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Four Years from Friday: Approaching Your Training Life in Seasons

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Recently, the American Pioneer Corps wrapped up their 5th annual Warfighter Challenge. I’m not actually a member of the American Pioneer Corps, and I should probably rectify that. Their mission is very much in line with my philosophy here at The Everyday Marksman, and I even think a lot of their founding members are local to me. But that’s besides the point. What sparked this post had to do with the planning cycle for someone who might want to attend next year’s Warfighter Challenge, or maybe one several years down the road.

So what do I mean by planning cycle? More importantly, how might we organize our training into different “seasons” that support success in such an event? So let’s dig in.

Long-Term Thinking

One of the five principles of the Martial Marksman training philosophy is “Play the Long Game.” There were two key points to this. One was that we should always prioritize mental and physical health. Sometimes that means holding back from pushing the edge in training in order to prevent injury and ensure we can train again the next day.

The other point had to do with the fact that we cannot improve all aspects of our capability at once. Rather, we need to focus on one or two areas at a time, then shift emphasis on to the next weak link.

This is not a new thing. In fact, the other day I was reading John Jesse’s 1974 book, Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, and there was a small excerpt that resonated with me. It was a quote from Jesse Owens, who took home four gold medals during the 1934 Olympics. In it, he’s discussing his first coach, Charles Riley.

He first told it to me when I was a rusty grammar school kid who’d just been convinced by him to come out for the track team and who wanted to quit because my legs looked like pieces of straw next to other guys’.

“I’ll never make it this year, Mr. Riley.” I said to him dejectedly.

“Who says we’re trying to make it this year?” he answered. “You’re training for four years from next Friday, Jesse.”

It was fine in high school when I started breaking records, except the time soon came when I couldn’t improve on my past performances and even dropped down a bit. I was like the show business star who has nothing left for an encore, who’s afraid of today because of yesterday’s success.

“Where do I go from here?” I finally asked Mr. Riley.

“Keep training,” he’d answer.

“For what?”

“Why, for four years from Friday, of course.”

I took his advice. Four years from Friday turned out to be the Olympics.

Where We go Wrong

The problem that so many of us run into is treating everything like a sprint. We tend to act as if success with anything is achievable if only we buckle down and work hard enough for six to eight weeks. The world is so full of these kinds of Couch-to-5k programs and bootcamps that we balk at the the mere idea that a particular capability needs practicing for six to twelve months before we move on to the next level.

Humans, by and large, are incredibly short term thinkers and avoid doing hard things.

To me, the aversion to long term planning and consistency in favor of six to eight week “sprints” for a goal is indicative of a huge mental hurdle. Such behavior only shows that an individual doesn’t care about the outcome enough to actually sacrifice parts of their life to achieve it. They only want to put a few things on hold for a short while so they can feel like they’re accomplishing something.

That’s the difference between those who truly succeed at an endeavor and those who dabble. The individuals who do extraordinarily well did not have some secret formula, or the perfect training regime. They merely had the tenacity to keep showing up consistently over a long period of time. Even better, they have a plan to address one or two weak links at a time, and a system to constantly identify where their weak links lie.

This system of identifying lagging skills and capabilities combined with regular year-round training is how winning happens.

Building a Plan

Bringing it back to the APC Warfighter Challenge, let’s look at the basic description of events:

  • 12 mile timed ruck w/min 35lbs dry weight plus weapon
  • Land Navigation Day/Night
  • Mobility/Counter Mobility Pioneer/Sapper Skills
  • Small Unit Leadership
  • Small Arms Competition

That’s honestly a somewhat vague list (probably intentionally). When I look through photos and after action reviews of previous years, there’s a few more hints. I see rappelling from rocky outcrops, obstacle courses, carrying and firing .50 cals and 240B support weapons, navigating mountainous terrain at all hours, and more. If you look over the various ratings and levels the APC has as part of their program, you’ll also see a healthy dose of radio communications, first aid skills, and leadership tasks. I have every reason to think that such events show up in their flagship event as well.

So let’s say you wanted to compete in the 2025 Warfighter Challenge. What would a training plan for an entire year look like? I’ll lay out what I think the plan would look like for me, and then discuss some general principles you can take away for yourself and your training life whatever the goal is.

Breaking it Down

The first thing we need to do is identify the required tasks and skills at a more specific level. To my eye, it looks something like this:

  • Physical fitness
    • Rucking for long distance and over terrain
    • Climbing strength
    • Loaded carries
    • Grip strength (supporting both climbing and loaded carries)
    • Short bursts of strength and power (i.e. obstacle course)
  • Marksmanship
    • Basic competitive rifle and pistol skills
    • Positional rifle shooting
    • Improvised position building
    • Shooting under physical stress
  • Additional skills
    • Mountaineering (knot tying, rappelling)
    • Map and compass land navigation
    • Primitive construction (i.e. bushcraft skills, fortifications, etc.)
    • Radio communications
    • Observation and reconnaissance
    • Leadership principles

This is a lot of stuff, so it lends itself well to long-term planning. With these things in mind, we know that the Warfighter Challenge takes place at the end of May, so we’ll work backwards from there. Let’s set a “ready date” of May 24, 2025. This is the date that we’re in peak condition and prepared to go. We’ll also use it as the start point for “competition season” that lasts all summer so we can compete in other events like the Tactical Games, Run & Guns, and others.


Organizing Training Blocks

First, I’m going to break down the year into a series of blocks leading up to the event. Each block has a different training outcome. The further away we are from the ready day, we train in a more general sense with skills and capabilities that are broadly useful, like building up our foundational strength and aerobic capacity. I’d also add maintenance of basic marksmanship skills here as well.

As we get closer to the ready date, training shifts to emphasize things directly useful in the competition. That means more rucking, high intensity bursts, climbing, fighting strength, and specific skills that tend to atrophy without regular practice (i.e. knot tying, first aid, etc.). The final week leading up to the event is where we back off the training stress and allow our body and mind to recover, energize, and show up ready.

For illustration, here’s how I’ve organized the blocks:

  • Block 1: June 2 to September 7, 2024 – 14 weeks
  • Block 2: September 8 to November 30, 2024 – 12 weeks
  • Block 3: December 1, 2024 to February 22, 2025 – 12 weeks
  • Block 4: February 23 to April 5, 2025 – 6 weeks
  • Block 5: April 6 to May 18, 2025 – 6 weeks
  • Peak Week: May 19 to May 24, 2025

Now let’s look at how I would organize the contents of each block and what additional activities I would engage with along the way. Keep in mind that the end goal shouldn’t just be the Warfighter Challenge. As you’ll see, there are plenty of opportunities along the way to train or compete in other areas that ultimately support success in the Challenge. It’s like a cross country road trip where the final goal is arriving at a point far away, but you’re taking the chance to stop and visit different destinations during the journey. This keeps it enjoyable, and also contributes to the end result.

One more thing about scheduling. I train six days per week, it’s one of the benefits of having my garage gym. I realize that not everyone has the time or facilities to do that, so what you’re reading here is how I would do it for myself. You can take that idea and build on it to suit your own scheduling needs.

Block I: General Strength Training and Marksmanship

This block does not have any specific focus area. Rather, I would follow my general training plan for strength and size. The starting point is looking Level I strength standards or perhaps the Level II fitness test. As a refresher, the Level I standards are as follows:

  • Front Squat: 1.25 x bodyweight for 1 rep
  • Back Squat: 1.75 x bodyweight for 1 rep
  • Barbell Deadlift: 2 x bodyweight for 1 rep
  • Barbell Bench Press: 1.25 x bodyweight for 1 rep
  • Barbell Incline Press: 0.95 x bodyweight for 1 rep
  • Barbell Overhead Press: 0.8 x bodyweight for 1 rep
  • Weighted Pull-Up (or Chin Up): Bodyweight + 40% for 1 rep
  • Farmer’s carry 0.5 x bodyweight per hand continuously for 25 yards
  • Standing broad jump 1.3 x your height

If I’ve already achieved some of these, but not others, then I would put a slight emphasis on the ones that were lagging. I also have a set of Level II standards that I’ve not published, but will someday. On balance, my lagging point tends to be the upper body pressing movements like the bench press and overhead press. So for this 14 week block of strength training, I would have a slight upper body emphasis. I would schedule strength training to be 4 times per week.

On the remaining two days I would implement low intensity steady state training, some form of anti-glycolytic training (AGT), or a combination of the two, for 30-60 minutes each. These conditioning sessions are more about recovery and maintaining a baseline rather than actively improving anything.

What program would I follow? Take your pick. Paul Horn’s Radically Simple Strength is a good option, as is Tactical Barbell, 5/3/1, and many others.

My overall goal here is also to maintain a healthy body composition, but a slight bulk is allowable for efficient strength gains- assuming I can keep below the 20% body fat threshold.

For marksmanship, I would mostly focus on the fundamentals. Regular dry fire sessions, range days, training courses, and competitions like PRS, high power, steel challenge, or silhouette are all on the menu.

Block II: Capacity-Building and Strength Focus

This next block runs through fall and into winter. The weather will be cooler, but not so cold as to preclude outdoor stuff entirely.

For strength training, the emphasis shifts a little bit. I know that the Warfighter Challenge requires a strong back. Whether it’s through climbing, loaded carries, and rucking, it’s all hard on the back (and grip). My overall training remains generalist in nature, but I would ensure there is more sets given to pull ups, rows, shrugs, and farmer’s walks. I would do strength training 3 days per week.

With conditioning, I would keep 2-3 days per week of low intensity steady state or AGT. 20% of the conditioning sessions (or one out of every five) would be something that pushes the heart rate higher and gets deeper into the glycolytic energy system. Things like tempo runs at a faster pace, complexes, traditional HIIT, etc. We’re still far enough out that these don’t have to be sport-specific to the challenge.

With marksmanship, I would continue focusing on the fundamentals of rifle and pistol shooting. These could be done in just a few days per week of dry fire or range time done for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. If any training or competition opportunities arise, this is still a good time to pursue them.

As for skills, this is where I would take inventory of where I might be lagging. For example, it’s been a while since I’ve done serious first aid training. This is a good opportunity to find a class nearby and sign up. Likewise, this is a good time to learn and practice a few knots that would be useful in the long run.


Block III: Specific Strength

This block takes place during the winter, so we’re mostly looking at indoor training. At this point, I’m looking at what kind of strength is most useful for the events I’m likely to face.

Strength training remains 3 days per week, but I would back away from broad strength training programs like 5/3/1 and start looking at more focused programs like Tactical Barbell that emphasize fewer key lifts. Most of my time would go to overhead pressing, dips, front squats, and pull ups. I like the overhead pressing emphasis here because strong shoulders are what’s going to help you hold a rifle up for long periods, carry a ruck, and move things around.

For conditioning, things get a little more interesting. I would still keep to three sessions per week. One is a long endurance session of 60 to 90 minutes. The second is a high intensity session that uses explosive sandbag movements done for 10-15 seconds on the minute (OTM) until I couldn’t maintain the pace anymore. The last would be a circuit-style complex that included more back work and loaded carries. This is both taxing on energy, and puts emphasis on the back, arms, and grip.

Weather depending, I’d prefer that long conditioning session take the form of a ruck. If not, then it should still be on my feet. Running, stair stepping, and similar methods are acceptable.

For marksmanship, I’d be moving emphasis away from the basic marksmanship positions to improvised shooting positions. Things like ladder drills, barrier shooting, and the like. I can do these in the garage at a minimum. My local range also has indoor steel shoots that could remain useful.

For general skills, I’d stay on my knot tying and look to add in at least one more thing like orienteering. At least a few times during this period, I’d venture out to a local forest and try some bushcraft skills while the weather isn’t ideal.

Block IV: Conditioning Emphasis

This six-week block gets us into the spring. We’re three months out from ready day, and we start focusing much more on what we need to be successful in competition.

Strength training drops down to only two days per week. We’ll focus on overhead pressing, pull ups, squatting, and calisthenics work (dips and rows, mainly). We’ll place these strength days on Monday and Thursday. That leaves us with four days per week available for conditioning work.

Tuesdays and Fridays retain the AGT training for 20-30 minutes combined with some low intensity cardio on the bike for another 20-30 minutes. I’d focus on heavy explosive movements (like KB snatches) done for 2-5 reps at a time at the top of every minute until I couldn’t keep my heart rate to a reasonable level.

Wednesdays are for timed rucks, done for 45-60 minutes.

Saturdays alternate between long rucks, 60 to 120 minutes, and “event days.” These event days include strongman-style medleys with loaded carries, sandbag work, air bike sprints, and ballistic kettlebell movements like snatches, cleans, and swings. For an added challenge, I could insert dry fire drills in between rounds of the circuit to challenge marksmanship under stress.

General marksmanship is still focused on position building, but we would expect to start seeing a few matches opening up during this period. That might be some local steel shoots, Run & Gun, or maybe even a Marksman Pentathlon. Sign up and compete! These events have direct carryover to success in the Warfighter Challenge.

For skills, we’ve got a few months to brush up on those rusty ones. Having reviewed first aid and focused on knot tying, I’d be looking at land navigation and radio communications.

Block IV: Event Training

This last six-week block is the final push to the competition. This is where we accept some backsliding in some areas like maximum strength and convert it to the fighting strength necessary for success.

I would drop the dedicated strength training almost completely. Instead, I’d set up 2-3 days per week of heavy complexes with barbells, sandbags, or kettlebells. This primarily serves to build strength endurance, but also helps me not lose too much foundational strength in the process.

Thinking about the schedule here, for the first three weeks I would probably select Monday and Thursday for the fixed complex days, and then alternate each Saturday with a complex and an event day. For the last three weeks, I would drop the Saturday complex day and focus on event day medleys.

Due to the climbing requirements, I’d keep pull ups in the mix, but also add rope climbing if feasible. At a minimum, at least some of the pull ups should be done with ropes or a towel to train that specific type of grip strength. These will do a bit to maintain strength while putting a huge emphasis on strength endurance and conditioning.

That leaves Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and every other Saturday for specific conditioning work. On these days, I’d mix in timed rucks, runs, sprint sessions, and medleys.

Marksmanship and skills training remains the same as the previous block. Compete where you can, and stay current on the perishable skills.

Peak Week

This is the week leading up to the event. Your goal is to show up as recovered and ready to go as possible. The emphasis this week is on getting plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and keeping your body prepared.

I would do two complex workouts, but for half of the duration and intensity as the previous week. Figure half of the intensity and duration than I was doing the previous week. The goal is not driving adaptation, but keeping the body fresh.

Conditioning workouts drop to only two low intensity sessions done for thirty minutes, just to keep the blood flowing.

Show up on Saturday, the 24th, and go have fun.

After the Event

While this plan looks good, in theory, the probability is that I would still end up doing mediocre. It’s not until you step into the arena and test yourself that you see where your weak points actually lie. So I’d go to the event, have a blast, and see where I end up. Then I’d take note of what went well and what didn’t, and start all over again with an eye on improving those weak areas I identified.

You also can’t discount your starting point. If you’re way behind the curve compared to someone who has had an organized training schedule for years, then you’re not making up that gap in your first training year.

One change up, though. Rather than going right back into the same training cycle, I’d probably look at the time period from after the event (May 26th) to the end of summer as “in season” for shooting competitions and matches. After putting in all that work to bring up conditioning, I wouldn’t want to just leave it on the table again. So, instead, I’d revert back to Block IV programming with two strength days per week, one “event day”, and three conditioning days.

At the end of the competition season, we’ll be around fall time, and I would start the cycle again. Maybe the next year I make an improvement, then again the year after that, and again after that. This is playing the long game.

The Big Picture

Admittedly, this whole thought exercise is about preparing for one event and training in a way that I prefer. Your takeaway should not be to copy what I wrote, but to instead think about your progress in terms of years. Moreover, it’s years broken down into discreet blocks.

It doesn’t have to be a shooting event, either. One gentleman I know of, Clarence Bass, schedules a bodybuilding photo shoot for himself every year. He organizes his annual training calendar around this photo shoot, moving through each phase of strength gain and fat loss until he peaks for the event. He’s 88 years old, by the way.

In the absence of a specific goal, here’s another way to break things down for yourself. I originally came across it in the Tactical Barbell: Mass book, and borrowed the concept on a larger scale.


Strength & Power – Growth – Specialty

Since your long term goal is consistently training throughout life, it’s natural that you’ll want to experiment with different things. Training the same way day in and day out for years gets stale both mentally and physically. If you aren’t getting paid to do it, like a pro athlete or a college scholarship holder, then there’s not a need to train in such a limited way. We benefit from a bit of variety to keep things feeling fresh and introduce different movement patterns over time.

This program method has three phases. Each taking anyway from 3 to 14 weeks (or more). The actual length isn’t important, it’s more about the idea behind it.

For the above thought experiment, I didn’t explicitly follow this pattern since there’s an extra block in there. In practice, though, it would be like doing Block I/II, III, and IV/V in repeating sequence.

Strength & Power Phase

The strength phase is primarily about increasing neuromuscular efficiency. At its core, strength is a combination of two things: mass and efficiency. Having more muscle mass in general means you have more potential horsepower to move weight. The second part of that is efficiency, where your nervous system must contract that muscle mass in a better pattern.

It’s a bit like the relationship between an engine and the transmission. A large engine means there’s more total capacity for power, but it’s the transmission that actually converts that power into movement. A poorly designed and inefficient transmission means you won’t actually see the potential.

Another Example

Let’s imagine that a particular muscle has a total potential of 50 units of strength (I’m making this up as an arbitrary measure, so just go with it). However, let’s say this individual’s nervous system is only capable of producing about 30% efficiency. It’s able to contract all fibers of the muscle, to be clear, but it’s not good at doing it all together at the same time- so the actual result is a maximum ability to demonstrate 15 units of strength.

This individual can train to make the muscle bigger, improving the maximum potential to 75 units of strength. With their 30% efficiency, that means they are now able to demonstrate about 23 units of strength. That’s still progress, but we can do better. With a different training style, they might be able to bring their efficiency up from 30% to 60%. With the same original potential for 50 strength units, this brings their actual maximum up to 30 units. See where I’m going with that? They were able to demonstrate more strength without necessarily putting on a lot more size. That same individual got up to a capacity of 75 units and then trained their neurological efficiency up to 60%, now they’re up to 45 units of strength.

Generally, strength and size go together. You can find some weird extremes, though. You’ll see very large and muscular individuals who aren’t actually good at expressing strength- so we think they’re “weak.” This is the common stereotype of a pumped up bodybuilder who doesn’t actually have impressive lift numbers.

Similarly, you’ll see some individuals who seem unbelievable strong for their size. They don’t have a ton of muscle mass, but they are very neurologically efficient. This is what we’re talking about in a strength phase. It’s about making your existing muscle as powerful as possible. We don’t have to focus only on this, but it’s the emphasis area.

During this period, I’d also look for a balance of strength and conditioning work.

I suggest that a strength phase should be no less than three months, and you could easily extend it longer.

Growth Phase

In a growth phase, the emphasis shifts to growing muscle mass. Muscle mass and some level of hypertrophy training is important for everyone, regardless of age, but it’s especially important as we get older and it becomes more difficult to hold on to muscle mass. The end goal is that we go into the next strength phase with more potential, so that we become even stronger.

During a growth phase, training is slightly lighter in weight and taken closer to failure. Combined with a slight calorie surplus, this encourages new muscle growth. This additional muscle growth comes with a lot of metabolic and aesthetic benefits. Also, shifting to lighter weight takes a lot of pressure off of the joints you’ve been beating up for a few months on a block with higher weight intensity.

Functionally, the strength and growth phases may look very similar. They’ll probably share a lot of the same movements, too. It’s just programmed a bit differently. You’ll want to back down on the conditioning work here, down to no more than 1-2 sessions per week. It diverts too much energy away from the goal of muscle growth.

This phase should also not be any less than three months, and is often four months or more.


Specialty Phase

The specialty phase is our wild card. You can do whatever you want here- or even skip it.

If you’re interested in aesthetics, use this time to develop the “show muscles” and things you didn’t have time for during the growth phase, like the backs of the shoulders, abdominals, calves, etc. Maybe you could go on a fat loss phase so that you’re well-positioned for the next round of strength and growth (and look better, too).

Perhaps you want to use the specialty phase to prepare for a specific event. Blocks IV and V in my earlier thought experiment are a good representation of that.

Another option is to detour entirely and try a different training method like calisthenics work, kettlebell-only programming, strongman training, or something else. It’s entirely up to you.

It’s also a great time to buckle down and focus on your aerobic system.

I suggest that the specialty phase be anywhere from three weeks to three months- depending on what you’re doing and how willing you are to let go of some muscle in the process (if you aren’t keeping a healthy amount of strength training). As mentioned, you could also just skip it and continue alternating between a growth and strength phase.

Repeat

Once you’re done with the specialty phase, you roll right back into a strength phase. Depending on what you’ve done during growth and specialty, you might have a lot of new mass that’s ready to perform. If you focused on conditioning, then you’re energized and have a large reserve to draw from so you can work harder. Or, if you took a detour with another training method, you’ve developed some new tools in the toolbox.

Maybe your specialty phase was your “in season” period where you were out competing in events. Now it’s time to analyze where your weak points were and what you can improve upon for the next season.

What About Shooting?

This post mostly discussed a training calendar in terms of physical fitness for the Warfighter Challenge. For most people, our weak point in events like these is not our shooting ability or equipment, but our physical capacity. That’s why I’m emphasizing it so much.

With that said, you could take a similar phased approach to your marksmanship training. What you actually need to train will vary by your preferred shooting sport, but I suspect the general pattern still holds.

Rather than strength & power, focus on the basic fundamentals. That means your core marksmanship shooting positions, sight alignment, trigger control, etc. If we’re talking pistols, then you would also bring in the draw stroke. The goal here is technical excellence over all else.

Instead of growth, focus on speed. Work on executing those fundamentals faster and faster. I’m talking up drills, reload drills, transition drills, malfunctions, and more. Take the technical excellence you’ve built up from the previous phase and go faster.

Then we have a specialty phase, where you focus on those those activities that are most related to your specific sport or shooting style. Improvised position building, barricades, and other “tactical” stuff.

So instead of strength & power -> growth -> specialty, we have Fundamentals -> Speed -> Specialty

Each phase can be as little as a couple of weeks to a few months. That’s really up to you.

Wrapping Up

Well, this turned out to be a lot longer than I originally thought it would be. What started as a short thought experiment on how I might train for a specific event turned into a treatise on long term progression of your ability. Thanks for sticking with me on that one.

Now it’s your turn…what would you change? This is my approach, but what would yours be?

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Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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