All this seem a little harsh to you? Good. The “Participation Trophy” mentality is not welcome in the firehouse and titty babies can hit the bricks. You will not be missed by those brave few who fight on. I don’t care about your feelings, I care about your life, my brothers who ride the truck with you, and the citizens you are sworn to protect. If you can’t do your job you are useless to me. I’m not telling you that at 60 you have to have a sub 2:00 Firefighter Combat Challenge time. That’s stupid. I am telling you that despite your achy shoulders and old football injuries you have a physical potential that you are obligated to maintain. It’s a sliding scale that declines over time but if you still jump on the truck and other lives depend on you then you better learn to suck it up and do the right thing.
Like it or not when you entered the fire service you lost your right to be out of shape. Nobody is going to stop you from munching down an entire bag of Cheetos while sitting in your sweatpants and watching Law and Order reruns but if that is normal for you, you suck. Firefighters are occupational athletes and our job is far too important to not be prepared. Watching YouTube videos and critiquing every online article from a beanbag chair accomplishes no actual good in this world and you still suck.
Let me swim upstream just a little ways. I realize things get in the way. Life happens. Kids happen. Second jobs and second mortgages. Time seems to be shorter than ever and as much as you might want to be fit enough to make it to the CrossFit games that’s just not a realistic goal for 99% of firefighters. So what is realistic? Use the time you do have. Don’t lie to yourself, your crew, your family, and your city by saying “I don’t have any time” because you do. Readiness has to become a priority. That may include time on shift when you labor alone in the engine bay with an ancient rusty barbell. It may include “Death by Burpees” at home in your garage when you really just want to catch up on The Walking Dead. Yes, you might even have to get up an hour earlier on a rainy Saturday to meet up with the other mental patients at the gym. If that’s too hard then tough tallywhackers. Either start taking some baby steps to improve today or write a letter to your family telling them you knew how to prevent a heart attack on duty but were too lazy to do anything about it. Nobody else should have to explain that to them but you.
If you are a chief officer or decision maker and are reading this, WAKE UP! You create the culture your crews live in. It makes me mad enough to eat beeswhen I hear of some pencil pushing desk jockey going out of their way to keep good men and women from improving themselves. Fit responders deliver a better service to their jurisdiction and incur fewer injuries doing so. Those facts aren’t debatable. You need to be creating a wellness plan. If that is too foreign of a concept then at least be a facilitator and get out of people’s way.
Now that I’ve pissed half of you off here are my 5 guidelines for Fire Service Fitness:
1.) More is NOT always better.
In 2009 the Surgeon General recommended getting 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per week. In 2011 it was modified adding at least two days of strength training per week. Salty Sam says “since the Surgeon General is a big puss and I’m a superhero firefighter I need to at least triple all that right?” Salty Sam is stupid.
Do I think the US government always knows best? Not even close. What’s my point then? Somehow most people have come to believe that within their body lies an infinite well of physical potential and it can only be obtained by wrecking themselves repeatedly. If a 10 minute conditioning workout twice per week is good then a 60 minute workout once a day will get me fit at least ten times faster right? No, just no. You aren’t Rocky and fitness doesn’t work that way.
Let’s stay with the “well” analogy. Within your body is a well and its depth represents your level of fitness. The more fit we are the more we can draw from it when we need it but the well doesn’t refill instantly. Continuing to demand more and more without time for recovery and replenishment will result in crumbling walls and muddy water (loss of energy, chronic fatigue, injuries). Wellness is a long term goal and it must be approached correctly which leads right into point number deuce.
2.) Don’t be stupid.
Stupid seems so much more prevalent in men and I speak from a vast experience of stupid. We just do a lot of dumb things and somehow think the consequences will miss us. They won’t. It always catches up.
“I don’t need much sleep”. Yes you do. Oh, and you’re an idiot. Hundreds of thousands of hours of research has been performed and tens of thousands of pages have been written about the importance of sleep. If you don’t approach that 8 hour per night goal you are set for failure before getting off the launchpad.
“It’s been hurting for a few weeks but I figured I could just push through the pain”. You can’t. With a little experience you will know the difference between your muscles telling you they are sore and your body telling you it needs attention. Ignore the warning signs and you’ll be down for the count and your idiot record will still be intact.
I believe there is a small part of our consciousness that tends to make good decisions. In just about every idiotic choice I’ve made I can recall that voice of reason. I have usually chosen to ignore it but it was clear and more times than not “I knew better” was the conclusion. In his book Unbeatable Mind, Mark Divine calls it our “witness”. Stop being dumb, listen to your witness, slow down and use some common sense.
3.) Follow good programming.
This means following programming that is good for you at your current strength and conditioning level, not something fit for an elite Ironman. Unless you are an elite Ironman competitor then by all means carry on. “Scaling” is not a bad word (see #2 above). If you don’t want to live in the hurt locker and long term success is your goal then learn to swallow your pride. I plan to contribute for another 20 years and that isn’t going to happen without well thought out goals and a plan to achieve them.
While some factors on the fireground are indeed unknown and unknowable, there are many things we continue to encounter. Our gear will always be hot, heavy, and cumbersome. Axes have a predetermined weight. Victims will continue to be difficult to lift and move. SCBA bottles contain a finite amount of air. Limiting your training to long slow distance running isn’t going to prepare you very well for forcing doors and rescuing fat Uncle Randy.
“The Law of Specificity of Training” is something you probably have never heard of and that doesn’t matter. What does matter is specifically preparing for the known aspects of the job. Functional movements performed in realistic time domains transfer well to the fireground. A good trainer or coach will provide a well balanced, whole body approach to helping you improve your overall fitness. A great trainer will help you add in elements unique to the needs of a firefighter and make certain allowances from time to time.
To “follow good programming” includes not jumping ship in a month because you haven’t transformed into Thor via divine intervention. You didn’t get 50lbs overweight overnight and there is no 6 week program, even if accompanied by a miracle bowel cleanse and super powered Ovaltine energy boost, that is going to undo the damage that 10 years of crap eating and recliner riding has done.
4.) Do what you love.
When I first became a personal trainer, the manager at our gym was speechless when she heard me tell a client to avoid the treadmill. That client loathed the monotony of it and dreaded every trip to our facility so I sought out other ways to help them achieve their goal of losing weight.
If you would rather close your thumb in a car door than run, don’t make yourself do it five times a week. At the very least dramatically trim down the distance you include in your workouts. When you actually enjoy training it will be the start of an awakening. I almost never run a distance over 400 meters but my 5k time is within two minutes of a few years ago when I was logging around 25 miles per week.
I began toying with CrossFit in 2011. I’d heard a lot of buzz about it especially relating to combat readiness so I wanted to see what it was all about. It was 2012 before a “box” opened in my city but I’ve been a member ever since and consider many of our athletes family. I have not dreaded a workout since diving in at CrossFit Protocol. That’s not to say I don’t have a good deal of apprehension about some of the crap our head coach programs. (If you are reading this Scott I still think it’s good programming but it does make me think you are a sadist and a sicko on occasion). It’s different to face something tough with a team that cares about who you are and how you do. Isn’t that what the fire service is supposed to be like?
There is nothing wrong with following Outlaw programming on your own if that makes you happy. Love riding your bike? Ride on. Love shooting hoops? Wear the leather out. If it is helping you become a better firefighter I salute you. For the love of all that is holy and in the name of Brunacini just find some stinking passion!
One other small piece of advice. Find a way to be accountable. Invite some of your crew over a few nights a week. Ask the wife to buy in with you. Heck, your annoying neighbor might even be the push you need. People tend to stay true for far more longer when someone else is expecting them to.
5.) Eat real food.
I’m not a nutritionist but you don’t need a PhD to know that eating a gazillion calories worth of honey buns every day probably isn’t the greatest of ideas. The most simple way I’ve heard it expressed is this: “eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.” If it grows in the ground in the form you find it in or if it had a face when alive its probably somewhat nutritious.
I would encourage you to check out whole30.com or wholelifechallenge.com and nerd out. I am not a fan of short term diets but both of these websites are full of great information. My wife and I completed the strictest form of the Whole30 and it was life changing.
If you aren’t ready to jump on board just yet, start by making one better decision at a time. Start drinking water, then start drinking more. Trim down your soda habit then cut it out. Stop eating sweets after supper for a few weeks, then stop after lunch.
You have been blessed with an opportunity at having the best career in the world. Thousands have gone before you creating a rich heritage that has made the fire service an object of pride, respect, and dedication. Millions now depend on the American firefighter during their most vulnerable moments and when you show up they expect nothing less than Superman. Don’t be a moron and piss it all away because you love the taste of ice cream. Everybody loves ice cream. I just love being a firefighter more.