By Michael Krueger
The vast majority of people who exercise do it for their health and/or their appearance. Some people don’t actually do programmed workouts but rather prefer to participate in sports as their primary mode of exercise; therefore, their motivation is simply to play.
There are certain circumstances where exercise isn’t performed exclusively for the attendant health or appearance benefits or because it is fun. In these situations, it’s the performance of an activity at the end of all the work and training that really counts.
This last group includes soldiers and serious athletes, and it also includes firefighters.
I am fortunate in that I get to work with people who are trying to improve their fitness. Because of this, I can easily devote time and effort to my own fitness since an out-of-shape trainer isn’t an inspiration to anyone.
There was a time in my life, during service in the U.S. Coast Guard, when my fitness could mean the difference between someone living and dying. I look back on this time and realize that I was lucky that my lack of fitness never cost anyone their life. I’m not saying I wasn’t in “good” shape, but I certainly could’ve been so much better; we all could have. Thanks to a little maturity and an understanding of what it takes to really be fit, I’m in much better condition now than I was at 23 years old. In retrospect, that’s more than a little bit spooky.
Back in the day, we relied far too much on the fact that we were young … and cocky. We believed we were the best (and to a certain extent, we were) and that we could handle any problems that might come our way. We always believed we would run a successful sortie; there was never any doubt.
The Coast Guard has an unofficial motto, “The Blue Jacket manual says you have to go out, it doesn’t say anything about coming back.” We all understood the risks, but “not coming back” happened to others, not us. Fortunately, since I am here writing this today, our hubris didn’t cause us any harm; but looking back, it was a foolhardy and risky attitude.
I’ve heard the same attitude expressed by some firefighters, including command staff. Unfortunately, this bravado is often based on less-than-stellar evidence. The basic idea of believing that you can handle anything that might come your way tries to echo the Navy Seals’ “I’ve got this”; but for some, it might be closer to “Hold my beer.”
It is entirely up to you as to how you train for your job, both mentally and physically. The fact remains, though, that far too many firefighters have died because they were unprepared for the circumstances in which they found themselves. Hours of hot, hard work on the fireground have caused more than one heart attack in a physically undertrained individual.
It isn’t just the line-of-duty deaths that are the issue, either. Too many career firefighters find themselves disabled because of back, shoulder, and leg injuries. Promising careers have been cut short because of preventable illness and injury. Everyone from front line firefighters to lieutenants, captains, and chiefs needs to not only say that they understand the risks and the problems but also must be willing to accept personal responsibility to find solutions, since institutionally it’s just not happening as well as it could.
Sidestepping the tough issues isn’t unique to the fire service or any other organization big or small. To its credit, the fire service has identified problems and made changes that were needed to improve safety. What I’ve noticed is that the changes primarily involve new equipment. Let’s face it, everyone likes new toys. Shiny new equipment rolled out for the public to see is always impressive, but check out the firefighters standing next to the new equipment. Are they fit and ready to roll out too?
If you want to be the best, what do you have to do? You need to make a personal commitment to do everything you can to succeed. First, you need to focus on your physical readiness, since if you can’t make the grade physically it doesn’t matter how much knowledge and state-of-the-art equipment you have. If you are sitting on the sideline sucking oxygen while the fire rages, you aren’t of any use.
So, what does it take?
Being committed to being the best doesn’t mean fanatical devotion to the cause, be if fitness or firefighting. It doesn’t preclude having balance in your life; in fact, it demands it. What it does require is that you are disciplined enough to be able to commit fully to whatever you are working at right now. That means when you are working out in the gym, you are focused on that. It means when you are sitting in a class, you don’t allow your mind to wander. It means when you are practicing a skill that you may have done hundreds of times, you still devote 100% of your attention to the task at hand. It also means that when you are with your family and friends, you aren’t checking your phone or thinking about what else you could be doing instead.
Committing to life has many rewards, but I’m going to focus on the physical, since that is what I do. Consistently, mindfully working out allows you to experience the “now” easier than during most any other activity. Since it takes a lot of concentration to push yourself to lift maximal loads or to blow by your perceived limits, you begin to understand how to function without distraction until you have successfully completed your task.
Seeing how you get stronger, healthier, and more muscled simply by doing what you have committed yourself to do is an instant and tangible reward that not many other activities can give you. No one can take this away from you. It’s yours to build on over and over for as long as you live.
As in all things in life, improving your fitness is up to you. When you decided to become a firefighter, you probably didn’t put a whole lot of thought into how physically demanding it would be, particularly as you grow older. You may have been in okay shape, then again perhaps you weren’t fit at all. If you were young enough, you most likely could squeak by on youthful enthusiasm. By the time you hit 25, your training youth is over … so squeaking by is over too.
Aging isn’t a bad thing, particularly when you consider the alternative. You’ll gain knowledge and experience and you’ll learn how life works. There’s no other way to gain that experience without adding up the years.
If you are a good firefighter (and I have no reason to think otherwise), you make it a point of pride to gain knowledge every day that makes you an even better firefighter. Physically, it gets harder and harder to stay at the top of your game unless you put the same effort into it as you do in gaining the knowledge that makes you a valuable member of your crew.
Today is as good a day as any to evaluate where you are on your journey as a firefighter. Are you more knowledgeable, healthier, and fitter than you were last year? If the answer is “no,” it’s also as good a day as any to change that. If the answer is “yes,” it’s also as good a day as any to plan how you’ll keep that going next year.
The one thing that’s for sure is that you are another year older than last year at this time, and if you want to be another year better next year…
…today is as good a day as any to start.
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]