MREs and Ranger School: The Lifeblood of the Student

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MREs are Meals Ready to Eat.
One of the most common military acronyms is MRE, for Meal Ready to Eat. (Staff Sgt. Sean Campbell/U.S. Air Force)

Ranger School is the Army's premier leadership training school and challenges officers, NCOs and enlisted alike for 61 grueling days with very little to eat.  It's not surprising that many soldiers lose 20-30 pounds during the nine-week course. Ranger School is a classic story of expending too many calories per day and not consuming enough.

The Meal Ready to Eat (MRE): The Life's Blood of the Student

Today's MRE has improved greatly since they first were developed in 1980, with an average of 1,250 calories and 24 menu types. If a Ranger student gets two MRE's per day, this is only 2,500 calories consumed in a day. Typical ruck marches with 50- to 80-pound backpacks will burn 500-700 calories per hour.  Place that level of work into an 18- to 20-hour day, and you expend roughly 10,000 calories in one day. It does not take long to lose weight when you are running a 5,000-7,500 caloric deficit each day.  From MREinfo.com, here is what the MRE consists of:

Entree -- the main course, such as spaghetti or beef stew

Side dish -- rice, corn, fruit or mashed potatoes, etc.

Cracker or bread

Spread -- peanut butter, jelly or cheese spread

Dessert -- cookies or pound cake

Candy -- M&Ms, Skittles or Tootsie rolls

Beverages -- Gatorade-like drink mixes, cocoa, dairy shakes, coffee, tea

Hot sauce or seasoning -- in some MREs

Flameless Ration Heater -- to heat the entree

Accessories -- spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.

Each MRE provides an average of the macronutrients (13% protein, 36% fat and 51% carbohydrates) and one-third of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals. A full day's worth of meals would consist of three MREs.

How Do You Prepare Your Body for This?

This is probably one of the most commonly asked questions about Ranger School. Most people are aware of the advanced level of fitness required, but how to maintain advanced levels of fitness when running low on energy is the $64,000 question. 

Most people soon realize that this is the "gut check" of the course and try to prepare the body by adding 10-15 pounds of muscle and fat, commonly called bulk, before attending the course. Mentally preparing for the gut check and gaining a few pounds have been a successful solution for many Ranger graduates.

My Advice

Pre-Ranger School: As an advanced military trainer and fitness writer, my recommendation to all pre-Ranger students is to have some weight to lose when you attend. Don't be super lean and ripped; otherwise you will lose tremendous amounts of muscle as well. Graduates will first lose their fat, then start to burn away several pounds of muscle, usually in the upper body. 

Having plenty of muscle and/or some fat to burn is the key. Now, too much bulk can degrade physical performance on runs and pull-ups, so make sure you can move well with this extra weight. Otherwise, the five-mile timed run will get you. (It must be performed in under 40 minutes.)

Supplement with MRE: You have to get used to eating MREs, so as a fourth meal of the day during your bulk phase, supplement with an MRE. Your command may have some or you can buy some online.

During Ranger School: When you have the opportunity to eat, eat all of it. Do not leave anything to waste. Save all sports drink powders, sugar packages, salt packages, desserts, beef jerky. Everything. 

Eat it later when you need it. You will have to make combat leader decisions when in Ranger School. Your brain needs sugar (glycogen) to function properly, and your muscles need electrolytes, so those sugar packs, gum, desserts and salty foods will come in handy later. 

Stay hydrated. Always have a full canteen.  Drink even when not thirsty and add sports drink powder when you can.

After Ranger School: This is the absolute most important thing to do -- exercise again. You have to get back to PTing and lifting regularly to rebuild the parts of your body that you lost during the previous two months. Get off the MREs and eat real food; supplement with protein shakes and good carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables. 

If you go back to eating junk food at this point, you will turn your body into an overweight, tabbed soldier. Your rucking will be as solid as it ever was, so lay down the ruck for a few weeks and start running faster or doing non-impact options if nursing any overuse injuries. Lift every day, even if you do not feel like it.

Getting back into training again will be the difference in your physical abilities after Ranger School.  You just earned the tab; now go out, represent and lead the way.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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