JULY 14, 2017, VICENZA, Italy – In early 2016, Col. Gregory Anderson, commander, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), identified a high rate of overuse injuries in the paratroopers of that unit. He reached out to Lt. Col. Brian Bender, commander, U.S. Army Health Center-Vicenza, in search of a solution to improve unit readiness.
Anderson envisioned a program similar to THOR3 (Tactical Human Optimization, Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning) used by United States Army Special Operations Command.
As a result of their collaboration, a new program named SPEAR (Soldier Performance Education for Advanced Readiness and Resilience) was built and launched in August 2016.
SPEAR is a well-rounded fitness and education program focused on the health and welfare of the warfighter with a focus on injury prevention. The SPEAR team includes subject-matter experts in physical therapy, exercise physiology, sports medicine, sports nutrition, sports psychology and sleep, as well as highly motivated noncommissioned officers and physical training leaders.
“SPEAR will focus on equipping and training the warfighter for lifelong health and fitness,” said Maj. Nate Hathaway, brigade surgeon, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne). “SPEAR incorporates the five components of fitness, and teaches continuous goal setting to enable peak performance.”
Using evidence-based training tools to treat soldier athletes like professional athletes, the program’s mission is a holistic approach to the optimization of Soldier physical and mental performance to decrease injury, enhance readiness, and create a more lethal fighting force.
“There are five primary components of fitness: strength, power, endurance, speed and mobility. In the Army, we are good at improving muscular endurance, but we often neglect strength,” said Capt. Chelsea Kersten, physical therapist, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne).
The SPEAR working group first identified opportunities for enhanced focus on technique, training and recovery with new forms of strength building for injury prevention.
“Because our APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) only measures cardiovascular and muscular endurance, our current Physical Readiness Training is typically focused on improving endurance and often neglects the other components of fitness. In addition to running, unit PRT may include a lot of air squats, pushups, sit-ups and other body weight exercises in a circuit-like manner, but those workouts primarily improve muscular endurance, not strength,” said Kersten. Thus the team agreed that SPEAR would emphasize the importance of those sometimes-lacking components to create more effective, well-rounded Soldier-athletes for battlefield operations, not just APFT preparedness.
There have been three successful trials of the program at varying lengths to determine what worked and what would be modified to meet the needs of units and Soldiers. Initially, the program was scheduled as an eight-week program; however, it has been reduced to four weeks with two days of testing in the last week. Preliminary data from the first three iterations of SPEAR has been very promising in demonstrating the success of the program.
Soldier strength gains were evident with more than 70 percent of participants showing significantly improved bench and squat weight and improved technique in just a few short weeks of training. Participants saw an improvement in speed and agility as measured by Illinois agility testing and 50m/400m sprints. Additionally, more than 60 percent of participants’ APFT scores improved, on average, by 10 points.
The future of SPEAR lies in a sustainable core program and investment by leadership. “Sky Soldiers” who have participated in the first few iterations of intense SPEAR training are expected to take this information back to their units and implement changes in their PT formations. Soldiers new to 173rd 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) will also soon begin participating in SPEAR PT during their on-boarding in the Green Platoon during in-processing.
A SPEAR manual has been developed to provide a basic outline for leaders to initiate a smarter physical training plan within their formations, and monthly SPEAR education sessions are being offered at the Sigholtz Center on Caserma Del Din.
In the coming months, the SPEAR team will begin recording training videos including exercise, sleep, performance psychology, sports nutrition and supplement safety information to make it more accessible to every Soldier in 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne)and beyond.
For more information about SPEAR and how your unit can access the resources the SPEAR team currently has to offer, please contact the authors of this article at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Editor’s note: Hathaway also contributed to this article.
By Capt. Lacey Armstrong, Chief, Nutrition Medicine, USAHC-V