What Is Rucking?: Awesome Cardio for Running Haters

Here’s a revelation: one of the two authors of TrekSumo hates running. He sees it as the very embodiment of Hell, but he pounds the pavements and trails because running is one of the best ways to prepare for long days hiking over hill and vale. But there is another way to create a powerful pair of heart and lungs – rucking. But what is rucking?

Let’s explore this very simple form of exercise.

Rucking Explained

Unlike the Swedish sport of Canicross (bonding your dog to your waist via a piece of rope), rucking is very easy to explain. It’s nothing more than high speed walking whilst carrying a rucksack on your back.

rucking on the chiltern hills
Me rucking on the Chiltern Hills. The straps might look small, but I had 28kgs in my rucksack. And, yes, I was going uphill!

The idea was spawned by the Armed Forces, although rucking in the Army (known at tabbing, yomping, ‘staggering through blood-streaked tears of pain that come with multiple, one-centimetre deep blisters on your feet’) is a brutal form of exercise.

Oh, and the weight a soldier carries will seem monstrous compared to what you’re going to put on your back (check out our guide to rucking and weight training where you’ll find a basic training plan)

And rucking is at the heart of training for every Special Forces, or elite, soldier. Trust me – when you’ve spent a month criss-crossing the Brecon Beacons carrying weights upwards of 60lbs you’re going to get fit.

In recent years, rucking has gone mainstream courtesy of organisations such as GoRuck in the US and Rucking UK.

Tell Me, What are the Benefits of Rucking?

There are many benefits of rucking. And although the exercise may seem easy at first sight, do not let yourself be deceived. Marching long miles with a weighted rucksack on your back can be incredibly hard work (if you want it to be).

Let’s dig deep into the benefits.

Rucking Makes You Strong

Not ‘Arnold strong’, but it does have huge and positive effects on multiple muscle groups.

Wearing a weighted ruck whilst walking, or hiking, works your body hard.

Your back will get an amazing workout to the point that there will be a noticeable increase in strength and shape. You won’t get the much-hyped hugely V-shaped lats, but there will be growth across the trapezius.

back muscles rucking
a strong back courtesy of rucking and weights

More importantly, your stabilizer muscles in the lower back and stomach will get a positive boost. Don’t be surprised when you experience tighter abs and harder muscles in your lower back.

Probably the biggest winners will be your legs. Rucking over hills, or even speed marching across relatively easy terrain, will build quads, calf muscles and hamstrings that look as they been hewn from granite and grafted onto your body.

Put simply, you’re going to experience some real gains from rucking (and quite a few admiring glances when you slip on your shorts).

Rucking is Good for Your Heart and Lungs

Science has shown that the best cardio workout is running.

But rucking comes a close second in the cardio stakes due to the added effort required to move with a weighted pack. Which is pretty handy as you’re here because you hate to run!

I could quote the numerous pieces of research that show rucking is more beneficial for your heart than walking and only marginally less so than running, but I’ll let you ask any serviceman, or woman, about the effects of this form of exercise.

Less Stressful than Running

I love running, but as I get older the effects seem to compound. The morning after every training session is filled with my groans as I flop out of bed, my ankles and knees telling me to rest a little longer before heading down to brew a coffee.

Here’s a harsh reality of running – every time your foot strikes the ground you transfer about 7 times your body weight through your knees and ankles. The impact can be reduced by running on trails and cross-country, but running remains a high-impact exercise.

Rucking is less likely to cause injury because only about 2 – 3 times your body weight transfers through your joints. Which is welcome news for my creaking bones.

Although I know the discomfort that follows every run, I still run. But when I’m planning for an expedition my focus switches to hauling tyres and working out with a rucksack.

Rucking Improves Your Mental Health

I’m being a little generous here, rucking hasn’t been proven to have a positive effect on your mental health. What it does do is to get you outside, stomping through wild, green places and it’s here in the great outdoors where we experience a boost to our mental wellbeing.

There’s plenty of research detailing the benefits of being outdoors. These include:

  • Improved cognitive function – yes, that’s right! Even a gentle walk through woodland can help to power up the awesome bundle of greyness that is your brain. Think of a good ruck as a powerlifting for your mind.
  • Reduced stress – another huge bonus is stress reduction.
  • Helps beat back the gloom of depression.

For all you brainiacs, check out this study on the effects of being outdoors – it’s a great read if you have an hour spare. Actually, don’t read it. Just get outdoors, ruck and experience the results first-hand.

For me, the fact that rucking pretty much demands you go outdoors is the most important of all the benefits. Near where I live in Oxfordshire is Chinnor Hill. It’s beautiful. A steep incline cuts deep through ancient woodland, in a place few people visit. At the peak, you can pause and look out across at least three counties (once you’ve got your breath back – the route to the top is hard).

A couple of hours rucking with Mother Nature invigorates me in ways that are hard to describe.

Rucking is an Achievement not to be Underestimated

This benefit is based on my personal experience. Back when I was a soldier, I spent many an hour rucking (aka ‘tabbing’ to anyone who knows anything of the British Army – sorry Royal Marines, your ‘yomping’ doesn’t get a look in here…). I used a variety of backpacks, issued and bought. Many of my weekends were spent on the hills of the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, but not in a training capacity. I went there in my free time because of the buzz I got from working hard to climb those imposing hills and mountains.

And it was in those places I gained a new perspective.

You see, swinging a rucksack onto your back and then working hard gives you a huge sense of achievement. At the end of a two-hour ruck, you feel tired but elated. More importantly, you get a huge sense of achievement out of the session, one you can use to give you a sense of agency when planning goals and visions.

Rucking can be a Social Exercise

Rucking is a widely recognised way to get fit without running. And many hundreds of thousands of people have joined the movement as a way of boosting their social network.

You have the option of joining an organised group – one that you pay for – or creating an informal gathering of like-minded individuals. No matter how you do it, there are huge gains to be had from a social ruck.

For a start, group settings help us scratch the itch that comes from us being social animals. Working as a team is great for your mental health, as is the interaction you get from conversations with your fellow ruckers.

A quick note: if you can have an effortless conversation, you’re not working hard enough!

Group rucks also help to temper the impatience that can lead us to train too hard and burn out. Training with people of a similar fitness level is a great way of finding the right pace to move at. You can also bounce ideas off each other, and share tips on loading and pacing.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to rucking in a group. Go reap the benefits.

How to Start Rucking

Get a pair of hiking boots like these. Or at the very least, some supportive walking shoes. I can highly recommend the Merrell Moab 2 boots – here’s a review.

Buy a rucksack that can meet the demands of heavy load-bearing and won’t fall apart after two weeks.

Find some time.

Get yourself a rugged GPS-based fitness tracker or watch (check out our list of the best hiking watches, post where you’ll find some great options that will meet your needs).

Go ruck!

If you’re new to the game, check out our rucking training programme – 6 weeks from couch to 5 miles, based on all that I learned in the Army (and continue to apply).

How Much Weight Should I Carry in My Ruck?

If you’ve followed the plan above, you’ll already know. But here’s a quick tip: find a comfortable weight. By that, I mean one that’s not so heavy that the straps of your ruck carve agonising valleys into your trapezius muscles.

A starting point for a good rucking weight is 20lbs. This is my recommended view – the choice is yours.

With time you’ll get fitter and will naturally look to increase the weight you carry.

Tip: if someone weighs your ruck and makes some offhand comment about you being insane, that you’re carrying too much weight… they’re probably right.

What Equipment Should I Put in My Ruck?

It’s at this point that I’m going to veer away from what seems to have become accepted wisdom… using only metal plates in your ruck is wrong!

GoRuck, and other companies, promote the use of metal plates. These plates are expensive but they’re also dead weight. And they’re sold almost exclusively by the companies that recommend them… I see a link here.

What do I mean by dead weight? They have no use beyond being heavy. And fending off werewolf attacks.

Instead, fill your ruck with useful equipment. Waterproofs, spare water and food. Pack an emergency shelter. Fill in the gaps with cold/warm weather clothing.

It doesn’t matter what you choose, make it weight that will be of use on your ruck.

If you must use a metal rucking plate pick one that is half the load you intend to carry, fill in the gap using gear that will save your life in an emergency.

P.S. No cheating. The 2kg of food is in addition to any you’re going to eat whilst on the move.

How Often Should I Ruck March?

The honest answer: it depends. In our training plan, we recommend 3 times per week and no more. If you’ve adopted rucking into a comprehensive training plan you might only work out twice a week.

I’ve read several posts that suggest going on a hard ruck once a week, but I’ve never found this to be an adequate frequency when working up to longer distances.

Rule of thumb: three times per week, twice if you’re pressed for time or using rucking as a supplemental means of building fitness.

Rucking vs Running Fitness

Before we wrap this up, you’re probably wondering what the differences are between running and rucking.

From a fitness perspective, very little. A well-thought-out training plan will give you nearly the same benefits as a running programme. As I’ve mentioned, most of military fitness was based on rucking and it got me really fit.

The key difference between rucking and running is the impact each form of exercise has on your body. For example, every time your foot hits the ground when running you subject your body to huge forces. How much force? Well, research shows that seven times your bodyweight transfer through you knees with every footstrike.

This figure far lower for rucking. Unless you decide to run with your backpack in which case you’ll increase the load hugley.

Hint: try not to run whilst wearing a heavy rucksack!

Another advantage of rucking over running is that, in most cases, you can travel far further walking than you can running. Think about it: walking 25 miles at a decent pace is far less draining than running the same distance.

Oh, and it’s far easier to eat when you’re rucking. Ever tried eating a sandwich whilst you’re running cross country? Not easy.

What Is Rucking, Really?

What is rucking? It’s nothing more than another way to get fit. And strong. And more resilient. And less depressed. And… well, you get the idea. Rucking is an effective and cost-effective way of getting fit. Don’t take my word for it, try it.

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