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The Benefits of Rucking and How It Improves Run Performance

Learn how carrying weights while you walk can help you run faster.

Runner’s World

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Adapted from the book The Comfort Crisis. Copyright 2021 by Michael Easter. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

One fall, I found myself standing on the Arctic Tundra, about 120 miles from civilization, with an 80-pound pack strapped to my back. It contained everything I needed to survive. I was up there for 33 days while reporting my new book, The Comfort Crisis.

I didn’t run while I was up there. I didn’t lift. But I was always carrying weight. The backpack, of course—but also items like jugs of water from a faraway stream for cooking and wood for fires.

When I returned to my life back home, I noticed something surprising: I was running farther and faster—hammering up hills that once thwarted me—all without aches and pains. I shaved about a minute off my usual pace without even trying. Naturally, I needed to know why, so I dug into it.

In 2004, a now-famous Nature study shook the running world when it found that the human body is built the way it is so that we could slowly but surely run down prey for miles and miles in the heat until the animal toppled over from exhaustion. The study is nicknamed the “born to run” paper, and it kickstarted the barefoot running craze.

But in speaking with anthropologists at Harvard, I discovered that what’s often overlooked is that carrying was equally important in the evolution of the human body. Once we’d run down the animal and kill it, we’d have to carry it back to camp.

Running and carrying are why we have two legs, springy arches in our feet, big butt muscles, sweat glands across our body, no fur, short torsos, and why we can “lock” our hand bones into our wrist bones and generate abnormally strong forces with our middle finger. Other animals can’t carry well, but humans are “extreme” in our ability to hoof heavy items from point A to B, according to a study in PLOS One. Running and carrying are, quite literally, our evolutionary advantages.

Carrying was, in fact, likely more common than running. Running was reserved mostly for hunts. But to gather food and resources, we’d amble away from camp and then carry back what we found. Most of these loads were small, likely 10 to 20 pounds. But scientists in Spain say gatherers sometimes carry weights equal to half of their total body weight.

So while we were born to run, it seems that we were perhaps even more so “born to carry.” Like running, our need to carry was largely rendered moot over time thanks to technological advancements. We went from mules and carts, to trains and vehicles, to shopping carts, wheeled suitcases, strollers, etc. But unlike running, most of us never re-introduced carrying back into our days. There is, however, one modern tribe who hasn’t forgotten it: Special Forces soldiers. And it’s made them some of the fittest band of humans to walk the earth.

The Rise of Rucking

Rucking is the foundation of military training. “Ruck” is both a noun and a verb. It’s a thing and an action. It’s military speak for the heavy backpack that carries all of the items a soldier needs. And “to ruck” or “rucking” is the act of marching that ruck in war or as a form of training for soldiers and civilians to get really, really fit.

More runners are finding that it’s an ideal form of cross-training. Rucking is the missing link for us because it kills the division between strength and cardio, boosting our endurance and strengthening neglected areas without adding unnecessary bulk.

The Benefits of Rucking

A Green Beret once described rucking as, “lifting for people who hate the gym.” Rucking taxes all the muscles between your shoulders and knees: hamstrings, quads, hips, abs, obliques, back, delts, etc. And rucking works these parts as an integrated system, which can help you avoid injuries, according to research conducted for the military.

Consider back injuries: More than 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain sometime in their life. But researchers in Canada believe rucking can help relieve and prevent back pain because the weight “pulls” your spine into a position that compresses its discs less.

Or knee injuries: We all know “runner’s knee” can be a side effect of our dear sport. A study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, for example, found running hits the knees with forces eight times your bodyweight per stride. The same figure for walking is about 2.7. So, in practice, this means that each running stride a 175-pound person takes loads their knee with about 1,400 pounds. For walking the figure is about 470. If that same person rucks with a 30-pound pack, the forces to the knee jump to about 555 pounds each step. That figure isn’t insignificant, but it’s roughly a third of that of running—making rucking a great form of cross-training.

Perhaps most importantly, rucking delivers cardio benefits equal to easy running, according to researchers at the University of South Carolina, as the extra weight elevates your heart rate more than walking alone.

The Downsides of Rucking

This doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. Rucking too heavy, fast, or too much too soon can lead to overuse injuries. Particularly if you’ve neglected upper-body strength training, you should ease into the weight or else your shoulders might become overly sore.

You might also experience some chafing from the straps, but it’s nothing a little BodyGlide can’t prevent.

How to Start Rucking

If you hate the gym but know you need to work on strength, have hit a performance plateau, are looking to mix up your usual routine, or are simply just curious about incorporating rucking into your own training, here’s how to do it.

1. Load the Pack

Military research going back to the 1800s suggests that we can ruck swiftly and safely with loads under 50 pounds. Start with 10 to 25 pounds and work your way up. For weight, use anything lying around that weighs something: a bunch of soup cans, books, bricks, or a dumbbell wrapped in a towel.

Any old backpack should be able to hold up to 30 pounds. As you reach heavier weights, you may need a sturdier pack. The company Goruck makes sleek packs built for rucking that can hold more than you can carry and sells weight plates designed specifically for rucking.

2. Start Rucking

Put on sturdy athletic shoes like trail runners or hiking boots. Place the pack on your back, cinch the straps to about midway, then go for a walk or hike for as long as you’d like.

Expect to be sore in some places afterward. That’s a sign that the weight is working areas you’ve neglected—like quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and low back strength.

3. Flow It In

It’s easiest to think of rucking as a low-impact, high-return form of cross-training. You’ll work patterns similar to running, but put less stress on your joints (particularly if you’re walking) while strengthening critical running muscles.

To add it into your routine, simply swap out your current form of cross-training with rucking. Or find a way to sneak rucking into your day. Toss on a pack while walking the dogs, or even carry a small weight in your commute backpack.

4. Change Up Your Carries

Don’t stop carrying at rucking. Anthropologists now know that all forms of carrying are uniquely human—and uniquely beneficial for the human body. Inserting heavier carries can give you a more challenging stimulus that bolsters your performance.

➥Suitcase Carry

Runners are great at moving in one direction: forward. Carrying weight at one side can offset our forward dominance by teaching our core to resist offset weight. This not only bolsters our core strength, but it can also teach us to better power off of one foot during our stride. Grab a weight in your right hand, hold it at your side, and walk 100 steps, keeping your torso tall throughout. Switch hands and repeat. That’s 1 set. Do 3 sets 2 to 3 times per week.

➥Frontward Carry

Rucking pulls your spine slightly backward. But learning to resist forward pull can be equally great for strengthening your glutes—muscles that power running—and your entire core. Grab a weight with both hands, bring it up into your chest (if you’re using a dumbbell, hold it like a goblet), and walk 100 steps, keeping your torso tall throughout. That’s 1 set. Do three sets 2 to 3 times per week.

When I got home from the Arctic, I never wanted to see my 80-pound pack again. But I didn’t want to lose the magic benefits of rucking. I began loading a pack with a 35-pound weight plate. In addition to my twice-weekly runs, I ruck out in the desert behind my home for an hour twice a week. My joints have never felt better, and my splits are still as low as they were when I returned from the wild.

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This post originally appeared on Runner’s World and was published January 31, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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