A 26.2-mile marathon awaits you in the morning. You’ve trained six days a week for this excursion, bulking up your pecs, chiseling your biceps, and perfecting your abs. You show up to the marathon with a toned upper body straight out of ancient Roman mythology that would make even the contestants on American Gladiators burn with envy.
One mile into the race you feel your legs tighten as a swarm of lesser-toned runners pass you by. You quizzically wonder where you went wrong; you’re in the best shape of your life but not even a tenth of the way into this thing and the buzzards are already circling. So what went wrong? Although you were in tip-top shape, the reality is you simply didn’t train properly for the physical demands of the challenge at hand.
Just ask Aaron Zamzow, fitness expert and firefighter for the City of Madison Fire Department and founder of Fire Rescue Fitness, a company that specializes in products, services, and informational blogs with the goal to keep firefighters fit for duty.
When Zamzow first joined the service, he found himself out-muscled, outmaneuvered, and generally out-everything’d despite being the definition of fit. That’s because, as Zamzow recalls, he hadn’t trained for anything that firefighters regularly do. “I’m the Rudy of the fire service. I wasn’t trained for the firefighter work. I was getting beat by out-of-shape firefighters who smoke three packs a day.”
The hard reality is that if firefighters are not prepared for the rigorous physical demands that they’ll encounter on a daily basis, then they’ll soon find themselves just as out of breath and deflated as Zamzow was. For all intents and purposes, firefighters are occupational athletes. Lifting, crawling, pulling, hoisting, carrying; it’s an overtly physical job and there’s a lot to train for. But how firefighters train and prepare for those tasks is what’s so crucial. Tom Brady, for example, will train differently for his job than Serena Williams. Usain Bolt likely won’t be found doing Zumba and LeBron James probably doesn’t have much use for Crossfit. That’s not to say one training regimen is superior to the other, but your workout program should incorporate the movements that will set you up for career success.
Zamzow cites astonishingly hollow fitness programs that market themselves specifically for firefighters as a reason for his rude awakening. Such programs are wrapped in a pretty bow but fail to address the necessary physical trials that firefighters will have to go through. “I bought one of those programs and found it was nonsense,” recalls Zamzow. “There are a lot of false programs out there but you have to ask what makes it a firefighter program? Why is it geared toward firefighters?”
That’s where Zamzow decided to take matters into his own hands and developed a list of five key points that firefighters should take into consideration when evaluating their own fire rescue workout programs:
1) Developmental progression: Approach your program with the intent to gradually increase the intensity of exercise, which in turn will increase your strength and muscular development.
2) Make core strength a priority: 50% of firefighters will hurt their backs while on duty during their careers and lower back pain is the number one reason they retire early. Dedicate more time to core strength as you develop your program.
3) Focus on cardiovascular conditioning and recovery: Running and biking will get you from point A to point B, but interval training can bolster your cardiovascular conditioning. Because firefighters operate at 115-150% the normal heartrate, conditioning your body to respond to an increasing amount of stress is critical. Intervals call for a short burst of high intensity exercise (30 seconds, for example) followed by ample time to rest and recover (60-120 seconds).
4) Full-body functional strength exercises: Functional exercises are an approach to core training that increase balance around joints and help prevent injury by stimulating and stabilizing muscles.
5) Engage in active warm ups and flexibility training: Such activities prepare the body for movements, boost heartrate, and increase blood flow to the muscles.
The problem with implementing these types of fire rescue workout programs, Zamzow states, is that health, wellness and fitness in the fire service are relatively new concepts. As recently as ten years ago these types of fundamentals simply didn’t exist, but with the epidemics of cancer and poor health infiltrating the service, there’s been no better time than now to create a plan.
As with all grand plans, it’s important to start simple. Zamzow recommends foam rollers as the biggest bang for your buck as they allow you to use your own body weight to massage through adhesions that may occur in the muscles. This allows blood to flow more freely and encourages efficient healing and repairing.
“Now is the time to make a positive change in our industry,” said Zamzow. “Eat right, exercise, hydrate and set up an example for the community. Stay safe and train like a life depends on it.”
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Aaron Zamzow is a firefighter and EMT for the City of Madison Fire Department in Wisconsin. He is also a degreed personal fitness trainer and author as well as the owner of Fire Rescue Fitness, a company dedicated to creating products and blogs focused on keeping firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics in top physical condition and “fit for duty.” He has 12 years of experience as a firefighter/EMT and another 20 as a fitness expert, training with elite athletes and studying with some of the top trainers in the world.