Should Firefighters Train Like Athletes?

A career as a firefighter is a demanding one.  Often times firefighters, police, EMS and military personnel are referred to as tactical or industrial athletes.  Their fitness levels are often compared to those of professional athletes.  Is this a fair comparison?  Well, that’s hard to say.

Looking at firefighters specifically, we know that they could be caught in almost any situation requiring physical fitness.  Most often their duties involve:

– lifting heavy patients

– maneuvering heavy equipment in awkward positions

– pulling and pushing objects such as hose

– high outputs of force for pulling down ceilings or breaching walls

– carrying heavy equipment over a distance

– performing CPR and assisting in patient extrication

These duties and more are often performed under moderate to extreme cardiovascular stress.  With this assessment one could say that firefighters should be training like athletes as their job requires them to have elite physical qualities.  Unfortunately, not all members of the fire service can meet this standard.

One of the most common causes of death for firefighters is cardiovascular-type events, such as a heart attack, often during or after difficult calls requiring a high output of energy such as a structure fire.  While these are the demands of firefighters and there is a very real outcome for not maintaining a high level of fitness firefighters are not professional athletes.  They don’t have a staff working for them to keep them in top condition and in one piece.  Most are left to figure things out for themselves as so many departments don’t have staff to test, design programming and monitor the strength and fitness of its firefighters.  They are often left to research training methods on their own or work with a trainer, who may have no clue of the demands of the job or be cognisant of the condition of that firefighter and the appropriate methods to use.

The other reality about firefighters and athletes is that most professional athletic careers end by their early 30s.  It’s an amazing thing if an NHL player is at the top of their game over 40.  Where an athlete retires in their 30s and moves on some firefighters don’t even get hired until they are in their 30s.  Many work right until their mandatory retirement age of 60 or 65.  So, we have grandparents expected to be on the back of a rig and perform the tasks of men and women half their age.  For the record, this is not meant to demean older firefighters.  They can be so valuable to the fire service and I have personally met many veteran firefighters in amazing shape.  I hope it simply sheds some light on the fact that not all firefighters can be lumped into one class and expect the same physical abilities.

So, back to the question at hand.  Can we expect firefighters to train like elite athletes?  I think it depends.  Early on in their careers I fully believe that they should be in peak physical condition.  The hard part is educating these “young” firefighters about safe and effective ways to get there.  As their careers progress, joints take a beating, injuries inevitably pile up, life’s stresses take their toll and Father Time plays some dirty tricks so firefighters need to be aware about realistic expectations.  It would be unrealistic to expect some veteran firefighters to be able to deadlift twice their body weight, run a 6-minute mile or row a sub-90 second 500 meter, however, it is absolutely reasonable to expect, even demand that they maintain their ability to perform at a very high level both to perform their jobs well and live long enough to enjoy retirement.

It is important for the men and women of the fire service to have access to quality information to help them achieve a high level of fitness early in their careers and maintain a standard throughout as they move towards retirement.  For anyone who has not kept in shape, the vision of training like an elite athlete can be very intimidating and it is important to accept where you are currently.  It will take time to improve your fitness levels but every step in that direction is a positive one.  If early in your career keep in mind that we are not looking for world-class strength and fitness to prepare for a 10-year athletic career making millions.  You have a 30-year career ahead of you full of unpredictable scenarios compounded by the natural aging process.

Things to focus on would be:

Tissue Quality– All activities like self myo-fascial release (foam rolling) and professional massage.  We want to reduce the density of muscle tissue and reduce the nervous system tone to help promote quality movement and reduce pain.

Mobility and Stability – Taking a joint-by-joint approach ensures we can maintain our ability to get into the right positions and reduce the chance of injury throughout our careers.  Focus on mobility in the ankles, hips and thoracic spine (upper back – extension and rotation) while focusing on stability in the knees, lower back and shoulders.

Strength in the Posterior Chain – Overall strength is important but a strong backside will help keep a firefighter safer and more useful on the fire ground.  Think exercises like deadlifts and hip thrusts.

Aerobic Fitness – Using a variety of intervals will help develop both aerobic power and capacity.  Varying the intensity and duration will build a robust aerobic system capable of improving your performance as well as helping to protect you from the dangers of overexertion.

It is important to consider your current fitness level and age when working on these areas.  Older bodies don’t respond to the stresses of training as well as younger ones.  Older firefighters also need to accept that their ability to recover is reduced.  Your body is constantly working to break down as you age (loss of bone mass and muscle tissue) so if you can maintain any gains from earlier on then you are technically making gains.  The minimum effective dose is often a good way to think about training to find that happy place between optimal performance and longevity.  I think that focusing on what we call firefighters – athletes or not – is less important than recognizing the needs of each individual and their unique starting points.  These major areas will help to maximize your effectiveness as well as keep you safe and if focusing on these areas means you are training like an athlete then I guess you are an athlete.

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