Fitness: Cardiovascular Training for Firefighters

by Frank Fire Jr.

Endurance, or aerobic training, can involve training in many different ways using many different sporting activities to improve your cardiovascular capacity, such as running; bicycling; swimming; rope jumping; weight circuit training; and machines such as stair climbers, treadmills, or elliptical trainers. All these exercises can be incorporated into your endurance routine to help gain the efficiency to make your jobs easier. 

In the most basic analysis, such training will make you stronger, more efficient, and healthier. As with most exercise programs, you should consult your personal physician for clearance for strenuous exercise if it has been a while since you regularly exercised. Of course, a good case can be made that it is even more necessary for you to obtain a physical from your doctor if you’re not going to engage in any exercise, since being sedentary is much more dangerous to your health and well-being than working out.

Overall Fitness Principles

Most fitness experts recommend at least 20, and preferably 40 to 60, minutes of aerobic exercise a minimum of four times a week. This is a good starting point, but you will soon find that your body will reach a “plateau”–that is, after your body adapts to a certain level of training, the amount of improvement will diminish rapidly (just as in weight-training). If the exercise is no longer challenging or stimulating, it becomes easy to lose interest and discontinue exercising. The best way to avoid plateaus and the resulting boredom is to increase the intensity of your workout. Always try to improve on your last workout. Try to run a little faster or farther, or lift a little more weight.

A general rule of thumb for gauging your aerobic exercise intensity is to get your heart rate (HR) into your target zone. The simplest method of determining your target heart rate is subtracting your age from 220, which gives you your estimated maximum heart rate. You need to raise your heart rate between approximately 60 and 85 percent of this number. For example, if you are 35, your approximate maximum heart rate would be 185. Your goal would be to keep your pulse between 111 and 157. Staying on the lower end of this range would be more conducive to calorie burning and overall health improvement. Working out on the higher end would result in a more rapid fitness improvement and the ability to perform at an extremely high level. 

Any activity that keeps your HR in this target range for a minimum of 20 minutes at least four times a week will increase your cardiovascular capacity. I will present a general set of guidelines for a beginning exercise routine, but feel free to choose any number of the exercises presented, do them in any order, and add any activities–tennis, basketball, cross-country skiing, etc. Remember, to get the maximum benefit you must work hard enough to keep your HR in the target range.

Warming Up

Warming up is very important and can take from as little as five minutes to as much as 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the weather and the amount of exertion you are planning. Warming up can consist of easy jogging, brisk walking, or easy calisthenics. Stretching is also a good idea; you can do it after warm-up or at the end of your workout. Stretching and warming up will help prevent injuries and make whatever movement you are planning more comfortable and more efficient. When stretching, avoid bouncing or jerking the muscle involved–the stretch should be slow, even, and controlled. Stretch until you feel a slight pulling or tension in the muscle; if you are using the correct amount of pull, the tension will lessen as you hold the stretch. Stretch all the major muscle groups, legs, back, arms, shoulders, and chest–at some point in your workout. 


Equipment needed: Good running shoes. While running, your weight is landing on each leg as many as seven to 800 times per mile with a force of 1.5 to four times your body weight. Well-cushioned and stable running shoes will make your runs more enjoyable and help to prevent injuries. Comfortable running shorts and socks can also help. 

Where to run: If you choose to run outdoors, you may be battling the elements, unfriendly dogs, and inconsiderate drivers. If you have the option of running indoors on a track or on a treadmill, you may be limited by the operating hours of the establishment. 

How far and how fast: For beginning runners, an average goal would be the ability to run 20 minutes nonstop at a brisk pace. Instead of counting miles, it may be easier to keep track of the total time of the run—remember, your goal is to improve your endurance, not train for a race. Aim for runs of 20 to30 minutes at least three or four times a week instead of completing an arbitrary number of miles.

The easiest way for you to judge your training effectiveness if you are a beginner is to monitor your pulse. Use the method described earlier to determine your target heart rate. Running too slowly, while not as much of a problem as running too fast, will not give the results seen in a workout where the HR is in the target zone. Too fast a pace can result in injury and actual loss of conditioning, since you won’t be able to maintain your pace long enough to get a decent conditioning benefit. Another easy way to determine if your pace is in the correct range is the “talk test.” If you are able to speak in sentences without gasping for breath between words, you are probably going at a good pace for your level of conditioning. 

Running Workouts: Running three or four times a week is ideal, but this does not mean you should go out and run four days in a row and then take three days off. Try to get a day of rest between hard-running sessions. You can run almost anywhere–local streets, an indoor track, an outdoor high school or college track, or a local park. The following are two options for running workouts.

  • Run hard for two minutes, followed by a two-minute jog or fast walk. Then run hard for three minutes followed by a five-minute jog. Next, run hard for five minutes followed by jogging until you feel ready to repeat the cycle. Continue this cycle for 25 to 40 minutes.
  • Run for as long as you feel comfortable, trying to increase your time spent running until you reach the point where you can go for 20 to 40 minutes nonstop. The important thing is to attempt to improve every time you go for a run. 


Equipment needed: You can train on a rusty old 10-speed and get as good a workout as you would from riding a new 27-speed mountain bike. However, your riding will probably be more enjoyable if you have a bike in decent shape. A helmet and padded biking shorts are good ideas as well. 

How far, fast, and often: Bicycles are very efficient machines. It is possible to go on a long ride and not seriously tax your cardiovascular system, so you may have to consciously push yourself hard to get a good workout. Start your ride in low gear until you are warmed up completely, then increase your cadence (pedal speed) to between 60 and 80 RPMs, and control your speed with the gears until you get your HR into the target range.

A common mistake casual bikers make is to cruise in too high a gear, which results in having to push the pedals harder and at a slower rate. This tends to tire you more quickly than pushing in a lower gear and also puts extra stress on your knees. 

For the first few weeks, concentrate on good form and keeping up your revolutions per minute (RPMs). This also will build a base on which you can increase the speed and distance in subsequent rides. After building a conditioning base, increase the distance and speed of your rides. Try to ride for at least 30 to 45 minutes three or four times a week, and climb some small hills as well. 

Bicycling workouts: Ideally, you would bike outside, but the weather may not always be cooperative. On bad-weather days, you can bike inside on a stationary bike. Following are two options for biking workouts:

  • Ride hard for three to five minutes, followed by easy cruising for two to three minutes. Then ride hard for five to eight minutes, followed by an easy cruise until you feel ready to repeat the hard intervals.
  • Ride at a constant, moderately difficult pace for 30 to 45 minutes, making sure to keep your HR in the target zone. 


Techniques. Use any swimming stroke with which you are comfortable and familiar. You may need to work harder to get your HR into the target zone because your body is supported by the water. Don’t worry if your technique isn’t as good as others in the pool–you’re not there to compete, just to get in shape. 

Swimming Workouts: The swimming workout can take place in a backyard pool, a lake, or an indoor pool. Try to swim 100 meters quickly without stopping, then rest for a minute or two, then try to make it 200 meters. After a short rest (you shouldn’t rest so long that you are fully recovered; the key to interval training is to start the next hard interval before full recovery) start again with a 100-meter swim. The entire workout should take between 25 and 40 minutes. If you are able to finish in less than 25 minutes, add laps. 

Jumping Rope 

Equipment needed: What could be simpler than jumping rope? Rope-jumping is a great conditioner that can be done almost anywhere. You can use several types of rope; there are many types of “speed” rope (made of leather with ball bearings in the handles), but there’s no reason you can’t work out with a length of clothesline. An interesting variant is a weighted rope–the rope itself is heavy, not the handles. I have seen these ropes in various weights from one pound up to six pounds. If you have never used a weighted rope, you won’t believe the intensity it adds to a simple workout. 

Rope-jumping workouts: It’s best to stay with intervals to start rope-jumping. If you are already able to jump-rope continuously for 30 minutes, you’re probably in pretty good shape! Just start out with one to two minutes of jumping, rest for half that time, then try for two to three minutes, again resting half the time spent jumping, then going back to one to two minutes. Continue this cycle until you have been exercising for 20 to 30 minutes. Rope-jumping also helps build coordination and foot speed. 

Stair-Climbers and Elliptical Trainers 

Stair-climbers are great for cardiovascular conditioning and strengthening the legs. Good stair-climbers and elliptical machines are fairly expensive, so you may need access to a gym to use one. Intervals of two to three minutes of hard work between rest intervals of approximately half the work time are great ways to start out on these machines. Even when you get to the point where you are comfortable working for 20 to 50 minutes, you can still insert hard/easy intervals to make the workout more intense. 

Circuit Training 

Circuit training is weight-training done with as little rest as possible between sets. This is a way to get strength gains and cardiovascular improvement as well. Crossfit is an example of a form of circuit training. This type of workout facilitates aerobic improvement by keeping the HR up during the entire workout, unlike weight training, which involves several-minute rest periods between sets. 

Techniques: A typical circuit can involve any number of exercises–as few or as many as you would like to include in your current workout. The weights used will be lower than you are used to in a strength session because of the lack of rest, so the direct muscular stimulation will be correspondingly lower, but if you are strapped for time, circuit training can be a great option. 

Workouts: Perform the following circuits with a very light weight to start, and take only as much time between sets as it takes to get to the next machine or bar. 

Circuit 1: Squat, bench press, bent-over row, overhead press, curl. 

Circuit 2: Push-ups, lunges, sit-ups, pull-ups, crunches 

One of the principles of cross training is to let different muscles share the load of the workouts. Swimming, which involves all major muscle groups but does not overly stress the joints, and biking, which mainly works the thighs, are great complements to running, which tends to target the hamstrings. All of these activities will work the lungs and heart, which is the main point of endurance training.

Beware if someone tells you that they know the only way or the best way for you to get in shape. One of the most important things to remember is that everyone is different and what works for one may not be the best thing for someone else. If you find something that works for you, stick with it, and always try to improve.

Frank Fire Jr. is a 19-year veteran of the Cuyahoga Falls (OH) Fire Department. He spent two years service with the Canton (OH) Fire Department. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and is his department’s certified fitness coordinator. He has been a competitive power lifter for more than 20 years and has competed in the Firefighter Combat Challenge nearly 50 times, with a best finish of seventh at the 2001 World Championships in the over-40 division. He has also created a set of Strength and Stamina videos produced by Fire Engineering.

Download a sample 8-week cardiovascular training schedule HERE (PDF, approx. 143Kb).

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