Stars and Spokes
Why does the military do expeditions?
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Pascal here. A question that both Dan and I get asked frequently is, 'Why does the military do expeditions?'
Another common question, relating specifically to our upcoming 5000km cycle across the USA, is, 'Why do Navy people need to be able to ride across a continent?!'
The answer can actually be distilled down to one word - preparation. When Royal Navy personnel undertake such activity, they develop a huge range of physical and mental skills that prepare them for frontline operations, and ultimately life more generally.
Expeditions form part of what we collectively describe as Adventurous Training, available to all personnel on an annual basis. There are a range of options to choose from, but the bottom line is that the activity must be adventurous in nature and involve risk - lawn bowls isn't on the list of approved activities, for example!
The types of thing we are talking about here are:
- Mountaineering (think Alps and Himalaya)
- Ski Touring (getting way off piste and into the deep powder snow)
- Sub Aqua Diving (exploring beneath the waves with an air supply strapped to your back)
- Kayaking (testing your mettle on fast flowing alpine rivers)
- Parachuting (jumping out of a perfectly serviceable plane. As Aircrew Officers ourselves, to us it makes far more sense to stay in the aircraft...!)
- Cycling unsupported across a continent, sleeping under the stars along the way.
The common theme here is the high level of mental and physical resilience it develops. It's not an exaggeration to say that if you get things wrong in such environments, serious injury or even death are potential outcomes.
To add a little more detail, check out below what we reckon to be the top 4 skills that one develops by doing Adventurous Training. Hopefully it gives an insight into why we do such training:
1 - Managing the fear
Picture the scene. You're stood at the top of a steep black ski run, there's a strong wind blowing, you're already starting to slide a little on the smooth icy surface, and you only clipped into a pair of skis for the first time in your life 4 days ago...
(Quick caveat here, for the preceding 4 days you have been taught all the necessary ski skills by fully qualified military ski instructors)
As you stand atop the slope, you're developing coping strategies for managing your fear, ready for the descent. Because you will be scared, that's natural. These coping strategies will be personal to you, Adventurous Training allows you to developed these in a controlled environment with guidance on hand should it be required.
Once developed, these skills can subsequently be used by personnel when on frontline operations - when the bullets start to fly, or your ship is being tossed around in a big ocean storm, or the helicopter you're flying develops a malfunction mid flight. It's good to have tested your coping strategies before you end up in such situations.
2 - Getting 'fit to fight'
As military folk, keeping fit is part of our daily routine; most days involve group circuits or a run, or similar. Periods of Adventurous Training allow us to dedicate entire days to enhancing our fitness, without the demands of our busy day jobs restricting us.
Using the example of a mountaineering expedition, where a few weeks could be spent in the Himalaya. Once a target peak has been identified, days/weeks will be dedicated to 'trekking in' from the nearest transport hub with all your kit, with the simultaneous aim of acclimatising to the lower oxygen conditions found at altitude.
Once within striking distance of the summit, further days are spent working as a team in more technically demanding terrain and at ever higher altitude. By the time you've 'bagged' the peak and are flying home, you're pretty physically drained!
Pushing on through even when physically exhausted is something we have to do routinely when on operations, making mountain regions an excellent environment for developing fitness ahead of the next frontline deployment.
So the next time you see a picture of someone from the Royal Navy stood on top of a high peak in the Himalaya, that's why they've done it. The chances are, in the months following that expedition, the same individuals will be out on frontline operations somewhere - using that same fitness.
3 - Psychological toolkit
Using our own multi day, cross continent, 5000km cycle expedition as an example for this one. When Adventurous Training becomes ultra endurance in nature, mental resilience starts to play a huge part. Plenty of mental strength is going to be required for us to complete back-to-back-to-back (etc...) long rides daily.
We will be cycling 150km every day, getting some sleep roadside in a sleeping bag, before repeating all over again the next day. 35 times in a row! We've both done multi day endurance events before, but never on this scale.
A psychological toolkit is required, in ours we are going to need the following tools:
- Motivation. Without this, you have nothing. Motivation underpins everything else, performance can only be built on a strong foundation of motivation.
- Confidence. We will have to believe in our ability to endure, this will come from our pre-expedition training regime, conducted under the expert guidance of medical specialists from the Institute of Naval Medicine. In the Royal Navy we have a phrase, 'train hard, fight easy'. Getting through brutal training sessions, gives you confidence in your body.
- Focus. Spending 8 hours a day on a bike saddle, it's going to be hard not to lose focus at times. We both have pictures/words dotted about our bike frames that help channel our thoughts; these help keep us focused on the challenge ahead, instead of thinking about pancakes. Which can be tricky at times, because I love pancakes....
- Pain management techniques. Because there is always pain... ! Whilst the pain will mostly be in our legs, the mind is an incredible tool that can be used to convince yourself that there is no pain. Well, here's hoping it can.
It's no coincidence that the four tools above (perhaps pain management to a lesser extent, depends on your line of work I suppose!) are mega useful for getting through life. They aren't solely expedition specific, they can equally be applied to work/raising children/keeping fit and healthy (delete as required).
4 - Maintaining adventurous spirit. Because adventures are ace, and help develop a positive mindset. Nothing more to add on this one!
In a nutshell, we do Adventurous Training in the Royal Navy because it prepares us for operations, and life more generally.
Dan and I feel really lucky to have an employer who invests in us as people. And we feel really, really lucky that they let us head off on bike riding adventures around the world, pretty cool!
Even if it's going to require a lot of leg based pain management...