The Importance of a Good Base

Any firefighter who has ever gone through a true knockdown-drag out structure fire understands how strenuous it can be working through that first bottle of air.  Especially as a first due Engine or Truck company the adrenaline, the work, the gear, and the heat all combine to stress your body in a manner that is not easily replicated.

Firefighters are consistently reminded of how heart attacks are the leading cause of line of duty deaths (LODD).  Purveyors of this statistic usually use it to highlight obesity rates and scare firefighters into losing weight, but it is not solely obese firefighters that are subject to cardiac stress.  In order for a firefighter to be MOST effective physically on the fire ground they must have a strong aerobic base of fitness.

The stresses that are put on the cardio respiratory system of a firefighter during firefighting operations are unlike anything in any other job.  Obviously, the heart and respiratory rates go up to support the muscular function of job tasks.  Blood is pushed to capillaries in the skin to attempt to cool the body through sweating; however, because of the firefighting ensemble worn the heat cannot dissipate.  The muscles and skin compete against each other for blood causing a subsequent rise in cardiac demand.  The lack of heat dissipation causes blood plasma to thicken resulting in reduced venous return.  This leads to reduced stroke volume.  High cardiac demand plus reduced stroke volume is a heart attack waiting to happen.

All of this is a medical nerd’s way of stating that a firefighter must have a good, solid cardiorespiratory fitness base, and must always be working on it.  I was very fortunate to start my firefighting career with a sold cardio base.  I had been a college basketball player and had been operational in the military which helped me keep up my cardio fitness.  When I started my fire career I lacked strength.

In the first few years of my career I was under the impression that my gaining strength was more important than maintaining or building my cardio. Mark Rippetoe in “Starting Strength” makes a very compelling argument that being strong is much better than having great cardio; and I believed it (more on than in an later post).  I spent three years focusing on strength with very marginal cardio training.

While I did become more efficient working on the fire ground because of my gained strength I noticed that I was sucking through bottles much quicker, it took a lot longer for me to recover while in rehab.  While working as the first due truck in a three story apartment fire that was burning through the roof I got to a point of complete exhaustion and felt like I just could not recover to get back to work.  When you work at a station that has the reputation as one of the hardest working in the department you do not want to be the guy that has to tap out and go to rehab before everyone else.

While in rehab I looked at the HR monitor on my watch and noticed that at the hardest point in the fire my heart was thumping at 212 (+/- 10)BPM for 5 straight minutes!  I knew that was dangerous and couldn’t believe that I had gotten to that point.  That’s when I realized that while strength was great I need to rebuild my cardiac strength to keep me healthy in the long term.

Having a better cardiac base has allowed me to work harder, longer on the fire ground.  I recover much quicker than I did before.  Back to back structure fires aren’t quite the physical killer that they once were, and I just feel better in general.

If you’re a rookie firefighter take time to build a good cardio base of fitness early in your career.  If you’re a veteran, now is the time to start.  It will make you better on the fire ground, and will keep you healthier up to and into retirement.  The best way to build cardio is to incorporate some long, slow state cardio into your weekly fitness routine.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be running.  There’s a variety of training methods you can use to up your cardio game.

Because of some old injuries running takes a pretty big toll on my knees and back.  Rather than always running for long distances I combine running with other forms of cardio to build up my overall working time.  I’ll do a 10 minute run, followed by 10 minutes on the air bike, and then 10 minutes on either the ski-erg or rower.  My goal is to build up the total time that my heart is working at 65-75% of my estimated max hear rate.  Swimming is also an awesome way to work cardio, and it has the secondary benefit of teaching you breath control and breathing efficiency.

Other methods include strongman style conditioning.  I’ll try to kill two birds with one stone by carrying heavy items long distances (sand bags, sled drags, farmer’s carries, suitcase carries, etc.).  This benefits my cardio as well as grip, core, back, and leg strength.

While long, slow state cardio is not the most fun form of training in the world it is very necessary.  It builds your overall cardiac output and stroke volume making your heart stronger and more efficient.  It trains your metabolism to readily burn fat as fuel.  It also provides an endorphin rush that lowers cortisol and stress levels.

Try adding at least two slow state cardio sessions to your week and see how it helps you on the fire ground.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.