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Fit for Duty: April 2012

So, now that you have been working on your core for three months, and you have abs of steel and the back of a pack mule, you need to start thinking about intensity and duration.

April 4, 2012 
By Sherry Dean

So, now that you have been working on your core for three months, and you have abs of steel and the back of a pack mule, you need to start thinking about intensity and duration. Each of us has a specific set of duties on the fire ground, and as with core workouts, you want to make sure you train to match your expected cardiovascular exertion at a working fire.

There are some general rules to help you along the way, but the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to find some form of cardiovascular training you like doing. If you enjoy your exercise you are far more likely to keep doing it. Swimming, running/jogging, biking and playing sports are all great forms of cardio. If you don’t like doing anything . . . well, I’m afraid your armchair quarterbacking doesn’t count. You need to get off your duff. Sorry (sort of).

The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week, from moderate to vigorous intensity. These standards are for average people, not firefighters. If your workload demands more, you need to do more. If you are inactive right now, don’t worry – anything you do from here on in is a huge step in the right direction. Regular cardio fitness will not only help you improve your heart, but it can also improve high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, and can even lower your risk of certain cancers.

If you don’t do anything physical, check with your physician and make sure you are good to go. Start at the beginning, based on your current fitness level and experience. Set goals. If you are doing five minutes today, do six minutes tomorrow. If you are running marathons, try some 400-metre sprints (then send me your secrets).

Picking a variety of types of cardio is the best approach. Your body is a brilliant machine that has the ability to adapt and overcome. Remember what it feels like to do something you haven’t done in a long while? It hurts. You ache, you’re stiff, and you know you’ve worked. The more repetition of the same activity, the less sore you become. Your muscles remember how to move and become more efficient each time you do something. So how does this affect your workout? Basically, mix it up. Run today; swim tomorrow. Play hockey in the winter; play basketball in the summer. You get it.

How hard do you need to work at an emergency? Do you feel like you are going to die when you come out of a burning building? Or maybe you feel like you are going to die when you finish walking up two flights of stairs with your PPE on and gear in hand. Not good. Your level of fitness should be such that you know you are working, but you don’t feel like you can’t go on. The latter is a dangerous situation in which far too many firefighters put themselves. The result can be as serious as a heart attack or death. The good news is it’s avoidable.

Some fitness experts recommend working at a target heart rate during your cardio. Target heart rates are calculated by subtracting your age from 220 (that’s your maximum heart rate) and aiming for a percentage of that number. Recommendations vary anywhere from working at 50 per cent to 85 per cent of your max, but if you aim for 60 per cent to 80 per cent you are in a good zone.

Think about how high your heart rate gets when you are working at an emergency. Next time you head for rehab, check it out. One thing to keep in mind is that your heart is a muscle, just like your biceps or your quads. Some people have naturally bigger muscles than others, and hearts are the same. Some folks have big, efficient hearts, and some of us have hearts that have to work a little harder to handle that same workload.

Confused yet? Don’t worry. There are loads of websites to help you out with calculating target heart rates, or you could just do it the simple way: perceived exertion. No namby-pamby efforts allowed.

Perceived exertion is a great way to gauge your activity. If you feel like you are working hard, you are. You should be able to carry on light conversation during your cardiovascular workout. You should not be gasping for air and you definitely don’t want to be relaying a detailed story about your last call. A few words at a time with the need to breathe in between is a great pace.

Walking is not a bad exercise for those who want to get the blood flowing, but here’s where the brilliant machine comes back into play. Your body is very efficient at walking, even at a decent pace. If you are starting with walking, ensure you are pushing yourself to walk at a high rate. Uphill is even better.

Try new and different ways to get your heart working. You should be aiming for at least 10 minutes, but work up to 30 minutes or more for good endurance. You don’t need to keep one consistent pace; in fact, mixing it up is much better for you – it keeps your body guessing and mirrors the fire ground more closely. We are most often engaged in a variety of activities at one call.

Grab a partner. We all have days when we just don’t want to work out. If you work with a partner you will keep each other motivated and supported. A little competition doesn’t hurt, but be sure to work at your own pace. Encourage each other to work as hard as you can and remember to reward yourselves for achieving goals.

Now get out there and do it. Then come back feeling good, get yourself a glass of water, put your feet up and open up your magazine to the next article. Good job.

Sherry Dean is a career firefighter/engineer with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service and a volunteer captain with the Blockhouse & District Fire Department. She is an NFPA level 1 instructor with hazmat technician and special rescue certifications. Sherry has more than 20 years of experience in fitness and training including the Scott FireFit Challenge, competitive bodybuilding, team sports and personal training. Contact her at

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