FIRE’s Health & Fitness Correspondent Lorna King reports on the importance of physical fitness and recovery for firefighters
The physical and mental demands of working in the Fire Service are unquestionably high. Moving and lifting heavy equipment, working at hight, working in confined spaces and frequently being exposed to excessive heat, all require a good level of health and fitness to endure such challenging conditions. Firefighters not only owe it to themselves to keep in shape, they owe it to their communities and their families too.
Physical training, rest and recovery, nutrition and hydration, and mental health are all key areas that need to be considered for optimum health and fitness, and over the next three months, FIRE magazine will be exploring these subjects for the benefit of anyone looking to improve their overall health with long-term results.
In this first instalment, the focus will be on physical fitness – how to attain it and how to maintain it. The information presented here will provide advice and guidance for anyone interested in improving general fitness. For a specific physical training programme that is suited to your individual needs, please seek advice from a qualified fitness professional who will need to consider your general health, age, current fitness levels, previous training, lifestyle and ultimate fitness goals.
The role of a firefighter is a physical one and, at times, the working environment can be hazardous. The combination of managing heavy apparatus and working in an oxygen deficient atmosphere, or working all through the night on a house fire and being required to crawl through tight, dark spaces looking for survivors, asks much of the human body. To sufficiently manage these demands there are four key areas of physical fitness to maintain: aerobic endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility. If a training plan can be devised to sustain all of the above, you will most certainly be protecting yourself, and others, on the job.
Aerobic endurance allows you to continually exercise for prolonged periods of time at various levels of intensity. Exercises that will improve your aerobic endurance are the ones that increase your heart rate, known as cardiovascular (cardio) activities. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 20-60 minutes of cardio activity three to five times a week for long-term aerobic endurance. Running, cycling, swimming, aerobics classes – these will all improve your physical stamina if practiced regularly and with varying intensity.
Running is very effective at improving aerobic endurance, and if you add interval training to one or two of your weekly sessions, your fitness will improve much quicker than always running the same distance at the same pace.
Interval training is repetitions of high intensity activity followed by periods of recovery. It is hard work, but the sessions are short and effective. The following is an example of an interval training session designed by coaches at my own running club:
- Warm up with a ten-minute steady jog.
- Increase intensity for four minutes followed by a 2.5-minute rest (walk or slow jog).
- Increase intensity for three minutes followed by a two-minute rest.
- Increase intensity for two minutes followed by a 1.5-minute rest.
- Increase intensity for one minute followed by a one-minute rest.
- Repeat the last four points one more time before cooling down.
- Cool down with a five-minute steady jog/walk.
The total time of high intensity running in this session is only 20 minutes, with rests in between, and the aerobic endurance benefits are much higher than if you jogged at the same steady pace for an hour. If, initially, you do not find running appealing, try joining a local running club, where you will learn a variety of training techniques to make it more interesting.
Swimming is one of the best all-round body conditioning exercises with very little risk of injury. Interval training can also be introduced into a swimming session to increase aerobic endurance. The following exercise is called a pyramid swim, and makes the session a little more interesting than just swimming lengths:
- Warm up with a 30-minute steady breaststroke swim.
- Swim five lengths freestyle – high intensity – followed by a one-minute rest.
- Swim four lengths freestyle – high intensity – followed by a one-minute rest.
- Swim three lengths freestyle – high intensity – followed by a one-minute rest.
- Swim two lengths freestyle – high intensity – followed by a one-minute rest.
- Swim one length freestyle – high intensity – followed by a one-minute rest.
- Swim steady breaststroke for five to ten minutes to lower your heart rate.
If you can incorporate some interval training into any of your cardio workouts, your efforts will prove to be more effective over a shorter period of time.
Muscular strength allows you to lift and manoeuvre heavy objects and equipment without injuring yourself. Calisthenics is a form of strength exercise that effectively uses body weight and gravity. The exercises can be performed with differing levels of intensity and rhythm, depending on your fitness level, and they are designed to develop strength, endurance, flexibility and coordination.
A study called The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition in 2017 by the University of Palermo, Italy, concluded that over an eight week training programme calisthenics training is a feasible and effective training solution to improve posture, strength and body composition without the use of any major training equipment.
Some common examples of calisthenics exercises include push-ups, crunches, burpees, plank, pull-ups and chin-ups. The last two require the use of an exercise bar which can often be found in public parks. The other exercises do not require any equipment and can be practiced anywhere with a little space for manoeuvring.
The School of Calisthenics offers a wealth of information on the discipline and states that calisthenics explores the most natural form of physical training so you can do a workout anytime, anywhere... calisthenics is the complete package. Body and mind working together to the perfect symphony of mobility, stability, strength and play. For more information visit: www.schoolofcalisthenics.com.
Weight training offers strength building possibilities and is also highly suitable for firefighter fitness. It will involve joining a gym to access the relevant equipment, and you must receive proper guidance and instruction from a qualified physical instructor before working out in this discipline.
Muscular endurance allows you to continue to lift and manoeuvre heavy objects and equipment for prolonged periods of time, without injuring yourself. Training programmes that use both cardio and strength exercises are ideal for maintaining muscle endurance, and an example of a combination of the two is circuit training.
Leanne Weston, physical trainer and founder of Visualise Fitness in Wiltshire, advises that to endure the physical demands of working in the Fire Service, a varied training plan should be followed that works the whole body. Leanne says a typical week might include three cardio workouts and three body strength and conditioning sessions, ensuring that attention is given to all areas of the body: chest, arms, back, abdominals and legs.
Circuit training is ideal for combining these exercise groups and a good circuit training workout will include all of the stations listed below, as well as a suitable warm-up and cool-down. A warm-up could be a five-minute low-intensity cardio exercise, and a suitable cool down would include stretching all of the muscle groups that have been worked during the session. A good circuits session will include:
- Lower body station (both legs, eg squats),
- Upper body station (arms, back and shoulders, eg triceps dips),
- Lower body station (single leg, eg reverse lunges),
- Core station (eg plank),
- Cardio station (eg ten high knees and three burpees).
Circuits can be done at home with little or no equipment, but it is also an effective social training session. A group of people working together as they move around the circuit is more fun than sweating it alone; a little friendly competition works wonders for motivation. You could check for classes at your local gym or organise a class with other members from your fire station. This would be a great incentive for team building and motivation among work colleagues.
Flexibility allows you to move joints and limbs beyond their normal range of movement and is required for working in confined spaces. Stretching is good for flexibility. Incorporating a good stretching routine at the end of every workout will reduce muscle tightness, increase range of movement and prevent injury.
As well as stretching after a workout, incorporating a dedicated flexible strength training session into your weekly training schedule is advisable for the demands of the job. I spoke to Cherish Jackson from Lila Yoga in Wiltshire and asked which form of yoga practice would best suit the physical demands of working in the Fire Service. She recommends Vinyasa Flow yoga, which is designed to build muscle strength, improve posture and maintain an active and energising flow. To combat a stressful working environment, Vinyasa Flow yoga practice can develop balance and patience to maintain focus.
Cherish says: “This type of Yoga very much focuses on moving the body in coordination and in synchronicity with the flow of the breath.”
Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word that translates to “arranging something in a special way”. What does this mean for our practice? It means a student continuously flows from one pose to the next without stopping, using the breath to navigate themselves around the mat with strength, flexibility, and grace: arranging their poses into a moving and flowing meditation.
As Vinyasa Flow is a non-stop style of practice, it has a great ability to build all-over muscular strength as one harnesses and engages the entire body to be able to move with stability from one pose to the next. Vinyasa Flow helps to build stamina and above all, self-discipline and patience.
Rest and Recovery
It is vitally important that the body has time to repair and re-build in between workouts in order to avoid injury. Time taken to rest allows your muscles to develop and learn from all that hard work. There are two areas of rest and recovery that are equally important to maintaining fitness levels: active and passive.
Active recovery includes low-impact physical activity that will accelerate the recovery process. Performing an appropriate cool down after strenuous activity is active recovery. Stretching and foam rolling are good examples of post work-out active recovery activities. In addition, try to incorporate one low-impact flexibility training session into your week, such as Pilates or basic yoga.
Passive recovery is the time between workouts spent sleeping and not engaging in exercise. Try not to over-exercise (which can be hard when those endorphins kick in). Too much intensity and frequency will only damage your body; the key is to devise a training plan that is balanced. For example, it would be detrimental to perform interval training every day of the week. It is advisable to leave 48 hours between strength training sessions that involve the same group of muscles.
Sleep deprivation effects both mental functioning and physical health. It has been linked to a number of health problems including weakened immunity, high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain and heart disease. The risk of sleep deprivation for firefighters is escalated by the nature of the shift patterns, so it is even more vital for firefighters to perfect their sleeping habits. Aim for between seven to nine hours sleep at a time, avoiding naps in between if you can, by following these simple tips:
- Sleep in a cool, dark environment, on a comfortable surface.
- Minimise alerts and distractions (turn off your phone).
- Avoid looking at a digital screen for an hour before sleep (read a book or a magazine instead).
- Exercise regularly! Starting a weekly training plan to improve your fitness will work wonders for your sleep patterns.
The subject of rest and recovery of the body and mind will be discussed further in the next two issues of our health and fitness series. Join us next month for advice and information on nutrition and hydration. The third instalment will explore the subject of mental health and wellbeing.
About the Author
Lorna King is a freelance writer with a particular interest in health, fitness and wellbeing. She is a qualified run leader for her local running and triathlon club, working closely with qualified coaches to deliver a variety of running and fitness sessions including interval training and circuits. She recently resigned as club secretary after three years in the position. Lorna enjoys friendly competition and has entered numerable races of varying distance, from 5k to ultra-marathon.
- Firefighter health and fitness: A comprehensive approach by Dan Kerrigan, 2018, https://iffmag.mdmpublishing.com/firefighter-health-and-fitness-a-comprehensive-approach/
- Building mass using just your bodyweight with our complete guide to calisthenics by Daniel Davies, November 2020, Men’s Health Magazine, https://www.menshealth.com/uk/building-muscle/a759641/complete-guide-to-calisthenics-everything-you-need-to-know/
- The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition, a study by the University of Palermo, Italy, May 2017, www.researchgate.net/publication/317321468_The_effects_of_a_calisthenics_training_intervention_on_posture_strength_and_body_composition
- Preparatory Fitness Programme, guidance on physical training preparation for the National Firefighter Selection Test by Richard D.M. Stevenson MSc PGD BSc (Hons) MSMA, Senior Physical Training Adviser, South Wales Fire & Rescue Service, UK and FireFit, Paul Wilsher MSc BA (Hons) Cert Ed, Senior Service Fitness Adviser, Essex Fire & Rescue Service, UK and FireFit, Gareth Green PGD BSc (Hons) MSMA, Physical Training Adviser, South Wales Fire & Rescue Service, Mark Rayson PhD Consultant Occupational Physiologist, Optimal Performance Ltd, Bristol, David Wilkinson PhD Consultant Occupational Physiologist, Optimal Performance Ltd, Bristol, James Carter PhDConsultant Occupational Physiologist, Optimal Performance Ltd, Bristol, 2007. www.beafirefighter.co.uk/media/1375/firefit-preparatory-fitness-programme-2012.pdf
- The effects of sleep deprivation on your body by Stephanie Watson and Kristeen Cherney, May 2020 for Healthline, www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body
Interviews conducted with:
- Leanne Weston, Personal Trainer, Visualise Fitness, Wiltshire
- Cherish Jackson, Lila Yoga, Wiltshire.