The quality and purpose of your fitness regimen are much more important than quantity.
As firefighters, we can all agree that attaining and maintaining physical and mental fitness is a requirement of our job. If you know me, you know that I push this philosophy, and so should you. But any fitness professional will tell you, training just to train instead of training for purpose will not produce the results you might expect. A couple conversations I've had recently with some fire service brothers and sisters got me thinking again about the fact that what we do and how much we do it are just as important as why we do it.
What you do
One of the most important aspects to consider when designing or programming fitness workouts is to design sessions that address functional fitness. Put simply, your workouts should be a reflection of what you do. For example, marathon runners design training programs to help them compete in long-distance running events. As firefighters, this wouldn't be a very effective approach. Case in point: For years I have been a fan of Russian Kettlebells, and you can read more about them and how they benefit firefighters here. Our department has also designed various fitness circuits that incorporate typical firefighting tools, equipment, and movements to challenge our abilities. This circuit can be done in gym clothes all the way up to full turnout gear and SCBA, depending on your level of fitness. This circuit was designed to be completed in about 30 minutes, and it includes a 1/2 mile run, jog or walk. These examples all take into consideration the functional aspects of our profession. So, while I am I'm not here to push a particular modality, I am here to tell you that your fitness training should mimic what you do if you want it to be effective.
How much you do
Once you've decided what you will be doing, it's equally important to think about how much you will do, especially while on duty. A firefighter working a 24 hour shift can and will face many challenges. Participating in fitness training while on duty is a good thing, but your training should not leave you exhausted. Personally, I am a big fan of fitness minimalism; that is, do exactly what you need to do to accomplish your goals, no more, no less. Make sure that what you do is effective and efficient but that it also leaves you ready to be useful on the fireground. One of our shift captains suggests that adding some "value-added" fitness training in addition to a sensible, targeted fitness session can yield tremendous results. Adding simple exercises like 10 push-ups, 5 pull-ups, 10 kettlebell swings, or 10 body weight squats (I'm sure you can think of others) every hour on the hour during the daylight portion of your shift (time permitting) is easy to do and is a great accomplishment for just about anyone. Doing it over a 10 hour period should not empty your tank.
Getting the most out of your fitness training is not just a personal benefit. It's a benefit to your co-workers,your family, and your community members. Demonstrating your commitment will quickly and quietly make you a champion of health and fitness as well. Leading by example and combining your fitness efforts with annual medical evaluations, sensible eating habits, attention to behavioral health, and learning from near miss reports will result in a genuine advocacy for firefighter health and wellness on a personal, organizational, and even a national level.
Dan Kerrigan is a 29-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College, Neumann University, and Immaculata University. Contact Kerrigan at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan911