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Understanding Functional Fitness: 6 Tips for Success

Is Your Fitness for Duty “Relevant”? 

There is no disputing that our fitness for duty is a requirement of our profession. Consider other occupational or professional athletes (that is who we are): hockey players, soccer players, gymnasts, for example; all train specifically to excel in the performance of their chosen profession. As fire service professionals, our performance and longevity are largely dependent on our level of fitness as well. This is why a comprehensive and functional approach to personal fitness is critical in reducing the risk of injury and death, while simultaneously increasing fireground performance and proficiency.

What is Functional Fitness? 

Being “functionally fit” is a relative term. However, you may define it, know that it means much more than just being “in shape.” While the idea that “working out” is important to firefighters is not a bad one, the most effective way to improve our performance and longevity while reducing health risks is to train our bodies to become better at what we do. As written in the book, Firefighter Functional Fitness our fitness must be comprehensive and 100% relevant to what we do as firefighters. 

For our wellness to be comprehensive, it must include several important components of physical fitness as well as proper nutrition, proactive hydration, and adequate focus on rest and recovery (this consists of both active and passive techniques). Here are six basic tips that will help guide your training and lifestyle toward optimal performance and longevity. 

  1. Train for Performance: Approach your physical fitness training with a performance-based mindset instead of traditional methods that may solely focus on body parts and physique. For example, incorporating the “Big 8” concept found in the book Firefighter Functional Fitness addresses core strength, cardiovascular capacity, flexibility, and five functional strength training components: push, pull, lift, carry and drag. Applying this concept will go a long way toward improving your overall physical fitness and fireground performance. 

  2. Proper Form = Proper Function:  Any exercise or movement that you attempt must pass three crucial tests: 

    (a) Is it safe?
    (b) Is it effective?
    (c) Is it functional? 

    Before you ever focus on how much weight you can lift, master your lifting form, and proper body mechanics. Also, replace isolation movements (i.e., bicep curls) with compound movements (i.e., deadlifts and squats). Consider incorporating different planes of movement and varying elevations. For example, in addition to the standard chest/bench press, perform overhead presses, incline presses, decline presses, dips, and single-arm rotational cable presses.  Finally, train with asymmetrical weights to improve balance, posture, and core strength. For example, while performing farmers carries, you could carry 50 pounds in one hand and 25 pounds on the other hand.
  3. Train Like You Fight: Professional athletes train in a variety of “personal protective equipment.” Sometimes they train in standard gym clothes, and sometimes they train in their “game-time gear.” So should you. Vary your training sessions to include gym clothing, turnout gear, turnout gear with SCBA, and even go “on air” occasionally if your level of conditioning permits. Just remember train in clean, decontaminated gear; and if using firefighting equipment, make sure it is decontaminated as well! 

  4. Nutrition is Key: Proper nutrition is critical. Instead of focusing on fad diets or achieving a certain number on the scale, remember that “Food is fuel.” Eat the right foods, in the right amounts, from the right sources. Stick to natural, unprocessed foods, and limit your sugar intake. Take small steps in the right direction daily. Look to build long-term success by adopting a nutritional lifestyle, not a two-week program.

  5. Hydration: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! For firefighters, hydrating proactively is imperative. When you are on the fireground and become thirsty, it is too late. Dehydration and heat stress combine to form a potentially lethal combination for firefighters (PDF) that lead to sudden cardiac death. When hydrating for performance, the National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends a minimum intake of 16 cups of water a day for men and 12 cups a day for women (this includes water intake from certain foods). Depending on your level of activity, you may need even more. 

  6. Recovery and Rest: Proper rest is as important as physical training. Active recovery methods such as foam rolling and massage will reduce muscle recovery time and minimize post-workout soreness. Giving large muscle groups at least 48 hours of rest after strength training will help maximize your gains by allowing the muscles ample time to repair themselves. Lastly, do whatever you can to get seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a day whenever you can. Avoid distractions such as smartphones, fire scanners, and computers at least an hour before bed. Try to minimize your alcohol and tobacco intake, and sleep in a cool, dark space. 

It’s Up to You! 
Regardless of rank or status as a career, volunteer or paid on-call firefighter, the risks are the same. Your firefighting career is a journey; your approach to health and wellness should be as well. It is up to each of us as individual firefighters to set the proper example by living a lifestyle of moderation and maintaining a level of fitness that is appropriate for the work we do. The more relevant your training is to the tasks we perform, the more benefit you gain in your performance and longevity. 

Dan Kerrigan, EFO, CFO, is the chief fire marshal and department fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township (Pennsylvania) Fire Department and a member of the Safety, Health & Survival Section’s Board. He’s been a member of the IAFC since 2013.

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