit, aren’t washing out because they’re physically broken. They’re not breaking bones, tearing things, they’re washing out or quitting because they either metabolically can’t keep up or they just can’t mentally and emotionally continue because it’s become stressful enough that they can’t keep going. The Marines are towards the left side of that spectrum in that the Marine programs scout sniper, recon, or MARSOC are physically more brutal with a higher injury rate, where other courses are more big on things that are emotionally stressful through physical pain, like cold water exposure but during, when any of these courses your day is highly chaotic. They’re deliberately placing you in an environment of low predictability and control. So you never really know what’s coming up next, how long it’s going to last, or that you have the ability to make it stop.

 

So you might do something like an obstacle course or a really long run, or you’re running around with a rock loaded with sandbags in knee-deep surf and you’ll finish something that seemed really terrible and you’ll be convinced that it was the hardest part of the day and you can’t do anything more like the day it has to wind down and then they’ll tell you to go do it all again and this time counts. This time your performance is measured and they’ll find ways to just continually push your perception of what your body is capable of and what you learn or what the successful candidates learn is that your physical capabilities are borderline limitless. Like it’s really, really difficult to actually break a body to run so fast that you just blackout or swim so hard that you just black out or do so many push-ups that you can’t possibly do one single rep more but the deciding factor is how far your mind is willing to come along for the ride and the extent to which your mind is willing to take you into those places, because even though your body’s capable of going really far. It’s also really painful and really difficult to do.

 

So these courses, by the time they’re over typically wash out anywhere from 60 to 90% of their applicants are the volunteers that start. So if you have a hundred guys at the beginning, you’ve maybe got 10 to 30 of them left when it’s over. My first course went from 50 guys to 13, I was number 14 when I got washed out for failing a swim and my second one went from 90 something to 30 having 95 to 30 or something like that and I believe your courses, the PT’s are actually quite a lot higher in nutrition. Is that right?

 

Doug: [00:12:01] Yeah. I don’t know. It varies and they’ve recently changed that selection. So I don’t know what those numbers are now. But yeah, I mean, it’s good what you’re touching on because you’re essentially saying that like these physical tasks that are required to be completed are really more trying to measure psychological qualities and trying to sort of almost in a way reveal, using physical adversity to reveal psychological resiliency and focus and some of these personality traits you talk about in the book and what I like about your book is that a lot of books that talk about SOF or special operations selection preparation, focus, purely on how do you decrease your two mile run time or whatever? How do you do more push-ups, pull-ups I mean, you have sections of the book devoted to psychological preparation and the implication there is that these things are somewhat trainable and that you can have a process to prepare psychologically. It’s like you can physically, so before we even touched on the physical stuff, like what are kind of the trainable psychological qualities that you reference in the book and what are some, just conceptually, how do you develop those things?

 

Craig: [00:13:13] Well, just like running or swimming or doing a squat. There are learnable mental skills that you can apply in your physical training or in any stressful situation to help you cope with them more effectively. There are also components, that you layer in like the framework of stress inoculation, where you’re starting with mastery or a quality pattern or a quality skill and you establish that before you apply stress and complexity. So that you’re always extending quality, you’re not just breaking yourself down, destroying your own equilibrium and hoping that you adapt through that process. Like there’s a sequential way of learning and applying a skill acquisition process that helps you to master these things, but those mental skills are things like say compartmentalization, which is the ability to acknowledge something, say a feeling or a sensation of discomfort, and then set it aside as unnecessary or unproductive relevant to your current purpose. We use an example in the book where we talk about when I was in the Brown shirt program in buds, we were sort of like supervising a hell week that was going on and we were maybe three or four days in, and there’s a point where they give everyone a nap on the beach for maybe two hours in tents on the beach and it’s right in the front of the facility where everyone’s going to be doing push-ups in the sand the next day.

 

Our job was to just sit there and watch them while they took naps and make sure that they didn’t pee in the sand like that they walked the a hundred yards or so to the bathroom because once they lay down, there’s a lot of edema, a lot of swelling that starts to find its way out of their body once they arrest and so they all have to pee really bad, and we’re all going to be doing push-ups in that sand that night or the next day. So we want to make sure that they’re not peeing in it, but there’s this guy who walked by and we’re just sitting there watching them. We’re also looking for medical issues, if someone starts to see these up or have something happened, and this guy is still soaking wet in his cammies. Shivering uncontrollably, just shuffling by like he’s trying not to touch cold, wet cotton and he stops right in front of me and just stares off at the horizon and goes, fuck I’m cold and then just shivers again and just keeps walking and in doing that, he was acknowledging how miserable he was and then he was setting that aside and then just continuing for it and doing what he had to do. He wasn’t letting his emotions dictate his behavior. He was putting his goals or his objectives, his behavior in front and prioritizing those and setting aside his emotions or how he felt at the time and that’s a really useful skill that you’ll see a lot of special operations guys develop.

 

 

Steve Magnus, the track coach calls it, having a calm conversation with your own physiological signals, to say you’re running as hard as you can and a mile and a half time grind or something that’s pretty painful to recognize and accept that you’re doing something painful, but that it doesn’t matter that it’s not going to hurt you or kill you or cause permanent damage. It’s just a companion that you have while you’re doing this thing, and it’s a necessary part of that process and so you acknowledge that feeling and you set it aside and then you move forward. Another one is segmenting, which is a super common strategy that successful SOF guys will use where you’re breaking your day or an exercise apart into the smallest manageable pieces that you can process. So the most common one that you’ll hear is chow chow or meal to meal. So you make it to breakfast and then the only thing you think about is making it to lunch and you narrow your world down to where you don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by how much this is going to suck for the next six months, because that will mentally break you and instead you think about what you’re going to do to get through the next hour or the next two hours and if things are really bad, you’ll segment down to running the next five steps or swimming the next couple of strokes or doing one more push-up.

 

You make your world really small to the point that the thing that you’re focused on is always manageable and then eventually you look up and after enough, one more steps are enough, make it to breakfast, you’ve gone through six months of this and you’re done and it’s finally over. Self-talk is another really big one that we look at with people, that was one I struggled with when I first started swimming and I was having a near drowning experience every day. I would, after our pool workouts, I lived on a barracks and the fifth floor was no elevator, you’d walk up to the stairs. And after the pool days, I wasn’t able to walk up the stairs all at once. I’d have to do one flight and then sit on the floor and drink some water. Think about my life and then do the next flight and it takes me like 15, 20 minutes to make it up those five flights of stairs because I was so physically drained and my self talk at times really bad, like I’d be in the water drowning being the last person, finishing everything, getting the goggles kicked off my face over and over and I’d be swimming along like this sucks. I hate this. This sucks. This sucks. This sucks. Fuck this, this sucks and just making it worse in my head. I realized that I was creating an emotional stress response that exacerbated all the physical work I had to do and that I was effectively sabotaging myself.

 

So I learned to change myself talk and just replace it. I either would keep a really short string of song lyrics in my head, or I tried using a couple of different little mantras, like the running coach. I think it’s Ed Thomas, the program to run guy. Maybe saying that name, wrong Thomas Miller, he had a little thing that he used for running coaching that was like float over gently push off softly. This thing that he taught his runners to say and I would try using that when I was running. But for the most part, I would just replace my self talk with a song lyric because you can only generally hold one conscious thought in your head at a time in your internal dialogue and so rather than this sucks, I hate this. This sucks. This sucks. Fuck this. I would just sing a song like over and over my head and use that to keep myself from exacerbating a stress response and adding difficulty to something that was already terrible. We’ll also look at things like the systems that people have for consistently producing a behavior that they know that they want. It’s a common stereotype that guys in the special operations while they are super self-disciplined and had a ton of willpower and are just like these super human people and realistically, in any field, the high achieving people tend to create upstream solutions or structure their days in a way that makes the desirable behavior easier or more automatic or makes it the path that they’ll inherently go down when they’re tired, fatigued, and don’t feel like doing anything.

 

For example, when I had to get up at three o’clock in the morning for these workouts, I did that not by like gritting my teeth and promising myself that I was going to be super motivated at 3:00 AM to wear khaki hot pants across the base in Chicago, to walk to a pool workout in the middle of the winter. Instead, I just set my alarm clock on the other side of the room and it was one of those really annoying klaxon horn sounding alarms and I still hate that sound and I slept on a top bunk so when my alarm clock went off, I had to physically jump out of bed and run across the room to shut it off. Then once I had done that, I’m out of bed and I’d have to physically climb a tiny little ladder to get back into bed if I wanted to, which made it really inconvenient. So I didn’t solve the problem of having to consistently get up at three o’clock in the morning by having a ton of willpower. I solved it by making the structure so that the behavior that I wanted was that the natural, easy, automatic behavior.

 

We look at that with guys and how they structure their day for everything, from their training to their nutrition, to how they pack their stuff, to be ready to work out when they need to be. It’s a lot of planning and kind of conscientiousness oriented work like that and one of the big underlying themes is putting behavior before feelings, because the choices that we make, don’t just reveal our preferences. They also shape them over time. So if we come up with ways to consistently bias ourselves into doing the behavior that we want, then over time that behavior becomes our preference and becomes our automatic default and something that we’re more likely to want to do or feel like doing or automatically do. Where, I mean, the guys who rely on feelings to guide them. Don’t make it very far in general, but if you’re waiting to feel motivated or feel like doing something, feel like getting into cold water at four o’clock in the morning, you’re never going to feel like doing that. And instead, what we teach people is to put their behavior first, put the long-term goal first, and there are some other components to that, like their ability to manage their own chronic stress levels, things like self-awareness and self-regulation play into that as well.

 

If someone’s under intense chronic stress and doesn’t have the coping mechanisms to manage that, then they also lose the ability to make long-term goal oriented decisions and they’re more likely to default to the pathways in their brain that use reflexive moment to moment problem solving type behavior. Basically we become a lot more thoughtless and automatic when we’re chronically stressed and so we want to give people the ability to retain cognitive function or the ability to, to think through a situation or a decision when they’re under extreme stress, so that they don’t just solve a problem for the next five seconds and ruin their career in doing so.

 

Doug: [00:22:59] Okay. And there seems to be a little bit of a movement. Maybe this is more in the air force where presumably the goal of these selection programs is to really identify more so the psychological traits than the physical and using the physical as a proxy for the psychological, because the military can train people to do anything from a physical standpoint, but you can’t obviously take untrained people, throw them into the middle of a firefight and see what their stress response is going to be. So you use these things that are correlates for stress, like sleep deprivation, food deprivation, some of the physical tormenting things, cold water, but it seems like there is a little bit of a movement to try to make selection a little bit cleaner and through like things like personality tests, psychological tests where it’s a little bit more abstract. So to me, it’s like almost one of those transfer questions. We always talk about transfer from a physical standpoint and while admittedly running around with boats on your head, it doesn’t a hundred percent transfer to what you’re going to do when it’s time to jump out of a plane at night, or when you’re getting shot at, to me, it seems a little bit less abstract and less detached than taking a  personality test. So how clean do you think that people can make these selection programs? What is the role of academic psychology and people try to make things more quote, unquote scientific, because people can see some of these programs as like kind of brutish. But I think that they’ve survived this long because they do have some value. So what does, what is the role maybe for some of these more abstract, psychological tests that are devoid of physical adversity, in your opinion?

 

Craig: [00:24:41] I think in isolation, they’re not going to be that helpful, because you’ll always need some combination of all of those characteristics, at least in a traditional special operations role. There may be some roles out there that are entirely cognitive, if you’re a linguist expert or something, or you’re doing knock work like you’re doing undercover kind of work where the physical side doesn’t really matter and you’ve maybe able to reveal a lot of what people need more through academic testing, but I think you’re absolutely right, these things have been around forever because they work. I mean, they can always be improved on a little bit, but I think one of the most universal things that you see in the soft community are the reasons that soft guys often get along with one another. Is that you don’t really know who someone is. You don’t even know who you are. You don’t know what’s in your mind until you’ve hit bottom. Until you’ve been just physically and mentally crushed and there are a lot of people they can test well on paper that can say the right words that can put on a good show, but once they’ve hit bottom and once they’ve kind of lost everything that they’re used to relying on and they’re fully miserable, it’s the person they are, then that really matters and that’s what you’re assessing for. You’re not necessarily, I don’t think it’s even possible to know that with certainty.  Purely through an academic test. The test can narrow it down, can give you like a better idea of who’s going to have these characteristics but until you really break someone, you can’t truly reveal who they are.

 

Doug: [00:26:32] I agree and I think it’s tricky because presumably the selection courses are; they do beat people up and how much physical punishment do you have to expose somebody to be able to test for some of these things? So I think that if you can shorten it and try to promote longevity, sometimes longevity and how we select can be a little bit at odds, but let’s say that these things don’t work at all. I think there’s always kind of a temptation to say you know what we could do better. Let’s just find these outsiders too completely revamp what we’re doing and the outsider is going to say, yeah, I can help you. But I think that the outsiders in this case should probably support and serve the insiders versus let’s just abandon everything that we’ve done. I must defer to these outsiders because we were talking about specificity. If you don’t have experience with this kind of stuff, I mean, you can make a case that the outsiders, people like psychologists, in this case could be studying this community and then trying to find things that are more generalizable to the outside population versus taking people who haven’t really interacted that much because this a unique population and then trying to extrapolate data from things that don’t necessarily apply to a soft environment, and then using those generalizations to make selection decisions.

 

So I think there’s a place for both, but my concern, especially with some of the political pressure, in some cases to water down the standards and increase the numbers. It’s really easy to take something that’s quote, unquote, objective in the form of standardized test and say, well, like we’ve got this objective test. It’s more fair, but there is a subjective element that I think we’re never going to get rid of and that’s even like I’ve talked to any Morgan about this, Dr. Morgan, deferring to cadre people who have done or instructors, people who have done these jobs and ultimately like saying, would you want to work with this person. Again, it’s subjective and it’s not clean and it doesn’t fit our kind of desire for control to say like, well, we have this numerical cut-off and you either can do it, or you can’t. But I think that you’re almost doing more harm than good if you try to create arbitrary numerical cut-offs, based on a quote unquote objective test, that’s very devoid contextually from what is you’re trying to do and saying that that’s fair because I don’t know if it’s any more fair.

Craig: [00:28:51] Yeah. Yeah. And I think you’d run a really high risk of sub-optimizing the system by doing that. In a current selection course, more or less, you’re selecting for someone who has the raw materials to become a good operator but if you start running everything through academic testing, you reduce the physical component. I think you run a risk of the measure becoming the target to what people start training for, what people start practicing to join these communities becomes learning how to game a psych test, learning how to manipulate these other things that are being tested for and then you have a lot of people who are really good at passing a psych test who may not actually have what is necessary to do this job because now the thing that was a partial measure of their ability is now the target and it becomes the thing that they’re trying to do. Same as we see with like the physical testing they do in the military, especially the conventional military, where we going to see how fast you can jog and how many push-ups you can do and if you were just doing that at random, among randomized population. Yes the people who can jog faster and do push-ups better are going to be more generally physically fit and capable and it’s going to reveal those other characteristics that they’re more likely to be conscientious and, and goal oriented.

 

But after like 50 years where your career advancement depends on how many push-ups you can. You have people whose entire workouts are geared towards gaming these physical fitness assessments and then they’re less physically capable in general. They’re probably less able to do their jobs effectively because the thing that they’re actually measured on is their push-ups and a bunch of people who don’t do anything but try to optimize their push-up numbers in the gym instead of becoming good at their jobs. And I think if you rely too heavily on a psych test, you’re going to see some of the same stuff where everyone’s always going to adapt to the measures that are imposed on them or the standards that are imposed on them and if they’re primarily academic, they’re going to game that system too and you’ll have a lot of people finding their way in that, that aren’t being thoroughly evaluated against the job they’re actually doing.

 

Doug: [00:31:09] Yeah. And we’re trying to like separate the psychological and the physical qualities into buckets, but really it’s a continuum. So no matter how physically stressful something is, the more physically prepared you are, the less stressful it’s going to be an in turn the less psychologically stressful it’s going to be because if you know that you’re going to be running, let’s say 10 plus miles a day in a selection course. Well, if you can’t run 10 miles, then not only is it physically more stressful and maybe you can’t even complete it, but psychologically, you’re going to have a lot less confidence going into that program because you haven’t actually done anything that resembles what it is you’re going to be doing. It’s kind of like even though, like you said, these programs are unpredictable and somewhat chaotic, We know a lot of what goes on and so it’s kind of like, you’re not going to know exactly questions one through a hundred verbatim on the test, but you know, what the content of the test is going to be. So you’ve got to study for the test. So when it comes to some of these physical qualities, like what are the physical qualities and it’s kind of like all of them, but in terms of like the relative emphasis that are important for these programs and then when you prepare candidates, what does that look like in terms of your weekly breakdown that you’re devoting to each quality? And then how does that progress over like a monthly scheme in terms of the emphasis of those qualities?

 

Craig: [00:32:32] So I think one of the most unique characteristics of training for the special operations world is, I think, as you said, you have to be a really effective generalist and you need a massive amount of work capacity. You need the ability to just tolerate physical output all day for weeks and months on end. So it’s never really about any isolated physical performance and if you look at the performance numbers, if you’re in soft and you run a sub six minute mile, you’re really fit. That’s kind of where the standard is for being a good runner for a short distance. But if you go to a high school track meet, you’re not even going to metal with a sub six mile, you need to be five something. So compared to any specialist where this is the only thing they’re doing, and they know when they’re going to do it and for how long or how many times, none of the isolated performances are that good. We try to get guys up to a double to 250% bodyweight deadlift as kind of a standard and so if you’re 180 pounds, that’s like a 450 deadlift, which is good, but it’s like the Toyota Corolla of deadlifts. It’s adequate. It’s not exceptional. I mean, the world record for the deadlift at 180 pounds is something around like 800 and 900 pounds. So a 450 deadlifts sounds kind of like a lot. It’s good, but if you were a specialist in deadlifting, it would be mediocre and it’s the same, pretty much across the board for any of the isolated physical performances that a special operator has to do.

 

Their runtime, swim times, all of that, any one of them are difficult, but not impossible to obtain and the thing is that you have to make so many trades in order to adapt to an 8, 10, 12 hour a day, physical workload, you’re not going to have the isolated performance characteristics of like a track athlete or a competitive swimmer. You can’t optimize for that. instead the thing you’re optimizing to do, or the thing that you’re working to do is tolerate that extreme workload and then meet all of the standards as they come along, and recover from them because it’s not about what you do on day one or what you can do in one workout. It’s your ability to meet the standard and then do it again and again, and again, day after day workout after workout, like in the civilian world, a one hour workout is kind of long, like 90 minutes is excessive and in the soft world, that’s one out of five things you might do that day that are all at maximum intensity. So the primary thing that we’re developing in people is their ability to put out a huge amount of work at a relatively high standard. But it’s not that that we’re optimizing them to be really good at the screen test, to do a ton of push-ups and pull-ups or to do any one exercise really well. It’s basically that they can take a beating and that they’re mentally and emotionally and physically resilient and adaptable while they’re doing that.

 

The recovery side of it is extremely important. I’ve been recently working with a lot of guys who are already active operators who are changing branches or moving into a different community. I’ve got a guy who’s going from a special forces team into Delta and there are a lot of guys who I have been pushing their bodies, doing maximal effort workouts over and over and over chasing performance numbers, but they’re extremely rigid and they’ve kind of lost their ability to put out low grade work at a low cost to them. So like this guy I’m working with now, has a hard time doing anything at a 130 heart rate because he’s been doing so much work for so long. All of his workouts have been sort of CrossFit testing, kind of workouts to where everything’s maximum effort and even something that should be a sustainable, a six hour long ruck, he’s running a 165 heart rate to do that at a fast walk. The first thing that we change is giving them the ability to do a lot of hard things, like a long, heavy rock and make them feel as easy as possible so that it’s not taking something away from you every time you do something, because it’s never over and you always might have to do it again. You might have to do it faster. So we can’t have guys who are fixated on one single performance, like I’m going to crush this run. I’m going to crush this swim, and then I’m screwed for the day because I’ve completely depleted myself.

 

We try to raise the floor so that a lot of the work people are doing is not at a high cost, so that they don’t physically and emotionally or mentally perceive it as being a really big deal. So we want guys who can put out a ton of work without ever needing a big stress response to do it. That way when they do have to do really intense things, they still have gas in the tank, or they still have a ceiling to push because they haven’t been running at the red line the whole time to keep going and you don’t really measure that in traditional performance numbers. You can’t evaluate that by how many push-ups you can do or how fast you run a mile, instead we’re evaluating like what level of work can you do that still feels easy and we build that. That’s one of the main things that we focus on and there are obviously like a lot of correlates with that. That’s where some of the breathing stuff comes in your ability to just quickly relax between efforts to shut down and exhale and recover, recirculate blood nutrients when you get people ever super locked up and toned up, they might be really good at throwing out a hard 20 minute Metcon beat down. But if they have to do something for eight hours, they’ll break themselves because they can’t recover from effort to effort to effort and that starts to wear them down. Aside from the minimum things like the deadlift numbers, it’s primarily work capacity and resilience. Like the ability to make a really shitty day, not ruin your life, not be a big deal.

 

Doug: [00:38:54] I appreciate you saying that because I think we’re a lot of these soft selection programs, miss the Mark is they focused so much on test day. On graduation day, you’ve got to be able to do 20 pull ups and run six miles and 42 minutes, swim whatever 4,000 meters and however long. But as anybody will tell you, it’s going to these courses. The test day is the easiest day. So certainly you want to be able to meet those numbers, but the volume is the stressor. Having to do like essentially the test or more every day, all day and I think a lot of programs I can get you to run whatever 42 that’s on 40 to six mile, but that’s not really the point. The point is like, can you repeat these, just lots of volume and work capacity without getting hurt. So in my opinion, you need some volume to be able to prepare for that. You can’t just use higher intensity methods and you can say like, well, a study will show that with a higher intensity method, I could decrease your runtime better in four weeks. Then I come with lower intensity work, but you’re doing a ton of low intensity work in these courses. So I don’t know how you can prepare for that, you know, orthopedics systemic stress without doing it.

 

So just to give people an idea of, I know that it varies with individuals and you guys pride yourselves on doing individualized programming, but for the typical soft candidate going through something like that buds or ranger school or PJ selection or the Q course like your final week before you taper, like how many miles do you have people running and rucking and swimming and strength workouts? What does that kind of final week look like? So people can have an idea of what kind of workload you’re trying to get people to do before they go before they enter some of these courses.

 

 

 

Craig: [00:40:42] Oh, I should pull up a program for one of those. But if they’re at the end and they’ve done six to eight months of prep work, they might be doing, it depends on the guy and then on how much, how capable they are but anywhere from a 10 to 15 mile long run would find their way into one of their workouts will typically link a lot of things together. So they might do that long run followed by like a 60 minute mobility session where it’s just kind of recovery oriented. We do a lot of, youth stress volume or a lactic capacity kind of work, like HICT kind of workouts where you’re doing one to three reps, every 10 or 15, 20 seconds continuously for a long time, they might do that with say trap or dead lifts might find their way into that, where they’re pulling a hundred total reps, fairly quickly, but at a low heart rate. So again, we’re trying to increase the amount of work they can do easily. They’ll be doing quite often two a day workouts, where if it’s a maritime program, they’ll be putting in maybe two miles in the pool in the morning, and then that night there’ll be doing some other kind of strength workout that’s going to be an hour plus of work and during the day we’ll probably mix in some work capacity stuff where they’ll have usually at a trigger of some sort.

 

So you walk past the dumbbell that’s in your kitchen floor or whatever. something that tells you to do this, where they’ll add another 50 to a hundred reps of particular patterns, maybe an extra 50 to 100 pull ups a day, a lot of extra push-ups, like reverse lunges with a reciprocal reach. We will build in a lot of like breathing work and mobility work and stuff to try to keep their patterns balanced out and keep them from becoming too rigid as well. But basically working out training in some way becomes a significant part of their workday by the time they’re done, their average volume in a day might work out to three to four hours a day and then if they’re working a normal job, that’s about as much as will fit in and then their weekends could have an eight hour day of pretty continuous movement, but they’ve gone through this process where I mean, if it’s a testing week, they’re going to push themselves a bit. But for the most part they’re putting in that kind of volume and a lot of it is that a relatively low intensity. So it’s not breaking them there. They’re doing it in a way that doesn’t impact their ability to recover too much. But we do go through phases where we will deliberately push someone into a bit of overreaching or over-training and put them in a hole so that they can recover and establish a new baseline and a new tolerance for volume, because you said that’s the recurring theme that you’re not doing one workout in a soft selection course and calling it a day. Your entire day is a grind of some sort and I think pretty under-appreciated how much of your day is just low level bullshit?

 

Doug: [00:43:42] You run six miles a day just to like get around. It doesn’t count like your actual run training. That’s your mode of transportation.

 

Craig: [00:43:49] Yeah, yeah. It’s commuting. Like, it’s just how you get places.

 

Doug: [00:43:52] You’re not allowed to walk so you have to run everywhere.

Craig: [00:43:53] And it’s you do it as slowly and as efficiently as possible. Like the Navy version is basically speed walking with more of an arm swing. You just kind of pretend that you’re running, but yeah, just getting the meals a six to eight miles a day and there’s all this other just kind of low grade bullshit and if that stuff depletes you like if that stuff takes away your ability to do other stuff, other more important, higher performance kind of work, then you’re going to break down. You have to be able to handle all that daily grind bullshit without it robbing you of recovery capacity and that’s a lot of what we’re doing is just getting people to normalize continuous physical work. And it’s not like you’re standing there with a stopwatch and timing yourself on a quarter mile split you’re just doing work and you’re doing it in a way that’s productive. That benefits your movement patterns, your variability, resiliency, all of that. But the central theme is you’re just doing a lot of work and you’re paying attention to how you mentally process it as well. So you’re not making a big deal out of it. You’re not catastrophizing it.

 

Doug: [00:44:59] And I think the difference between like this and sports is the goal of sports is to win in a soft selection program the goal is to survive. They are two different things because no one really comes out like a winner and a selection program. It’s like, you’re just glad that you made it through healthy and then now you’ve actually like earn the right to train and become whatever you want to become but what’s interesting also about your approach is people talk about specificity. I think that if we get too specific, we could actually be led astray, whether it’s with this kind of training for a soft selection program, even in sports. So you actually advocate doing quite a bit of strength training in your programs, whereas like you’re not going to in a selection program for the military, you’re probably not going to trap our deadlift. You’re not going to do barbell based strength work, because it’s not logistically that feasible, but you guys incorporate a lot of that into your training. So for you, what is the role and the value of strength training, even though it’s not like per se specific.

 

Craig: [00:45:59] Yeah, it’s just a way to pursue generalize adaptation. So general work capacity or connective tissue strengths or in particular to control the development of a pattern, to keep people like say you see someone carrying a rock and they have a weird gait pattern, you’re not going to fix that gait pattern by telling them to do something differently under the rug. You’re going to change that gait pattern with specific exercises that they’ll do in the gym or in their living room or wherever. So strength training is largely a way of controlling the quality of movement patterns that they’re going to apply elsewhere and as a measure of the total volume, especially as they move closer and closer to their selection course, it’s maybe 20 to 30% of their training time at most, Once they’re strong enough, we keep them there and maintain that because it’s going to cost them a lot more to kick, get stronger than they need to be and we’re using it as a way to just build in work capacity in a productive way that protects their movement patterns. Then the majority of the rest of their time is going to be running, swimming, doing that kind of stuff. But it’s the same. I mean, most of the exercises that you see in a selection course are push-ups, pull-ups, flutter kicky things, a lot of like stupid ab movements and he can’t just give someone 5,000 reps of that either. Even if it’s air quotes like specific to their course, if you have someone do nothing but hundreds of push-ups a day, you’ll probably destroy their elbows by the time they’re done or they’ll have some kind of joint issue and then they’re going to have a lot of other vulnerabilities to all the other variable random stuff they’re doing.

 

There’s not anything that’s highly specific to carrying a boat around in your head or running around with a log, you know, like a lot of the other random stuff that you do in the military, but you can still train those patterns more or less than and you can do it in a controlled way that you can monitor the quality of the pattern that’s being reproduced.

 

Doug: [00:48:03] Right. That makes sense and then what emphasis do you place on technique when it comes to things like running and swimming because you know, some people will say, well, it doesn’t really matter how you do it as long as you program it effectively or progress systematically and progressively load management, your body will intuitively find the right pattern. But at the volumes that these people are running or these candidates are running and swimming at, do you incorporate like kind of a technical model as well into your programming?

 

Craig: [00:48:31] Yeah. And more so for swimming like running, there’s also obviously technical components that matter. It was Thomas Miller’s stuff was really useful in the Navy, especially because there was so much soft sand running and he advocates like a shorter stride with a faster turnover rate with a midfoot plant that’s extremely valuable if you’re on soft sand, because you’re not digging a giant hole every with every footstep. But swimming, this is the part we didn’t mention that in the intro when we talked about my time in selection. The entire time for the first maybe year and a half, that I was in the pipeline and just suffering in the water. The only coaching advice I got was to just try harder, just put out more, get more fit. My resting heart rate was in the low thirties and you could see my heartbeat through my chest because I put in so much aerobic volume at such a high intensity, but I still sucked at swimming and swimming in particular punishes inefficiency. I don’t remember the numbers off the top of my head, but to increase speed through the water or the force that you’re applying in the water magnifies drag substantially, you really pay for inefficiency. It wasn’t until I was in the buds brown shirt program, which is like a developmental coaching program, that I had actual technical coaching and this instructor, instructor Gisele watched me in the water swimming like a 500 or something like that with the full uniform.

 

We swam in cammies most of the time and as I finished, he pulled me out of the water and he’s this is your parent’s fault. First of all, if they had raised you in somewhere other than South Dakota, you might’ve learned how to swim, but here’s what we’re going to do and he gave me like 10 specific skills, like 10 specific things to work on and focus on as I swam, like bend your arm like this, roll your torso like this, move your neck and roll your head like this and he’d stand at the end of the lap lane and tap me on the back of the head if I screwed anything up and make sure that I was bending my arm right. That I was rolling my torso right and within two months when I got rolled out of my first course, at the time swim that I failed was a thousand meter, full uniforms swim. I failed it by a minute and two seconds and within two months they had me retake that same swim test in the buds program and I passed it by over 10 minutes. I made more progress in two months with real coaching was real technical models than I had in the prior year and a half of beating the shit out of myself.

 

So there’s absolutely an important piece of technical development, especially for swimming where just try harder is not at all the solution. If I had had good coaching at any point earlier than that, I would have saved myself so much misery but yeah instead I just tried harder for a very long time and that was one of the turning points for me in realizing the importance of skill acquisition of skill based coaching and not just doing everything harder, was the difference it made in my swimming technique, in the water.

 

Doug: [00:51:43] And then the focus of the book is on preparing for selection. But one of the questions that I think I always like asking people like you is once somebody gets through selection, how would you alter their physical preparation. In other words, once someone’s already qualified has been through these courses, does the emphasis on various qualities change how to volumes change? What does that look like for you? When someone actually becomes a qualified operator?

 

 

Craig: [00:52:11] I mean, you have a lot of freedom in their training once when someone is through part of what you’re probably going to be doing for the first couple of months is just recovery and trying to re rebuild the patterns that they’ve been stuck in for the past couple of months. If you’ve just gone through a six month beat down, you need a little bit of recovery time, but from there, in most roles, you can cut volume pretty significantly. You want to maintain work capacity, but you can actually become a little more performance oriented where you start to care about narrowing down your run times or your swing times, or how much you dead-lift or how much you squat and you can start to emphasize isolated anaerobic workouts, if you want to for a while and you can become really strong and it’s the only time or it’s the first time you’re going to be able to emphasize hypertrophy and make people big, because muscle’s expensive and in the selection environment, it just makes you heavier and slower and more metabolically inefficient.

 

But once you get out, you don’t have to weigh 160 pounds anymore. So you can change people’s nutrition around, drop their training volume, quite a lot, emphasize recovery, a lot more, mostly maintain their work capacity and you can emphasize strength and hypertrophy and you have guys that go from being a 160 pound runners to 200 plus pound monsters and with the background that they’ll have, the amount of work capacity that they’ve built, they’re still going to be really efficient, and really good at endurance related activities. There’s an interesting thing where there’s a develop and display dynamic or exploiting explorer where you build a foundation and then you exploit it for something else and anaerobic competitive workouts, like CrossFit kind of workouts depend on the movement capacity and work capacity that you’ve built in prior training. So if you have a huge aerobic base, you’ll do really well with a CrossFit kind of workout, like within one to two months, you’re primed to adapt and perform really well at those things.

 

So you see guys who, who finished selection and then in a couple of months are just crushing CrossFit kind of workouts and there’s a really common misconception there. That it’s the CrossFit thing in isolation that makes them good at it, or gives them the results that they see and they’re neglecting the past six to eight months of 10 hours a day to get and they, those kinds of workouts don’t work that well in isolation or for very long. But when guys get out of selection, they’re primed to exploit everything that they’ve just built and make a lot out of that foundation and they can do really well in those if they’re interested in like competitive exercise racing. And otherwise it’s a time to get really big and strong and hopefully maintain some resilience and movement quality, they don’t keep people from becoming too immobile or too rigid.

 

Doug: [00:55:07] Right. And it’s still maintaining like the aerobic fitness, which is probably the cornerstone of mobility at least non-vehicle or helicopter based.

 

Craig: [00:55:16] Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

 

Doug: [00:55:19] Yeah, because I mean, I always look at like, what’s the worst case scenario mission wise once you’re qualified is probably doing along foot patrol through adverse terrain. In maybe even at altitude, so places like Afghanistan, where, because you can hear a helicopter sometimes, it was like miles and miles out. You’re seeing these groups when they do these infills doing longer foot patrols and they might even have like a five or six hour movement. So like you said that the hypertrophy is expensive and I think that with that aerobic base, I’ve seen anecdotally with the aerobic base people have, they can emphasize lifting and strength more, but I think even some guys go overboard is totally neglect the aerobic side of things it’s trying to get as long as they can and then when they go from like Iraq, where it was more vehicle based infills to a place like Afghanistan or Africa, then they were like really, really hurting…

 

Craig: [00:56:11] It sucks again. Yeah.

 

Doug: [00:56:13] Yeah. Cause like it’s not like the movies where you see like, well, this guys picking somebody up over his shoulder with one arm. It’s really like when people are suffering physically, it’s walking up a mountain with a pack on.

 

Craig: [00:56:24] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s true. Yeah. So it’s very job specific and yeah hopefully guys maintain everything they’ve just built. But yeah, sometimes there’s not a clear understanding of what it takes to do that. If people just take it for granted that they have what they have and that it’s just going to be there regardless of what they do and I think, again, they’re discounting a lot of the low grade aerobic work that they did continuously for the past, however long they’ve been doing it and once that’s no longer required, then it goes away. Those adaptations do fade, aerobic adaptations are the slowest to go, but they’ll still fade and yeah you do see that a lot with operators and then they have reduced work capacity, so they can’t train as hard. They can’t recover as well and it becomes kind of a negative feedback loop too.

 

Doug: [00:57:12] Yeah, totally. Even like a general health standpoint. And they seem like the role of like a robot fitness and even things like mental health and psychological resiliency, kind of people on the spectrum of like having depressive type disorder is just from all the chronic stress and aerobic exercise is one of the things that consistently it has been shown to relieve some of those conditions even regardless of medication and I think sometimes it’s like, guys, they forget that it’s a fine line because some people like they never get out of that selection mindset, where all they do is just punish themselves, even when they get to a team and then some guy’s like, well, now I’m never running again. I’m just going to get on a power-lifting program, but like there’s ways to aerobically fit without running and I’m actually curious to hear how important do you think is distance running? I’m not saying aerobic fitness, but like distance running once somebody makes it to a team.

 

Craig: [00:58:06] I see it as, as just one of those things you should be able to do, it’s kind of like oxygen, it’s a problem when it’s not there. So if you have someone who can’t run five miles at a low cost to themselves, then it’s an issue and otherwise it’s just largely something to maintain, unless someone’s interested in being a competitive triathlete or something like that. There’s a lot of guys that do that because it comes naturally to them after they’ve taken a six month beating, but it’s something to maintain and otherwise only do to the extent that it interests you.

 

Doug: [00:58:44] Where can people learn more about the book and just some of the work that you’ve done.

 

Craig: [00:58:51] For the most part, we run the book through, our social media stuff is on Instagram. We have @buildingtheelite on Instagram and that’s where most people are in touch with us and otherwise buildingtheelite.com is our website and you can reach us through there. You can read a lot more articles through there. We’re working on putting in a lot more resources up and we have Facebook, but we barely use it. We have a building it building the elite page on Facebook and for the most part we’re on Instagram and just go to our website and Instagram is where we post daily little bits of content that are actually a lot of times just coaching conversations that I summarize and put on IG as a way of like creating content or we sometimes just pull paragraphs out of the book and put them on there.

 

Doug: [00:59:36] All right. Cool. Well, thanks for your time. I’m jealous of where quarantine and the background on, your video’s a lot better than mine, but, yeah, I mean we’ll keep tabs on the book and I’m sure you’re always up to something. So I’ll have to have you on in the future as well.

 

Craig: [00:59:49] Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. Yeah. Thanks for having me. Yeah, it’s a good time to be on a mountain.

 

Doug: [00:59:51] Thank you.