By Michael Krueger
There is “exercise” and then there is “training”. Everyone needs some exercise to be healthier, but not everyone trains. Training is serious business. It requires discipline, commitment, planning, progression, intensity and toughness, whereas exercise just requires a little time and a little effort a couple of days per week.
You’re a firefighter; do you do a little exercise or do you train?
Training is hard work. It takes time and effort and if you don’t fully understand your reasons and aren’t focused it’s easy to lose your enthusiasm. Everyone who trains has their own personal reasons for doing so. Some are very specific while others are a little less so. Some people don’t need any precise goal, for them the idea of working out with anything less than 100% effort just seems absurd.
Most people’s motivations for training change over time depending upon what’s going on in their lives. Even the most dedicated of trainees sometimes slack off for awhile because they are busy with jobs, family, kids or general life complications. For most of these people that isn’t a huge problem. They just get back in the game when things settle down again and pick up pretty much where they left off.
You, on the other hand are not “most people”. Because of your chosen profession you don’t have the option to slack off. You have set yourself on a challenging path that severely and irrevocably punishes those who are physically or mentally unprepared. You may spend upwards of 20 years as a firefighter and to stay on top of your game over that many years will require some serious commitment to training. How does one stay motivated in the face of all that life throws at you over that length of time and through all the changes and challenges a long career presents?
The USCG has a motto that covers that; “… so that others may live.” That should be motivation enough.
I have trained every level of firefighter at one time or another, from the Chief to the newest recruit and intern, from career to volunteer. How any one person responds to fitness training is unique. But when it comes to firefighters, their position in the hierarchy of the fire service and the culture of their individual department can make quite a difference.
Many new firefighters, like many in the general populous, are often enthusiastic about sports, but ignorant about fitness. They need to learn how to train effectively in order to be better firefighters. Too often they are still training like high school football players.
If you are part of a large metropolitan department, your rookies probably come straight from the academy. This is a very different animal compared to a new volunteer on a small city or rural department. The urban rookie should be in the best shape of his life. He’s looking to make a name for himself, to prove himself worthy of the title of firefighter. On the other hand, a small town volunteer is often older and coming to the fire service out of a sense of civic responsibility, and not with a full time career in mind. A volunteer’s level of physical fitness can run the gamut from good to poor, since there generally isn’t any standardized vetting process in place.
Lastly we have the career firefighter. He/she has made it to the level that the “newbie” can only dream of. They have a permanent gig on a full time department. Unfortunately some will take advantage of this position and kick back and let their fitness slide. It’s unfortunate that they don’t understand the impact their attitude can have on the interns and rookies. The message sent is that once you “have made it”, you “have it made”. Others may not consciously choose to lose their fitness edge, but due to prioritizing other things over their fitness, it happens anyway.
Anecdotally, I have found that long term older firefighters are the least likely to be on a regular progressive fitness regime, and the least interested in starting one as well. I’ve talked with many firefighters who do appreciate the risks associated with firefighting and take their fitness seriously. They are very concerned about the health and welfare of those who aren’t in top condition. They ask me what they can do to help get those firefighters on board with a fitness program. Unfortunately, there isn’t much anyone can do; “you can lead a horse to water…” The really sad thing is that if education and peer pressure doesn’t affect their attitude and behavior, cardio-vascular disease eventually will.
The bottom line is that when it comes to fitness, it just doesn’t matter where you are on the career continuum. The physical demands are the same no matter your age or position and that is something that everyone needs to come to terms with. Firefighting requires a commitment and a disciplined approach to strength and endurance training that runs in a straight line from the top of the department to the bottom and from your first day on the job to your last; there is no way around it.
Whether you are new to the fire service, a long term vet or already retired, fitness should always be front and center. You’ve obviously only got one body and one chance at life, so fitness should be on the top of your to do list.
If you are a veteran professional firefighter in the prime of your career, you’re undoubtedly very good at your job. You know what needs to be done and you do it. You are strong and fit and have made a solemn commitment to stay that way. You have distinguished yourself by maintaining an exemplary level of fitness.
Unfortunately, some firefighters use aging and life’s distractions as excuses to allow for a mid-career fitness malaise to take over. If this has happened to you, now is the time to address any shortcomings in your fitness before they become major liabilities. Train your mind and body so that you may train your skills and continue to do your job at the highest level possible.
If you have been in the fire service long enough to be able to see retirement on the horizon, remind yourself that you are still a professional firefighter and insofar as the job demands go, nothing has changed. Look behind you, the new guys are young, strong and smart and will start to make you look bad if you don’t watch out. You need to redouble your efforts to stay on top of your profession, physically, mentally and skill wise. Just as a professional musician would never stop practicing neither should you. You have years of experience filed away in your brain; don’t allow a lack of physical fitness to be the limiting factor in your continued proficiency.
Now let’s talk about the top dogs; the Chiefs and Officers. Sorry guys, you don’t get any special consideration, physically you’re no different from the rest of the department. Sure, on those days when you are bogged down by administrative duties, you can feel separated from “real firefighting”. It’s like you are doing nothing more than pushing paper and herding cats, but remember, you are still a firefighter. By maintaining your personal readiness so that you can respond right along with the rest of the department, you show a continued connection to your profession and are demonstrating real out front leadership. Raise the bar high and lead by staying fit, strong and continuing to hone your skills. By adhering to the highest standards in appearance, performance and professionalism you will create a culture of excellence and personal responsibility that will inspire every member of your department. Be the best, except nothing less and everyone will rise to the challenge.
Lastly to those who have retired; you’ve earned your rest. I hope you took care of yourself along the way so that you can enjoy it. If you did, don’t stop now and if you didn’t, it’s not too late. Get some education and instruction and in no time you will be fit and trim and ready to enjoy the next 20, 30, 40 or more years.
The Never-Ending Quest
The path of fitness ends only when they lay you to rest, throw dirt on the box and hopefully say nice things about you. Age is not a deterrent to fitness; the longer you’ve been in the game the easier it is to maintain. You can have a strong and fit body for as long as you live, but you’ve got to want it. Even if through no fault of your own you encounter health issues, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work to maintain your fitness. Being strong and fit can only help in times of crisis; it is worth the effort.
So, get in there and train, not only so that others may live, but so that you may too.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.