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In long run, military alters its training

To reduce injuries and reflect modern combat, sprints and other activities are emphasized.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published June 13, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Master Chief Jacob Gryurich runs along Bayshore Boulevard on MacDill's Air Force Base. Gryurich, with the Navy, runs for five miles four days a week.

TAMPA - In Army basic training more than 50 years ago, Gilbert Brown ran everywhere, often long, grueling treks.

"When basic was done, we could put a pack on our backs and run like a truck all day long, never getting tired, " said the 78-year-old Dunedin resident, who saw combat in the Korean War in 1951-52. "We were like horses. We ran constantly."

It's not your granddad's Army anymore.

The four military services are rethinking the way they train and keep personnel fit, recognizing an undeniable link between injury and high-stress exercises, especially those marathons that have been as much a fixture of military life as digging foxholes.

Long, unending runs are being shortened or augmented by other exercises, such as swimming. Sprints are replacing marathons.

While changes had been in the works before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, fitness experts say current challenges of recruiting and retaining people make the need to reduce injury all the more urgent.

"What's brought this to the forefront is the stress being put on military forces" by Iraq and Afghanistan, said Air Force Maj. Christian Lyons, an assistant chief of physical therapy at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. "The price paid for the high-intensity training, long-distance type things, is people not being fit for combat because they're broken."

But in the machismo culture of the military, where toughness and the ability to endure pain are badges of honor, telling troops to run less so they don't hurt themselves is not always cheerfully received.

Military fitness gurus say they still struggle to get troops to embrace change.

"It's a pretty big elephant, " said Army Lt. Col. Steve Bullock, health policy program manager at the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "The tradition and culture that exists within the Army and all the military is a force to be reckoned with. It's difficult to change that mind-set. It's going to be slow."

"We have a culture that believes more is better, and that no pain, no gain, " said Bruce Jones, the center's injury prevention program manager.

The military, they say, isn't going soft. New training practices leave troops in better shape.

As in any American workplace, all those sprains, strains and twisted ligaments translate to lost productivity and, while any one injury may seem insignificant, the cumulative effect is dramatic.

The center estimates injuries amount to 25-million days of limited duty a year in the four services - Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.

In fact, during the course of basic training, the risk of injury for men is estimated at 25 percent and 50 percent for women.

It's not that military people have quit running. Far from it. But they're running smarter, fitness leaders say, eliminating workouts known to bruise bodies.

A drive through MacDill on a Friday, a big physical training day, shows how central exercise is to the military life.

Around 7 a.m., as Tampa still awakens, the base is a hive of runners. In ones and twos, people stretch on corners or jog on a path along Hillsborough Bay or strain to finish mad sprints along a track outside MacDill's fitness center.

Air Force Sgt. Sherwin Severin, 27, is in the early morning crowd. He said he doesn't know what the "tough as nails" veterans did way back when, but he thinks the new ways of training are more effective.

Severin runs at least two miles every other day, though he doesn't consider the distance that big a deal. He swims to balance his exercise regimen.

"I don't think we're getting softer, " Severin said. "Just smarter. You can't do like they did back in the day. It doesn't work."

The Army has been spearheading a number of key training changes that are being adapted by all the services, to some degree. For one, soldiers are put in ability groups, which assures the least fit troops aren't being asked to complete a more-rigorous course of exercise aimed for the fittest.

Among other changes, the Army is allowing soldiers more times to rest between the most-strenuous drills, so bodies can recover. And troops ease into training, not doing too much, too soon.

Bullock said troops are increasingly being trained for real world, combat conditions, where bursts of energy and sprints are the norm, like a soldier dashing between buildings to avoid enemy fire.

Sgt. Turk Yordy, 38, an Army paratrooper based at MacDill, nursed sore legs as he walked a track at MacDill. But that comes from 18 years of jumping out of airplanes, not from overdoing it while running, he said.

He thinks new recruits today are less fit coming in than decades ago, which he said affects injuries.

"It's the video game generation, " Yordy said. "You got guys not doing anything their whole teenage life, and then they come into the service."

Once in the military, though, he thinks they get in the best shape of their lives, making them as fit as soldiers during any previous conflict.

Still, it's hard to find veterans who don't think their generation was the fiercest band of warriors ever.

Said Ralph Hager, 78, of Bradenton, a Navy veteran who served in Korea: "We all thought that we were some pretty tough hombres."

[Last modified June 13, 2007, 01:27:52]


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