NUTRITIONDietThe Healthy Firefighting Heart “Deconstructed”

The Healthy Firefighting Heart “Deconstructed”

By: Jim McDonald

In my last article “The Healthy Firefighter Heart” in Issue No. 3, we explored the standards of cardiovascular fitness in the fire service: where the standards came from, why they exist and their importance. I explained what a MET is, what VO2 measures, all the benefits from the tests and the importance of having good cardiovascular health in the fire industry. So how are you going to put this new information and some fresh spring motivation to work?

Step 1: Get A VO2 Max Test

You can use the results of this test to set up a customized training program, and this article covers general recommendations on how to do that, at least from the cardiovascular side.

Step 2: Understanding Your Test Results

The information in the test results is specific to you and only you. It contains physiological parameters such as your optimal heart rate training zones, what type of fuel your body burns in each zone (respiratory exchange ratio, RER), lactate threshold, and more. The results are crucial to nailing down a perfect program, but you may need a secret decoder ring to decipher them. Don’t be afraid to ask the exercise physiologist facilitating your test to help you understand the results – you should fully understand the results before beginning any training program.

Step 3: Make A Customized Training Program That Benefits Your Job As A Firefighter

So how do you make a quality firefighter cardiovascular training program? First, you need to identify your long-term goal. But as we’ll learn in a bit, the trick to a great program is more than just making a long-term goal, it’s about breaking it down and having a goal for each and every training session. Beyond that, your program also needs to fit into your life routine (I.e. for a firefighter, your crazy work schedule, family schedule, etc).

Cardiovascular Training Recommendations

Although resistance training is critical to the tactical athlete’s workout regimen, this article will cover the cardiovascular training recommendations. First rule: you cannot just do interval training, circuit training or CrossFit every day and call it good. You need to vary your workouts by training in all three energy systems (I.e. the three heart rate zones outlined in your VO2 Max results) every week.

What are these energy systems you speak of? The oxidative, glycolytic and phosphagen systems. Our body uses all three of these systems interchangeably throughout the day depending on the intensity of the activity we perform. Sometimes we perform activities that put us at a lower heart rate zone such as overhaul (oxidative), or the high heart rate zone like pulling a hose (phosphagen) etc. This is the reason we need to vary our training – to mimic the fire ground — and have a solid plan on how you’ll do that.

Here is an example of what your results may look like from a VO2 max test:

A sample fitness assessment from Jim McDonald using Cardio Coach (
Connect With A Fitness Expert

If you are new to energy systems, it is highly recommended to work with an exercise professional who will take this information and help guide you to work in the appropriate heart rate zones that will help increase your cardiovascular health and occupational performance. The test will show your areas that need improvement and the exercise professional can then use this information to help you train in the correct heart rate zones to improve your cardiovascular and occupational performance. 

To hit all three energy systems it is best to work at different intensities throughout the week: long slow distance (low intensity), high intensity interval training/ circuit training (high intensity), sprint training (high intensity) and pace tempo training (medium intensity). Yes, this means you need to spend time and effort even at the lower intensities! If you just work out in the same zone and at the same intensities all the time — even if it’s always the highest intensity — you will not make progress or reap the health and performance benefits that you are working for. The key is to ensure you are using different exercise modalities each day – make a goal for each day’s exercise routine, based on what heart rate zone you want to be in and for how long – and execute it. This ensures your body does not get used to the same type of workout and helps with consistent results. Your body is very smart and if you do the same routine and use the same modality for exercise your body gets very efficient at that one modality. Keep it fresh, fun and keep the body in a “constant state of confusion” (yes, that’s good!). Keep your body guessing and don’t let it know what type of workout is coming.  

Training Program Example Week 1: 48/96 schedule
Type of training Intensity 
Day 1 Long Slow Distance Low/Moderate 
Day 2Interval TrainingModerate/High 
Day 3Pace Tempo Training  Moderate 
Day 4Sprints High/Peak 

This is an example of a 4-day training split, which would work well for firefighters on a 48/96 schedule where they could work out on each of the 4 days between their shifts. You will need to find whatever workout training split that works best for your shift schedule. 

Executing Your Training Program Off-duty

First day off shift is a great time to perform low intensity long slow distance, i.e. flexibility and mobility training. This allows recovery from coming off shift while still getting a good workout and hitting one of your weekly program goals. This workout helps with recovery, central nervous system regulation from being on shift and is manageable if you are tired coming off shift. You can do any modality of cardio you like and stay in that low to moderate heart rate zone (per your VO2 guidelines) for 20-60 minutes. 

On day two, check in with yourself and see how you feel. If you have recovered enough, you will be ready to ramp it back up to your high training zone. If you don’t feel great then take note to tone it back on your first day off shift next time. The example program above uses interval training to do this. The buzz words these days for this type of activity is high intensity interval training (HIIT) or the newest is high intensity functional training (HIFT). High intensity Interval training is performing a moderate to high intensity exercise for a defined work period followed by a defined rest period and repeating this cycle a certain number of times. You use any modality such as stair machine intervals, running, rowing, biking… any cardiovascular exercise that you enjoy. You can vary the exercise and still achieve the result, as long as you achieve the appropriate heart rate zone.

HIFT (high intensity functional training) is similar to HIIT, but it incorporates multi-joint movements with undefined rest periods. It uses continuous circuit training style intervals at high intensity.  

Day three is a good time to have a pace tempo day with a little higher intensity than day one but lower than day two – shoot for the moderate heart rate zone. You can train for a specific distance such as three miles or a set pace of nine minute mile. Just ensure you keep your heart rate in that moderate zone for 20-60 min of cardio training.

Day four is back to higher intensity before going back on shift. The example uses sprints. When doing sprint work it is very important to recover fully before your next sprint. I like to run on a Woodway treadmill for 15-20 seconds at 100% — get your heart rate into the high zone. Then walk at a comfortable pace to recover and get your heart rate to the low end of moderate or until you feel like you can give it 100% effort again on the next sprint.

Step 4: Maintain Healthy Habits

Of course, always ensure to eat healthy for recovery, hydrate very well throughout each day and get good sleep. Stretching well after each workout will also reduce soreness, stiffness, mobility dysfunction and will reduce the risk of injury.

There is no one-fits-all program. The appropriate program is unique to each individual. There are many ways to train appropriately. The key is understanding your body and schedule and making a program with a professional that is appropriate, attainable and sustainable. Using heart rate zone training is the most accurate and efficient way to ensure you will get the gains in cardiovascular health and performance from your training. If you are going to go train, don’t you want to train for the least amount of time and have the biggest impact on your results? 

This is exactly what you will do by being deliberate with your program and sticking to a regimen that targets specific heart rate zones each day. Good luck, it’s time to start training with a purpose. Go find yours and get it!!!

This covers programming for one of two critical parts of a workout regimen: cardiovascular training. Tune in next time for tips on how to maximize the second critical part: resistance/weight training.

Contact info: [email protected], (4) Jim McDonald | LinkedIn

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