By Ty Wheeler
The fourth and final pillar in my “Four Foundations of Tactical Fitness” series is recovery. We have covered strength, conditioning, and mobility; we now need to address recovery and rehabilitation. This topic discusses how we can assist our bodies to repair and rebuild from the damage and stress we evoked. This is a critical aspect of fitness, of which we all fall short or completely neglect.
Recovery is the mechanism that allows our body to repair itself following a workout, after a long night on shift, or from the stress of a working structure fire. To ensure we are encompassing all aspects of recovery, we need to be aware of several areas which we are deficient.
Defining their level of recovery is difficult for many people, but defining one level is critical to ensure you can perform optimally. It is important to evaluate your level of recovery; doing so provides you with an understanding of how hard you can exert yourself during the next workout. Heart rate variability (HRV) is an avenue to monitor your heart rate so you can gauge your level of recovery. HRV is the process of measuring your R to R wave interval in the cardiac cycle; the more variability, the better your body has recovered and is ready for more stress. If your HRV is low, then your body is still trying to recover from the stress imposed in the days prior. This is a great way to have an objective indicator of your recovery status and determine your state of preparedness for the next training session.
It is inexpensive to track your HRV and can give you great insight into your well-being. One way of doing so is by purchasing a chest strap heart rate monitor. There are many companies out there, so do some research. Next, download an app on your mobile device (again, there are several out there). HRV is very complex, but is a great tool for overall health and wellness.
Following are three categories to improve recovery within tactical fitness for firefighters:
Sleep. In the fire service, sleep can often evade us. There has always been concern for firefighter safety when it comes to sleep. As more research is conducted, we understand the consequences that limited sleep has on our bodies. We need to make sleep a priority, not only for our health, but also our safety.
Reduced sleep has many physiological effects on the body, which puts us at risk for a multitude of different injuries and health disorders. One study found that performance following sleep deprivation is drastically reduced, with higher occurrences of injury, compared to sleep greater than eight hours. In the study, “Athletes who sleep < 8 hours of sleep are 1.7 times greater chance of injury than those with > 8 hours of sleep.”1
To address sleep deprivation concerns in the fire service, we must make small changes to improve our sleep habits. First, we need to take advantage of our days off and ensure we are maintaining a full night’s sleep. We need to create healthy sleep habits to ensure these become the norm.
Second, we need to eliminate the distractions from the sleeping area. This area should be dedicated for sleeping and should remove all TVs, computers, and other distractions. Research has found blue light from screens causes our brains to remain active, therefore hindering us from falling asleep.
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Third, caffeine use should have a cutoff time. The fire service is notorious for consuming caffeine such as coffee and energy drinks. We need to ensure that we stop caffeine use prior to bed to allow a more restful sleep. Every person has a different tolerance for caffeine, so be aware of your tolerance and avoid these later in the evening. Also note that caffeine is a diuretic, so ensure we are drinking water when consuming caffeine.
Fourth, manage light throughout the day. Ultraviolet and sunlight exposure is critical to normal hormone production within the body. To ensure that we maintain adequate hormone levels, we need to be exposed to sunlight or UV light to produce serotonin, which produces a state of happiness. This also helps with the production of melatonin, which is vital in sleep. Our beds and bunkrooms should be kept cool and dark to solicit sleep.
Last, we need to be aware of how we wake up. A lot of research has been conducted showing the health effects of alerting systems on firefighter’s bodies. We need to implement measures to reduce the shock to the body when the tones go off. There are many recommendations to reduce the stress caused by alerting systems.
Nutrition. The food we eat fuels our body. We need to ensure that we are giving our bodies the correct macronutrients and micronutrients to properly function and recover from the day’s activities.
Cooking in the fire service is a tradition; whether it is “pizza night” or ice cream in the late evening following a run, food bring us together. I am a supporter of participating in these meals for the comradery and crew cohesion, but our choices need resemble what we preach in health and wellness. I like to follow the “80/20 Rule”: You need to eat healthy 80 percent of the time, but also enjoy the remaining 20 percent.
I like to refer to the Crossfit nutrition recommendation by Greg Glassman who stated, “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts, and seeds, some fruit, a little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake levels that will support exercise.” I think this is a great rule to keep it simple and not complicating nutrition as many do.
For those who are interested in more precise goals or who want to make significant changes, either with weight loss, muscle gain, or performance, we can break down our nutrition to precise measurements. We first need to understand how the food we put into our bodies effect our overall health and recovery. If we want optimal recovery and improved performance, we need to ensure our food are quality choices, which will aid our body in growth and repair.
The three basic categories we are going to track are referred to as “macros.” The macros consist of proteins, carbohydrates (carbs), and fats. These are the three essential elements our body needs for energy and repair.
Protein is our first category. We want to ensure that we are eating lean meat such as beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and seafood. We will calculate this based on our bodyweight. Typically, we range from 0.4-0.9 grams/pound (g/lb.) of body weight. This will depend on our activity level. Less active firefighters, such as administration staff or support staff, will be on the lower end of the scale. Firefighters at busier stations, who train often and are very active, will be on the higher end, toward 0.9 g/lb. of body weight.
Carbohydrates are the next macronutrient, which will again be determined by the type of activity being performed. Strength athletes need 1.8-3.2 g/lb. of body weight, whereas endurance athletes need 3.6-5.5 g/lb. of body weight. This ensures that the athlete has the energy needed to replace the glycogen, which was depleted during the workout.
Fats are the last macronutrient covered. Many times, these are thought to be the enemy of weight loss, but in fact, they are essential for energy production and hormonal balance. These are critical to proper recovery. We want healthy fats to make up about 20-35 percent of our calories per day. It is also essential to ensure that we have a positive ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 to reduce inflammation within the body.2
Hydration. For proper body function, we must ensure that we are getting enough water throughout our day. Drinking the recommended eight cups of water per day is essential. Staying hydrated has several effects on our bodies, including recovery and performance. Rehab is essential on the fireground, and drinking water or carbohydrate drinks should be provided. Dehydration can lead to several risk factors such as impaired physical performance, an increased risk of injuries, an increase in body temperatures, and early fatigue. Dehydration is trigger for many disease processes and a direct association to cardiovascular compromise.
When performing strenuous activities, injuries and soreness will occur. We need to rehab those injuries and prevent against them in the future. The best way to prevent injuries is to ensure we are performing exercise with proper technique. When coached by a strength and conditioning coach, the rates of weightlifting injuries are very minimal. Research has found that most injuries are suffered during physical fitness because of improper weight loading, poor technique, or poor exercise selection because of inadequate supervision by a strength and conditioning coach.
When injuries do occur, seek professional diagnosis and treatment first. This will ensure proper recovery. Rehabilitation can be done through movement-based exercises and mobility drills shown in Pillar Three.
Prehabilitation is an area we can address to prevent injuries. It addresses weaknesses or areas of concern before an injury occurs. We can identify these areas by performing movement screens or by data trends for our profession. In the fire service, we are predisposed to back injuries. Because of this, every firefighter needs to strengthen the associated muscles in the posterior core and work to limit the possibility of these injuries. Another area of concern is the shoulders. Programming specific prehabilitation exercises will strength the shoulder and increase mobility.
If we can mitigate these issues before they arise, our risk of injuries will be reduced. We can do this be taking proper care of all vulnerable areas, taking time to stretch throughout the day, and working on our mobility.
Firefighter fitness is one of the most important aspects of our profession and one that is often overlooked. Recent reports have indicated the overweight and obesity rate in the United States fire service is at 80 percent—an alarming number. Couple this with high stress and the physical demands of the job and it makes sense that cardiac-related death is most common line-of-duty death.
If we allow ourselves to take a back seat to fitness, we will eventually endure the consequences of our decisions. On average, firefighters gain 1.2-3.4 pounds of weight every year.3 Our VO2 max (oxygen consumption) decreases two points every year because of age, and it decreases 25 percent when fitness stops for greater than four months. When we neglect our health and wellness, we are increasing our chances for medical emergency; this puts not only ourselves but our fellow members at risk.
Chief Steve Greene talks about the “Domino Effect.” Simply, the actions of one person will have consequences that will reach further than just that one person. This will cause a cascade of effects, which may result in a catastrophe.
We all want to be a contributing member of our crew, so we need to ensure we are capable intellectually and physically. Holding yourself and your crew accountable will ensure that we are all able to perform in the high-stress situations we encounter. The choices you make will not only effect you but also affect your fellow members. Ask yourself one question: Am I an asset or liability?
- Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, er al. (2014). “Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated with Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes.” Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, 34(2), 129-133. doi:10.1097/bpo.0000000000000151.
- Alver BA, Sell K, Deuster PA. (2017). NSCA’S Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning. Human Kinetics.
- Poston WS, Haddock CK, Jahnke SA, et al. (2013). “An examination of the benefits of health promotion programs for the national fire service.” Emmitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center.
Ty Wheeler is a nine-year fire service veteran and a firefighter/paramedic with Johnston-Grimes (IA) Metropolitan Fire Department. He has an associate degree in paramedicine and a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration from Waldorf University. Wheeler has received several fire service and emergency medical services certifications throughout his fire service career at the state and national level. He is a member of the Iowa Society of Fire Service Instructors and with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Wheeler is also a certified strength and conditioning coach through the NSCA. He also teaches for the Iowa Fire Service Training Bureau and will soon serve as the Iowa Director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.