By: Mike Caviston, Director of Fitness, Naval Special Warfare Center
Posted: July 26, 2021

When following a training program, it is important to assess whether the program is having the desired effects on your fitness, and whether your performance is improving in the ways you hoped and intended. Should you continue with the training plan as is, modify it, or scrap it altogether and come up with something new? Only by recording what you do and analyzing the results can you measure effectiveness and make informed decisions about maintaining, altering, or abandoning the program.

Let's discuss the do's and don'ts of judging program effectiveness. A program isn't effective just because it makes you suffer. The misery index doesn't drive results, and pain isn't the stimulus that causes muscles to adapt. Medicine isn't more effective just because it tastes bad. Giving programs or exercises extreme labels doesn't make them superior (remember what Shakespeare said about names and roses). Skull crushers, suicides, gut busters, commando pull-ups, devil press, assault bikes, etc. may or may not be good, but not because of their names. The placebo effect is very powerful and doing an activity you perceive as valuable (the name is so awesome it HAS to be good) can create the illusion of effectiveness, even if actual results are no better or even worse than for less colorfully named exercises. Before adding an exercise to your routine, research whether it is considered to be effective and reasonably safe (good risk-benefit ratio) for your intended purpose, and not simply chosen because it looks cool or sic or is the flavor of the week on social media.

A good program probably will make you miserable, at least part of the time, but that is a side effect, not a cause of success. Hard work – a necessary component – is generally not comfortable, so suffering is not necessarily bad or counterproductive. But the flip side is, there are many things that will make you miserable but won't help improve your fitness. For example, training while hung over, on no sleep, with the flu, or sore from another workout from which you haven't recovered, may feel horrible but won't do much for your Physical Screening Test (PST) scores or fitness in general, and will probably increase your injury rate. There is no direct correlation between suffering and improved performance. Choosing to do an exercise or follow a program only because it feels like a kick in the guts is not a smart way to improve fitness.

If misery isn't the key, what SHOULD you measure? You should assess your ability to perform the test or event on which you will be evaluated (such as the PST). Are you running and swimming faster/longer, and are you producing force more effectively (calisthenics, lifting weights)? How do you know? By keeping track of your training, charting your general progress on conditioning runs and swims as well as strength training sessions, and occasionally testing specific events (such as 1.5 mile run or 500-yard swim). There are physiological measurements that may potentially provide useful information, such as heart rate or lactate levels, but these may not be practical and are not necessarily as accurate as you might think.

Your ability to perform basic physical activities is the critical method of assessment. Don't over-test; for example, a strict PST for maximal scores only needs to be conducted approximately every 4 weeks (you can still do submaximal or modified PSTs for conditioning and to get used to the format). Testing too frequently leads to stagnation or overtraining. But do keep track of progress during your daily workouts. For example, for running and swimming keep track of weekly miles and/or minutes (either will work on its own; both are better if possible) and your base pace for Long Slow Distance workouts, as well as your specific times for Interval workouts. For lifting, keep track of specific exercises, sets, reps, and weights.

Over time, expect to show gradual improvement. If your times stay flat or get consistently slower (not just an occasional off day), figure out why and make adjustments. If any aspect of performance shows an unexpected decline, or if it suddenly becomes more difficult (mentally as well as physically) to complete workouts that never gave you problems before, that is a clear signal that something is wrong. You may need to adjust your workload, improve your nutrition, get more rest, see a doctor to diagnose an illness, or a combination of any of these. Remember that good training leads to improvement, which can be measured through performance on workouts and assessments such as the PST. Over time, performance plateaus and it becomes more difficult to see improvement. But if you are a typical candidate for Naval Special Warfare, you are young enough and it is early enough in your training process to expect improvement for months to come. Even if you are a Division I-caliber athlete, you would still expect small but measurable gains. Monitor your training regularly to verify, and make corrections when necessary.


Naval Special Warfare Assessment Team