Fire Life

The Road to Top Performance

By Michael Krueger

There comes a time when just exercising for the health benefits isn’t enough and it becomes a quest for improved performance. There are many levels of performance–from the weekend warrior knocking around a softball to the professional whose life is consumed by the quest for athletic perfection. As a firefighter, you might want to examine where along that continuum you find yourself and whether you could do better.
In the beginning…

When you first began your quest for fitness, you had to start with a self-assessment (See “An Honest Assessment,” Fire Life, November 2010); that is where you begin again when you decide to take your pursuit to the next level.

It doesn’t matter how long you have been at the fitness game. You need to occasionally step back and see where you are and how you got there, then decide where you want to go and if you will get there on your current path. I used to consider myself a “runner and a lifter.” Now I am a “lifter and a runner.” It is a subtle change, but it’s enough of a change in focus to have given my workouts new life. Most people wouldn’t notice much of a difference, but I do, and I’m excited about the new direction my fitness journey has taken.

When you started as a firefighter, you had a lot of basic skills to learn, and basic fitness was enough to get you through those early days. Besides, you were younger then, too. Now you have been at this long enough to have gained some perspective, and you should be able to set some new goals for your fitness as it relates to firefighting and to life.

Where are you headed?

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is time to take a look at where you are and where you are going.

You may currently be in an intensely urban environment; or, you may spend a lot of your time battling wildfires. Then again, you may be in a sleepy little rural township or a moderate-size suburban area. Perhaps your interests or relationships have changed, and a move to a different city or state is something you desire. A new home and a new challenge might be what you are after. Or you may be happy where you are right now doing exactly what you are doing. Ask yourself whether your current fitness level will be a help or a hindrance while looking for the challenge of a new position or, for that matter, just keeping the one you have.

On the other hand, perhaps you’ve just been promoted to your dream job and added “Chief” to your nameplate. You are sitting behind a desk more than you ever anticipated you would when you joined the fire service. Now you have additional occupational stress without the physical outlet of actual firefighting to help dissipate that stress. This is a recipe for disaster. This is a very challenging environment, more so than most people realize. Being sedentary sets you up for everything from weight gain, anxiety, and long-term chronic illness to sudden death. Fitness doesn’t stop when you switch from pulling hoses and knocking down fires to doing reviews, requisitions, and interviews.

Fitness for performance

So you’ve done the assessments and determined that you are of average fitness. Although that’s fine for a start, it won’t be good enough moving forward, and it must be improved on if you are going to have a long, happy, and successful career and retirement. This is the time to ask yourself if you are prepared to commit to the work necessary to make the move from adequate to extraordinary. If you want to proudly bear the name of “Professional Firefighter,” then you need to continue to earn it, and it doesn’t come easy.

Fitness for health and fitness for performance are two very different things. You can be “healthy” at any age on very little exercise and a reasonable diet. In fact, if you are young, it takes little additional effort on your part to be fit and healthy. If you have a few miles on your odometer, though, the effort needs to be more focused. Now your fuel needs to be of the highest quality and attention to preventive maintenance and constant improvement becomes a priority. 

If you are going to make the effort to stay fit and healthy, why not bump it up and really go for high performance instead? To be performance focused, you need to eat cleanly, with you nutritional needs guiding your every bite. Your workouts must be focused so that you aren’t wasting time and effort with ineffective, unfocused, “flavor of the week” strength routines and “junk aerobics.” Identify where your fitness is lacking, in part by analyzing your skills performance, and address those problem spots before they become big liabilities.

When you’re young, your body is like a new car. It seems to pretty much take care of itself without much thought or effort on your part. New cars are nice, but they lack character. As you age, you collect dings and dents and a lifetime of experiences to go with them. If you take care of your body, it can age like a classic muscle car. Not many guys can walk past a well-maintained classic 1968 Chevrolet Camaro SS396 without admiring the time and effort that went into keeping it in ideal condition. Of course, there are not many automobiles around from that era anymore, but the ones that remain are quite remarkable. Without a lot of effort on their owners’ part, the few that are left would have deteriorated and rusted away to nothing a long time ago. The difference between classic and junk is in how it was maintained. The time and effort put into its upkeep and the fine tuning make the difference. Your body works the same way.

Worth the effort

It can be difficult to convince a young firefighter of the importance of building a solid base of health and fitness through focused workouts and excellent nutrition. When you are just starting out, your priorities are different:  You’re lacking experience and perspective, and it is difficult to see the big picture. You don’t think about getting older and the physical price you will pay for the career you have chosen. Once you’ve got a few years behind you and have taken more than a couple shots to both your body and your ego, you begin to understand how much your physical fitness will affect not only your ability to continue doing your job but the quality of life you will have in the years to come. Your future is not only in your hands but in your heart, lungs, and muscles.

There are things in life that come at you seemingly from out of nowhere and can really mess up your plans. In these tough economic times, you might get laid off or have to defer some of your dreams. You may find out that at 22 years old you have cancer, or you may be severely injured in a freak accident. You have very little control over these events, but for what it’s worth, these are actually rare occurrences and not worth worrying about. On the other hand, your fitness–both physical and operational, and the effort you are willing to invest in them–is up to you. Through your actions in the gym and in training, you will decide what the future holds for you.

The big allegorical question is: Will you be a fine-tuned classic cruising down the road on a warm summer evening heading toward a glorious sunset, or a smoking rust bucket stalled on the side of the road waiting for your final trip to the junkyard?

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 [email protected].