Training for the Long Term


Training for the Long Haul

The other day I was watching some old Ronnie Coleman videos to get hyped up to train (lightweight baby!!!); when it occurred to me that while his training methodology was effective at winning him 8 Mr. Olympia titles, it has left him crippled post retirement.  Too many times I see firefighters training in a similar fashion.  The “no pain, no gain” mentality drives them to push beyond hard every training session.  There’s nothing wrong with pushing hard; that’s where adaptations are made.  But as firefighters is it really wise for us to train so hard in a single session that we are left crippled with soreness the next day? Is it wise to push so hard throughout a career that we are left crippled in retirement?

While the “train smarter, not harder” is often used to counter “no pain, no gain”, why not train hard AND smart?  Prioritizing recovery/readiness, self management, and realistic performance goals are all techniques that can help us do that.

Prioritizing Recovery/Readiness

As firefighters recovery is one of the most underutilized and most difficult aspects of training to manage.  We can’t dictate when and how many times the tones go off in the middle of the night.  We can’t dictate the stress level of each call.  And often, we can’t always control our stress levels outside of the job.  However, we can take steps to maximize our recovery despite these work/life hurdles.

First, let’s talk about what is recovery/readiness.  Being fully recovered means that you are at your peak physical ability in relation to previously induced stressors.  You’re not sore, you’re relatively well-rested, and your body as enough fuel onboard to work.  The key components of recovery are rest, hydration, and fuel.  Sleep is the most important aspect of true recovery because that is where the body’s adaptations occur.  Hydration and fuel (food) are the tools that help to carry out and facilitate adaptations when we sleep.  All three of these items can be pushed out of whack by our jobs.

One of the first things we can do to facilitate recovery is wisely manage our training schedule.  I try to do my most strenuous training on my full days off, or the day I get off duty.  First, this allows me to complete my training session without interruptions.  This is especially important on Max Effort lifting days.  Also, it gives me more control over my eating, hydration, and sleep because they are not being imposed upon by work calls.

I will leave my LSS (long slow state) cardio, HIIT conditioning, and accessory days for when I am on duty.  All of these training modes can be resumed despite interruptions, can be fairly short in duration, and induce more manageable stressors from which I am able to recover quickly (this changes with the seasons as hot weather is more difficult to recover in; more on that later).

Self Management

This is one of the most difficult concepts for motivated firefighters.  We tend to push the envelope in everything that we do, and then deal with the consequences later.  However, this is one of the few aspects of our training that we have complete control over.

We have to understand where our body is at in terms of how fast are are able to recover, and how recovered we are before the next training session.  If you pushed the limits on a session, didn’t get much rest and recovery, and are still hurting when it’s time for the next session, then it probably isn’t smart to dive right into another hard session.  Rather than have another strenuous training session and put the body into a further recovery deficit, dial it back for a day and do a smaller workout that promotes recovery instead.  This can be working the sore muscle groups with extremely light weight and low reps in an effort to push nutrient rich blood into them.  You can also take a day to focus on mobility work.  This has the same recoverability affect, but adds the mobility stimulus.

Another way to we have to manage our training is understanding that we cannot push it to the limit time after time indefinitely.  It is entirely possible to drive progressive adaptations without proverbially pushing our dick in the dirt.  I personally believe that firefighters should be working more towards strength adaptations than hypertrophy adaptations.  Being a strong firefighter is much more advantageous than being a big firefighter.  As such, we do not need to be taking workout sets to absolute failure over and over.  Strength gains can be made by manipulating intensities and volume with minimal muscular failure.  The sick burn and pump feel nice when they happen, but if that stimulus is not recovered from, and no adaptation is made then that training effort was wasted and we move closer to injury.

Firefighters must be realistic when it comes to training through and around injuries.  Injuries are a part of the job, and training.  Having an injury does not mean that physical training has to cease.  It requires being truthful with yourself on what you can and cannot do.  Work around your injuries until they heal enough to work WITH.  Then, it is imperative to swallow your pride a bit, take a step back on intensities and volumes, and slowly bring that injured joint or muscle group back up to part.  This is one of the biggest issues that I have dealt with.  Often I will start to feel better from an injury and decide to push my limits only to re-aggravate the injury.  Take your time and make sure injuries heal properly.

Realistic Performance Goals

Lastly, firefighters need to be realistic in our performance goals.  There will always be a drive to be stronger, faster, and work harder longer.  But how strong is strong enough?  Does a firefighter really need to be able to squat an ungodly amount of weight to perform the job?  No.  Then why train to squat an ungodly amount of weight.  Be real with yourself and figure out what performance standards will make you a good/better firefighter.  Define those and then train for them.  Does a firefighter need to be able to deadlift 600lbs one time, or would it be better if they could deadlift 400lbs multiple times?  Is being able to run a 6 minute mile more important or is being able to work in gear for 20 straight minutes?

As tactical athletes firefighters are different than any other athlete.  We need to be able to perform over a 20-30 year career.  I, personally, would also like to be able to be strong and mobile in retirement as well.  That is why it is important that we keep the long term in mind when we train.  Don’t push yourself to the brink every time because it’s not sustainable.  It is entirely beneficial to push it from time to time to maintain that ability, but it is not necessary to do it every training session.  Manage your recovery to manage your overall health (that’s a whole other post in itself).  Be realistic in your performance expectations.  You’re a better asset when you’re healthy and ready; not when you’re exhausted and constantly sore.  And you’ll be happier and healthier in retirement when you train with THAT goal in mind.


Work hard, train hard, Adapt Forward