By Dennis Reilly
Published Wednesday, July 4, 2012
| From the December 2012 Issue of FireRescue
After decades of fighting it, I have come to accept the fact that I am no longer the 27-year-old guy riding heavy rescue. What I once was able to do in about five minutes now takes seven and a half minutes. I used to be able to take a knee for a few minutes, pour a little water over my head and be ready to go again; this now takes 30 minutes. I immerse all my joints in an ice bath, take four ibuprofen and a half-day vacation. I can still perform my duties; it just takes a little more time to recover.
As challenging as it is to age and still be able to perform the tasks of a firefighter, it can be done. In this article, I’ll show you how incorporating the concepts of frequency, intensity and duration into your workout routines can help you maintain a high level of operational fitness well into the latter stages of your career.
The Big Picture
The need to maintain fitness is not about how much you can bench press or how you look on the beach when you take off your shirt; it is related to the ability to do our job in life-threatening situations. More specifically, operational fitness is the capacity to perform difficult, complex, physically demanding motor skills over prolonged periods of time in harsh, high-threat environments.
But before I delve into the specifics of operational fitness for those in a more “advanced” stage of their careers, let me first address the bigger picture here. To all the older guys and gals reading this, all is not lost just because you are no longer a twenty-something. I believe that I have a tremendous advantage because of my experience. After all, I’ve been wearing an SCBA for 35 years. I’m used to how it feels and how it affects my balance and center of gravity. I do not have to work as hard as a less-experienced user to maintain my footing on a steep roof, for example. And if I’m expending less energy to do something like this, then I have that amount of energy to expend somewhere else. It’s really quite simple: At any given time, you have only so much “fuel in your tank.” The more you conserve, the more you have for something else. The experience of an older firefighter allows them to work more efficiently. (A corollary: If you haven’t worn an SCBA in the last month, get up off the couch—after you finish reading my article, of course—and go do some air-pack training.)
Let’s now take a detailed look at how frequency, intensity and duration impact operational fitness.
Simply put, frequency is all about how often you work out. There’s a big difference between someone who has been maintaining a high level of operational fitness for their entire career and someone who has been neglecting their fitness all along the way. In this article, I’m only addressing those folks who have been maintaining their fitness, as they would already have a good aerobic base along with muscular strength, endurance and flexibility. By slightly reducing your workout frequency, you will cut down on the wear and tear your muscles and joints are exposed to without significant loss of abilities. I used to hold myself to a strict schedule of five days on, one day off. As I have aged, I have moved to a three days on, one day off schedule. I also incorporate a three-day break at least once per quarter. With this slight decrease in my workouts, I have found that I hurt less and use less ibuprofen while still being able to do pretty much what I was able to do 15 years ago.
Intensity can be a real killer for the older athlete or firefighter. Those who embrace the concept of operational fitness want to be able to go hard all the time. As you age, this just isn’t possible. The best advice I’ve ever heard on this topic is, “Go hard when you feel good, go easy when you don’t.” It seems really simple, but how many times do we find ourselves ignoring the obvious signs? Most times when you don’t feel up to going hard, your body is sending you a message. More than likely, it’s saying, “I need a break!”
People in their 20s can withstand the insults of hard workouts. Most older firefighters cannot. Ever wonder why you don’t see too many mid-40-year-old folks going through SEAL training or Special Forces Assessments? With age and wear and tear, the older firefighter must modify their approach to workouts and fitness. If you push yourself at this point in your career, there’s a good chance that all you’ll do is injure yourself.
By backing off a little, you can let your body recover to the point where you’ll be able to come back a little harder in a day or two. Don’t be afraid to listen to these signals—your fitness might even improve!
Duration relates to your position in the organization. When I was a firefighter, my main concern revolved around how busy my company was going to be and if our run activity would allow for my workouts. When I made captain, I found myself spending more time in the office, which cut into my workout time. “Sorry, chief. I couldn’t do that report for you because I had a heavy session in the gym today”—that really didn’t cut it with my boss. When I made battalion chief, I found myself with even less time. Now that I’m a fire chief, an uninterrupted 45 minutes in the gym seems like a gift from God.
As you climb the organizational ladder, there will be more and more demands on your time. At some point, you’ll have to develop strategies to allow for both your responsibilities and your fitness. I’ve found that scheduling two shorter workouts a day allows me to maintain my fitness while meeting all my other professional responsibilities. I’ll normally wake up early and get my daily run in. I can get up, crank out four miles, shower and shave, and still be at my desk by 0730 HRS. My wife really doesn’t like the alarm clock going off at 0515 HRS, but this is something that comes with the job.
And I normally try to stop in the gym for about 45 minutes on my way home from the office. This gives me the opportunity to do some good strength work. By shorting my workouts and just concentrating on specifics during each workout, I’ve developed a system that allows me to function as fire chief while addressing the major components of operational fitness.
I hope this perspective helps you in maintaining your fitness while meeting the demands of your job. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do know what works for me. Remember that one of the critical traits of a good leader is that they model the behaviors they expect their subordinates to exhibit. Maintain your fitness in a way that works for you, and you will do much to send the message throughout your organization that operational fitness is important.
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