SEALS vs COMMANDOS vs PARAS: Toughest Forces Fitness Tests

Special and Elite forces the world over have kudos, admired for dedication, motivation, drive and physical fitness. Still, the age old question arises: who are the toughest? You can stake the selection tests up against each other, but beyond military ‘Top Trumps’ 

what can we learn from them? First off, physical fitness alone isn't enough. Some of the fittest people have the ability to pass these tests, but they fall short on overall durability and strength of mind. 

Someone who is just about fit enough, but with an incredibly strong mind can often make it where physically stronger contenders can’t. (I’ve seen it myself as former head of Physical Training at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines.) Robustness is the final piece of the puzzle and those that succeed usually follow these credos: Never give up; Put Up With The Hardship; Shit Happens, and The Mind Fails Long Before The Body… 

1. Drown proofing - US Navy SEALS

What is it? Hands tied behind their backs and ankles bound together, US Navy SEALS dive into a swimming pool and have to bob from bottom to surface in 9ft of water for a set period, before floating for a further set time. They must then swim 100m, perform a series of front and back flips and retrieve a dive mask off the bottom with nothing but their teeth. Yes, all with ankles and wrists bound.

Why is it tough? Swimming makes you work hypoxically, meaning with reduced oxygen. This test not only does that, but puts the trainee under immediate pressure and stress due to, you know, being trussed up like a turkey. To be good at a test like this requires you to perform hypoxic training so that your body adapts to perform better with less oxygen.

What’s the Micro Version? RISING doesn’t recommend being thrown into a pool with your limbs tied (you’re not a drown-proof SEAL) so do some hypoxic drills in a pool instead (tell the lifeguard first). Try swimming as far as you can underwater, then front crawl back. Repeat 6-10 times.

Outrageous fact: Most candidates regard this test as a respite from the day-to-day hell of training. Almost drowning is an easy day in the SEALS.

2. Endurance – SAS/ SBS

What is it? ‘Endurance’ is a 40-mile route to be navigated and completed in 20 hours carrying 79lbs of kit (plus food and water), solo. It comes at the end of ‘Test Week’ of ‘The Hills’. It starts at midnight, in complete darkness, on a day they finished a previous route in the afternoon.

Why is it tough? ‘Endurance’ tests endurance, obviously, both mental and physical. Each UKSF applicant will be fatigued, drained and likely carrying some form of niggle; achy legs, blisters or worse. This test requires concentration on navigation, time management and self discipline. Physically, like a marathon, it demands a constant drive forward and tests aerobic endurance to the very limits. A solid cardiovascular base is crucial.

What’s the Micro Version? Take a week off from work, book a camp site somewhere in Brecon, the Highlands or Dartmoor, get up at 4am each day, have a bite to eat then run for 5-8hrs a day with 55-79lbs on your back (increase it each day). After five days of that, set off and try to go up and down all the highest peaks in the area. Then book another week off work to recover. Oh and take a friend, a charged mobile and suitable foul-weather clothing, and don’t try this without very solid navigational skills.

Outrageous fact: The number of men starting this phase of the test often exceeds 250 – by the end, the number that pass is usually nearer the 50-60 mark.

‘They also shoot each other in the chest to prove they can return fire while being shot at’

4. 12 Minutes Of Hell: Russian Spetsnaz

What is it? Towards the end of their Crimson Beret selection Spetsnaz recruits must fight hand-to-hand combat for 12 minutes, over four, three-minute rounds. Each round is with a fresh, fully trained Spetsnaz opponent. Who may, or may not, like them.

Why is it tough? Any form of fight training is a fierce test of stamina because fighting quickly becomes anaerobic, as the muscles require more oxygen than the lungs can provide, and the body can process. This tests the applicants’ ability to push through that threshold, to put up with the ever-building levels of lactic acid and just keep going. And that’s just round one…

What’s the ‘Micro’ version? Join a local MMA, Krav maga or boxing club, learn the skills and take part in some light sparring to get a feel for hand-to-hand combat, which leaves you hauling air into your lungs with every strike.

Outrageous fact: This isn’t even the craziest thing about Spetsnaz selection: they also shoot each other in the chest (while wearing bulletproof vests) to prove they can return fire while being shot at.

5. The Thirty Miler: Royal Marines Commandos

What is it? The Thirty Miler is the last of four Commando tests completed after 2-3 weeks of field exercise. It’s is performed across open Dartmoor wearing around 45lbs of kit, and that doesn’t include your food and water. It must be completed in eight hours for recruits, and seven hours for Royal Marine Officers.

Why is it tough? This test assesses the aerobic fitness of an individual when the legs are already fatigued and the body already tired, along with the mental ability to push through the pain barrier while concentrating on navigation and time management.

What’s the ‘Micro’ version? Head to Dartmoor or another wide open, windy place with a 45lb backpack. Attempt to run/ walk 10 miles in three hours…

Outrageous fact: At the end of the 30-miler the men are presented with their Green Beret. Receiving this is what all the pain and hardship over the preceding months has been for.

‘It’s 40 miles with 45lbs over rough terrain to be completed in an unknown time’

6. Log Race: Parachute Regiment

What is it? A team event in which eight men carry a log (it’s actually a telegraph pole) weighing 60kg across 1.9 miles of undulating terrain, wearing fighting order kit weighing 21lbs – and a helmet. Teams are assessed throughout for determination, aggression and leadership.

Why is it tough? A bit like fighting, the whole body is being taxed so the amount of oxygen required by the muscles is unlikely to be available. The whole body will be burning and aching, not to mention uncomfortable. For some reason, you just can’t get a comfortable grip on a large log. It also isn’t just a case of ‘head down and get on with it’, because teams must work together for the collective good, throwing a cerebral challenge into the mix too.

What’s the ‘Micro’ version? It’s hard to get hold of a telegraph pole, and probably illegal, so instead grab a 10kg Powerbag, or sandbag and take it for a two-mile run as an ‘individual effort’. You’ll miss out on the true test of teamwork under stress, dealing with cumbersome weight, but it will give you a flavour.

Outrageous fact: P Company, the Parachute regiment section course, is made up of many, many events. The Para 10km is probably the most famous, but the log Race is said to be the most gruelling.

7. Ruck-March: Delta Force

What is it? 40 miles with 45lbs over rough terrain that has to be completed in an unknown amount of time. Only the senior officer and NCO in charge of Delta selection are allowed to see the set time limits. An applicant must simply go as fast as they can and trust that it’s fast enough.

Why is it tough? Like Endurance and The Thirty Miler, this 40-mile route is an aerobic fitness test. But the big difference is not knowing the time limit. This doesn’t allow your brain to switch off for a second, or for a rest to be taken if you’ve gained some time. Even taking a toilet break will be questioned. This is truly a mental as well as physical battle.

What’s the ‘Micro’ version? Decide on a test you want to try out. It could be a 40-mile ruck march or a 10km run. Ask a PT or friend to set you a target that’s hard but fair and write it down in a sealed envelope. Write them a cheque and put in another envelope. Do the event in question without a stopwatch. If you make it under their time, tear up your cheque. If you don’t, the charity of their choice is in for a treat.

Outrageous fact: Former Delta operator Paul Howe said that out of his two classes totalling 240 men, only 12 to 14 applicants completed the course.

WHAT’S NEXT: Find your favourite military motto – they usually trounce anything #motivationmonday has to offer: from The Parachute Regiment’s Utrinque Paratus ‘Ready For Anything’, to the USAF’s 56th Tactical Fighter Wing’s Cave Tonitrum ‘Beware The Thunderbolt’ – and see how you can apply that way of thinking to everyday life.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.