By Michael Krueger
The most disliked aspect of fitness for most people is cardiovascular or endurance training. The only people who don’t complain about it are people who like to run, swim, or bike. These people have found something they enjoy doing that has the side benefit of improving their cardiovascular efficiency.
For those who simply do “something” because they “have to,” cardio training is just a huge chore. They have focused on the result rather than the process, and that makes it tough to do the training on a consistent basis.
So, what do you do?
How To Do It
The most commonly disliked activities in fitness training are running and push-ups, but push-ups aren’t what we’re going to talk about today (though maybe soon). People don’t like running because it’s hard. I will agree with that; it is. They don’t like running because it’s boring. I will agree with that, if you are doing it only on a treadmill. Long slow distance on a treadmill is the most boring thing ever; it’s pure torture. On the other hand, running sprint intervals on a treadmill is far from boring; but it is excruciatingly hard if you are doing it right.
If you run just for the health benefits rather than because you enjoy the activity, you need to really have your head in a special place. Since running is difficult from start to finish, it quickly becomes a drag on mind and spirit. Even if you are getting a physical benefit, it’s coming at a high price.
If you want to run as your primary means of endurance training, then the only solution to this problem is to keep the training period as short as possible. That, of course, means intervals. Whether you run them indoors on a treadmill or outdoors on a track or a hill, you can keep your actual workout time to under 20 minutes. That is an excellent return on investment, and you only have to dread them a few times per week.
Biking and swimming are also excellent choices for endurance training. The downside is they require specialized equipment and they have a skill-based learning curve that some might find daunting.
Once again, the best way to train with either of these modalities is through sprint intervals. Interval training simply gives you the best results in the shortest amount of time. It also has the added benefit of making you tough. It isn’t easy to train intervals on a regular basis, but I guarantee you that if you do them you will see improvements quicker than with any other type of training.
It’s easy to overtrain doing cardio, particularly if you are using it to help aid in weight lose rather that to improve your endurance. Because of the massive energy expenditure needed to move your body over distances for any amount of time, endurance training does use a lot of calories.
After a period of adjustment, some people (more than you might expect) find that they really enjoy endurance training. These people then add more and more time and distance to their training. The more they add, the better they like it, and the stronger and leaner they become. Unfortunately, it can become an obsession followed quickly by burnout and injury.
This overuse injury syndrome manifests itself in any number of ways. Toes, ankles, knees, and hips can become sore and inflamed. Chronic fatigue, metabolic, and psychological problems often creep in as well. Any one of these can sidetrack a person for days or weeks and, unfortunately, it’s rare that only one injury rears its ugly head. Early on in my running life, I was once sidelined for a full year while training (overtraining) for my second marathon.
Doing It Right
The use of endurance activities to improve your cardiovascular system is actually simple and straightforward. It all comes down to the application of progressive performance stress coupled with adequate recovery. This is why I am such a fan of interval training; it’s short but intense. It’s easy to self-regulate since you never need to go longer or farther–just harder.
Activities that stretch into hours are being done for something other than health and fitness. Obviously, if you want to run a marathon or become a tri-athlete, you will need to train for it, and that means a lot of volume, a lot time, and a total lifestyle commitment. This is not the definition of fitness or health. In fact, fitness and health are often sacrificed to some degree while in pursuit of performance in a sport. I know more than a few athletes for whom nagging colds, chronic injuries, and obsessive behaviors are all common problems. There’s an old saying, “Those who train for competition aren’t in it for their health.”
So, it’s important to understand exactly what you want to properly design your training regimen.
Endurance Training for the Firefighter
In all the years I have worked with firefighters, I have never had an issue with anyone overtraining on cardio activities. Softball and basketball injuries abound, but endurance overtraining? Not so much.
The one area where every firefighter (and pretty much everyone else) I have ever worked with lacked was in cardiovascular endurance. I once suggested testing everyone at one fire department using a 1.5-mile run; that didn’t go over so well. Not one person was willing to even try. The most common reason was that because they weren’t runners it wasn’t a fair test. Any person, no matter what method they are using to train their endurance, should be able to run 1.5 miles. They won’t be as efficient as someone who trains by running and no doubt their legs will be sore the next day, but they should be able to complete the test.
Stair climbing is by far the most job-related endurance training for a firefighter. Climbing stairs is one of the toughest things you can do, and when you add 75 more pounds of equipment on top of your body weight, it becomes a leg workout that is hard to rival.
If you are new to training stairs, you will need to ease into it or risk some major injuries. Start by finding your baseline. While wearing comfortable clothes and shoes, get on a stair climber, crank it up to 60 steps per minute, and see how far you get before you need to stop. If you made it for more than three minutes, you did OK.
Over the coming weeks, you will add additional time and additional weight. Start by adding your turnout gear and continue adding the rest of your gear including your SCBA. Over time, add whatever else you need to equal those additional 75 pounds. Training progressively in this manner three times per week should get you into firefighter shape. Be careful not to add time or weigh too quickly; you can’t train when you are injured. Eventually, you should be able to climb for 30 minutes and still have enough strength and stamina to fight any fire.
End of the Day
Everyone needs to have adequate endurance to get them through their day. As a firefighter, your needs are even greater than the average person, yet often this is an area that is lacking in fitness/readiness training in many departments.
This deficiency means it is up to you to make sure you are not one of those who are lacking. Not only will it make you a better firefighter, but it will improve every aspect of your health and fitness.
Next time you arrive at a fire and see multiple stories to climb, you won’t hesitate for a moment. You know you can handle whatever comes your way with energy to spare; you’ll know that because you’ve trained hard and smart, you’re fit, strong, and skilled.
… you are a professional firefighter.
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.