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Lessons Learned from Five Years of Occupational Testing


Check out this article written four years ago discussing the POPAT as part of the recruitment process for police officers.

Six years ago, I began training potential municipal police and RCMP recruits for their POPAT and PARE tests, respectively. The tests are similar, consisting of an agility run, push-pull station (to simulate a close assault) and a squat-thrust vault jump component. They have a maximum passing standard of 4 min 45 (PARE) and 4:15 (POPAT) - short and intense bouts of activity. Anaerobic energy systems are primarily called upon, and unlike other occupational physical tests, agility is a critical factor. Participants spend around two minutes on the obstacle course and must have the ability to move quickly, maneuvering around corners, careful not to knock anything over.

The course set-up looks fairly basic - a friendly set of steps and a few low lying hurdles paired with a hip-high vault and an odd machine with a single arm which moves side to side like a gun turret. The test is difficult because the timing is competitive while form and function break down quickly when the heart rate is at 80%+ of your maximum heart rate.

Some will call the POPAT and PARE a cakewalk compared to physical ability testing for firefighters, which is a longer, more aerobic based protocol. However, the test matches the occupation. The ability to pursue a suspect is not a “turtle wins the race” scenario, because this race is a short one. As in all tasks, the faster the speed, the higher the probability of error.

Check out the video below to get an idea of what the test looks like.

Warning: test appears easier than it is. Times are competitive and you must perform well under the standard to stand out. Also, another lesson about the test, which I will not include in my list below, is that experienced professionals make anything look easy. If you haven’t put your time into training at a high intensity, with running, jumping and burpees, the test will prove difficult. Specificity is everything, and in the POPAT/PARE world, aerobic endurance does not trump quickness and a high pain tolerance.

After that lengthy preamble, here are the six lessons I’ve learned over the six years of preparing recruits of their test.

  • Getting your head right before you do anything. Hard training brings out the “demons” inside. You will inevitably be able to do much more if your mental game is strong. The ability to dig deeper and move beyond discomfort has a lot to do with your mindset.

  • Establishing a pace early will save you time in the long run. Although this is a short test requiring a good amount of speed, pacing is critical. If you compare other races or tests with similar durations (400m freestyle, 2000m 8-man row, 1mile on the track), these are efforts which come close to maximum speeds, but the athletes drop it back a couple of notches. The last component of the test (vault) determines the outcome of the test. If you didn’t pace properly, your end time will reflect this.

  • Cardio thresholds are limited by quickness and speed. While it is important to improve your aerobic base, doing spin classes, long runs, swims and elliptical sessions, if you aren’t able to move quickly and get to high speeds, you won’t be able to match the intensity needed for the POPAT/PARE. This isn’t simply a test of work capacity.

  • The distinction between quickness and speed. Both components of athleticism are highly beneficial but they are not one and the same. A person may be able to run at high speed, but if they are unable to manoeuvre the course efficiently, accelerating and decelerating with minimal loss of time, they are lacking in quickness. Training “explosiveness” is a popular approach, although many fail to address the products of such “explosive” training, quickness and speed.

  • The false assumption that volume is a replacement for high intensity. Many people try to replace the excruciating 10-15min of actual hard workout time with hours upon hours of moderate level intensity. One of the more difficult principles of training to employ is the 80/20 rule for effort. 80% of your efforts should be relatively easy, with the remaining 20% of the time spent at high intensities. Instead, the tendency is to hover at a moderate intensity 100% of the time.

  • Efficiency makes things effortless. The Movement Mindset concept is deeply rooted in improving mechanics, using the universal laws that govern our movement to our advantage. Our high intensity levels must be balanced by a relaxed fluidity. This is the paradox of trying harder while exerting less. While some may seem innately athletic, anyone can improve their quality of movement.

The POPAT - 3:16 is a competitive time for a male recruit. This is almost 60 seconds faster than the standard.

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