Train Hard, Fight Easy – Toby Cowern


The maxim of many an Army and a familiar phrase to most. I want to explore this concept a little though, as I look and see so often now vary varying viewpoints in what ‘Training Hard’ constitutes, and also the fact this is becoming one of the ‘throwaway’ phrase that many like to use, but few actually understand and apply (Same as, “It is better to be judged by twelve, than carried by six”)

 From my perspective a lot of the modern Martial Arts/Self Defense and even Survival (Think ‘Boot camp’) training focus is purely on the physical. Now it can be said that arduous physical training has a psychological side to it, but you tend to find once the initial ‘psychological barriers’ have been conquered repeating set physical sequences either requires the same (mental) effort or becomes easier over time as habitulisation and familiarity set in. In fact with a good training regime, ‘hard’ workouts become something you look forward to as opposed to feel any trepidation about. Now while I am a big believer in maintaining a high standard of physical fitness, I do think ‘Training hard’ must go beyond this and incorporate far more of the mental and emotional aspects for us to truly be prepared for ‘Fighting Easy’ (This is why we are training is it not?)

One of the huge advantages of delivering survival training, is we are working far more in terms of training for hours and days, instead of the more fitness and defensive orientated training that tends to work in seconds/minutes and hours. With this expanded timeline we can get far more into the deeper training cycles that really start to push mentally and emotionally than just physically.

Caveat – Please note, I am not saying it is not possible to stress someone in short term training, just that it is far less likely to be done and to a lesser overall effect than being exposed to extreme stimuli for a longer time.

It is my plan to delve into this subject in far more depth over a series of articles, but here I will do some brief conceptual introductions and provide some examples so you can look to incorporate some of these aspects into your training straight away. Before I do so, I would highlight this type of training is aimed more at people that have a SOLID grasp of foundations, an understanding of their own bodies and are prepared and willing to push themselves further and accept the residual risks in doing so.

On the psychological side of things we need to introduce discomfort and/or increased physical duress, on the emotional side exposure to situations we find intimidating, unpleasant or traumatic. I would highlight, I personally am firmly subscribed to this type of training and will give a brief summary of some of my training goals at the end of this article.

In my progressive model of Survival training, some of the earlier stressors I introduce to students are; sleep disruption/deprivation, denial of food and rationing of water (Not necessarily all at the same time!) To be able to function, think and act clearly, when tired, hungry and dehydrated is ESSENTIAL in a wilderness scenario, but being clear headed when physically compromised also carries over exceptionally well to ‘defensive’ type training as well.

Introducing this training aspect outside of attending courses is very simple (but that does not mean it’s easy) Try setting a repeat alarm for a random time one night every week or so (wake up every 87mins and do 5mins of exercise, then go back to sleep)

Fast one day a week. Yes, don’t eat for a 24hr period, if that is too hard, start with 12hrs and buildup 2 hours extra every week. Within 6 weeks you’ll be at 24hrs. In the beginning go easy, but eventually you want to be able to complete at least your regular daily work load while fasting.

Every couple of weeks limit your fluid intake for a day. Start by only drinking water, remove all of your regular coffee/tea, sodas etc. for one day (You will be amazed at what this will do to some people!) Once you’ve accomplished this successfully a few times in a row then start to limit your water intake. See and feel how distracting and degrading dehydration can be, then appreciate there are many scenarios where this could be the ‘normal’.

These are just some brief examples to get you off to an ‘easy start’ once these are mastered then you can look at some of the deeper techniques in subsequent articles.

What about the emotional side of things? 

This obviously is very subjective to the individual, and everyone’s definition of things they find “intimidating, unpleasant or traumatic” is different, so start by listing those. Sit down for 10minutes with a pen and paper and write. I would actually separate these into 3 distinct columns:

Intimidating               Unpleasant               Traumatic

And write lists in each. For instance you may find ‘Public Speaking’ intimidating. Watching a video of an animal being beaten unpleasant, and confronting a family member about their manner of talking to you as traumatic.

It could be more developed for some. In which case, visiting a known problem area could be intimidating, talking to a victim of significant physical violence could be unpleasant and butchering an animal (especially a pet type) could be traumatic.

I should highlight here, you and you alone are responsible for your own safety and only you can decide how far you will push yourself in training (and what training courses you will attend) But starting with your list will highlight emotive areas that have the potential to be worked on.

Now I would highlight, DON’T cheat yourself here. Be brutally honest on the things that bother you. I had student once that clearly and confidently told me that ‘If the time ever came’ she would have ‘no hesitation to kill someone’. Later that day I invited her to kill and butcher a rabbit. She refused. I did it and she was reduced to tears for an extended period for watching the sequence. She refused to eat that evening and went into quite the diatribe about how cruel and horrible a person I was for killing the animal (While the butchery was a planned part of the course it nicely coincided with the lesson for her) I highlighted if this is how she felt about a rabbit, having just SEEN it killed, how confident was she now she could end another human’s life…? It was quite the change in perspective for her.

Caveat – I take no pleasure in killing animals on courses, but do feel it is such a valuable lesson it is one that must be incorporated, but is always done in a respectful and swift a manner as possible.

Back to the list. Once you have written your list, you can decide what stimuli you can expose yourself to, to try and surmount the concern or ‘harden’ or inoculate yourself to it. Repeated exposure to events, assists in conditioning to not be as stressed by them. Again, I highlight, you and you alone are responsible for the consequences of this, I am merely highlighting in this article what constitutes a LARGE training gap for many people. Start with these basics, then further examples and practices to follow.

I mentioned earlier I would share some of my personal training goals, so here are a few I am working on:

I am a firm believer you can never have too much first aid/medic type training. However training is no substitute for practice. To gain the most experience but also to push the psychological and emotional boundaries I plan to do one or two weeks’ worth of volunteer ambulance work in S.Africa in inner city areas. Here they have exceptional numbers of patients, massively limited equipment and resources, and being in a different culture and climate it will give me significant physical duress as well, so this is a very well rounded exercise/experience.

I will focus on sparring with bigger, heavier, more experienced partners. Going into training where you know you can’t ‘win’ and that hurts more than normal will be interesting.

Some of my regular scheduled harder work (e.g. moving, splitting, piling wood for my stove) will be done on my ‘fasting days’. This is physical hard and with significant residual risk as you are working for prolonged periods with axes etc.

I have many more plans in mind, but will share those another day. What about you? How do you ‘Train hard? Share your thoughts and experiences…

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