Rucking Is the Latest Fitness Trend, And It's Helping Me Train for Law School

Why would people voluntarily carry heavy stuff around on their backs?
Publish date:
June 21, 2016
fitness, workouts, exercise, working out, Rucking

To be honest, "fitness culture" in the United States is becoming a little too elitist to me. Good health should be accessible to everyone, even if you can't shell out $125 a month for a gym membership (looking at you, CrossFit). That being said, I still want to prioritize my health. I like exercising, and I like being healthy. I especially want to do this while spending as little money as possible, a motivator that will become even more powerful when I start law school this fall.

Enter a workout called "rucking." It gets its name from "ruck sack," which is another word for "backpack." A vital component to military fitness is the ruck march, which is essentially fast walking over rugged terrain with a heavy backpack. If it works so well for military, why wouldn't it work for the rest of us?

As a component to well-rounded fitness, rucking is actually becoming quite popular. People can sign up for GORUCK events, varying in distance and time, similar to how people sign up for running events. (The shortest event takes just a few hours and covers about 10 miles of terrain.) I won't be signing up for any events, and I can't justify spending almost $300 on a backpack. But I do have a nice L.L. Bean that holds a lot of old textbooks. And those a pretty heavy! So, I started walking around with books in my backpack. It costs me nothing, and it gives me a new activity to incorporate into my fitness. It's like I'm training for going back to school!

I started doing this a couple of months ago to give my knees a break while training for a run. I had heard of it before, but I didn't try it until I saw it on a list of recommended activities for people who can't run. I thought it sounded strange at first — why would people voluntarily carry heavy stuff around on their backs? And isn't this basically just backpacking? Of course, people could question the sanity of someone running 20 miles, or swimming for an hour, or taking calculus. Why would somebody do that voluntarily?

As I thought about it, though, I realized that rucking is more functional than many of the other fitness trends out there. Walking with extra weight is something that we all have to deal with at some point or another, whether we're bringing groceries into the apartment (multiple trips are for quitters) or carrying a hot, cranky four-year-old at the amusement park. Soon, I'll be toting law texts around for a few years. I haven't had to lug around a big backpack since about 2010. It seemed sensible to get used to carrying heavy stuff on my back.

The first time I went out rucking, I haphazardly picked some textbooks and dropped them in the bag. I didn't think about how much they weigh, which one should be closest to my back, how tight the shoulder straps should be, or even how much water to bring. Needless to say, I learned several lessons that day.

First, I grossly underestimated how much energy I would need. I had no breakfast and a lunch that was more appropriately sized for a squirrel than a human adult. It didn't cross my mind that I would be worn out after rucking, since I had been thinking about it as walking. By the time I got home, I was ready to eat the first thing I laid eyes on. (Fortunately, that ended up being a banana.) Rucking is harder than I expected, even if it was easier on my knees and hips.

I also brought an embarrassingly small water bottle. It was 85 degrees on this day, and I brought a bottle that holds only 12 ounces. I was sweating like a pregnant nun in confession, and I was mouth breathing worse than my worst days of hay fever. And I had 12 ounces of water. That was pretty stupid.

As I mentioned previously, I just selected some books off my shelf and put them in the backpack without weighing them or arranging them appropriately. I had no idea how much weight was on my back, and I had put the heaviest book on the outside, rather than close to my body. Some basic physics: heavy stuff goes close to you. Heavy stuff far away from you is bad, unless you just want to make something harder than it needs to be. I should have remembered that. But I'm here to learn things the hard way so you don't have to.

A few more pieces of advice to keep in mind if you decide to try this exercise:

  • Make sure your backpack or ruck fits well. You will also want a strap around your waist, if you can get one. You don't want the backpack bouncing around or slipping away from your body.
  • Weigh your pack. I use my food scale to weigh individual books until I get to the weight I want, but luggage scales and bathroom scales are also options. Or, if you would prefer, you can buy marked plates at specific weights.
  • Know your weight limits. I'm a pretty strong lady, and after an hour and a half of trekking along with 30 pounds on my back, I am pretty tired. And very, very sweaty. It's better to start small and add more weight next time.
  • If you're going to be gone for more than an hour, bring a snack. Runners use this rule of thumb to make sure they aren't on fumes during their long runs. If you don't end up eating the snack, no harm done. But if you start to feel drained, a few bites of a good snack will give you a boost.
  • Finally, assess your posture. If your shoulders are hunched over or you stand with an anterior tilt in your hips, your back is going to be really upset with you.

Rucking is cheap, it's easy to learn, and it is a good workout. It is totally different than running, but it does help build endurance if you want to use it as part of training for a running event. If your body won't allow you to run, this is a great alternative that offers more intensity than walking without the heavy impact. If you really enjoy it, you can sign up for the events and make a hobby out of it. But why would anybody do that voluntarily?