Fit For Duty

Fire Rescue Fitness’ founder Aaron Zamzow on the mindful athletics of first response

By Aaron Zamzow  |   Apr 12, 2019
(U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

[Publisher’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Calibre Press’ latest book, Mindful Responder. It is available now on Kindle and will be out in print in the next few weeks.]

Some call us ‘occupational athletes.’ That word, athlete, others will say involves competition, and so they claim that’s not part of first response. But that’s not true, I think. You’re always up against the clock as a first responder. We’re competing for our own safety, competing against the dangers we face. You need to think like an athlete: I need to put this fire out as quickly and safely and efficiently as possible. Mindfulness is situational awareness of the body. You can’t just do a movement to do a movement. You need to know how your body is going to react and what affect that movement is going to have in the final score at the fireground—this is the core of athletics.

We are athletes, I believe.

Training the Pros

Before becoming a full-time firefighter I was a personal trainer who focused on working with professional athletes. It began in college, at the University of Minnesota, where I was studying kinesiology. One of my professors was involved with training NHL players, so I got involved in that. It was the heyday of personal training and I was lucky enough to work at a facility that invested in my education and really pushed me along. Eventually I began training players in the NBA and NFL as well, making connections in that world. Then I went out as a trainer full-time on my own. Not long after that I started volunteering at the fire house and I absolutely fell in love with it. So at age 35 I enrolled at the fire academy. Going through it at that age, I had to be in shape. And I was in shape, but not in the right way.

Years ago I did some work at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. The lab was working with professional athletes from the Bucks and Brewers. I remember distinctly a player who was slumping, just not having a good year. But the issue was clearly not physiological—he was in great physical shape. The challenge for this player was psychological in nature, and we worked through it. The next year he was stellar. It’s not uncommon at all at the highest levels of athleticism to see mental blocks get in the way of performance. Same goes for firefighters, EMS, and law enforcement.

I’m a firm believer that mindfulness, meditation, relaxation—whatever you call it—this is a huge part of being healthy. Even if you just take three minutes a day and start with that. Or taking that brief pause and being in that moment for a few seconds can make for better response in the field. If you’re an athlete you need to be present in your drill. You have to be in it for each rep. That goes for actions on the truck or on the fire scene too. Are you understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it? Or are you just going through the motions?

Meditating should be part of your physical repertoire. I do a 4-minute stretch routine at the end of a workout. Bring your breath down, control it. Be at peace with yourself. It’s yoga, really. I don’t call it that, but that’s what it is.

Physical (& Mental) Therapy

Many of us first responders aren’t in touch with ourselves. This is the point of mindfulness, to get better at that. A lot of us don’t take that time because we’re high strung. We go from one call to the next to the next. One of the ways we deal with the strain of this job is we become smart smartasses. Everything’s a joke. Or maybe we drink a little more than we should. But sometimes something’s not right. I’ve seen it myself in my own life. Maybe I’m being a little short with my family. No big deal, right? Well, over time it’s wearing down relationships. We need to be at the very least aware of the stress and what it does to our lives, and especially what it’s doing to our relationships. Because good, honest relationships are what make us resilient.

We talk about the hazards of PTSD in the fire service quite a bit nowadays, and I think one of the best ways—one that often gets neglected—for facing trauma and working through stress is physical fitness. Fitness makes you more self-aware. For example, I gave up distance running for a while and recently returned to it. It was an emotional experience! Just running was fantastic. There’s something about connecting with your physical being that makes you more resilient overall.

In some way we firefighters are our own worst enemies. We’re supposed to be this tough, hardened group. But you look around at all the supposed tough guys in the station and they all have four divorces and a drinking problem. Or they get injured and retire out too soon. The tough guy persona is just silly, frankly. And yet even yoga is a dirty word in some firehouses. One guy starts to meditate and the rest of the crew goes, “What the fuck are you doing?” We need to get past this mentality as a culture, and I think we are.

Injury

Injury is a vicious cycle. We’re often de-conditioned to start. We come on to the job young and in great shape and then we drift. Some of us forget about physical fitness altogether and others go about it in the wrong way. Professional athletes aren’t doing P90X or Zumba or CrossFit to get into world-class shape! Cristiano Renaldo isn’t a powerlifter. They train for their sport. You need to train for the work you do. We need to cater our fitness to injury prevention, what I call prehab. When you break things down kinesthetically and physiologically there’s a better way. We need to work out within parameters—not too much weight—with an eye out for common injuries (again, prehab) and firefighter functions. We need to eat better. We need to effectively reduce the stresses of the job.  Stress—physical, environmental, or emotional—leads to inflammation and injury. So we need to get ahead of it.

I’ll get emails from firefighters all over the country and it’s not uncommon to hear about injuries. They tell me about the challenges of getting off the truck because of a bum knee, how their crew won’t support them, how they don’t have a partner to train with, ruptured discs, how they can’t afford to eat right or get a gym membership—I hear a lot of this stuff and I try to be supportive. The thing is, you need to focus on what’s under your control. If you have a shoulder injury, for example, work on your nutrition and focus on those areas of exercise that don’t affect your shoulder in a bad way. Do what you can.

Conclusion

I don’t want to sound calloused or mean, but sometimes we need to call people out on their excuses. We all have more options than we realize. That’s what mindfulness does: It calls you out on your own bullshit. Because the person in the mirror is ultimately the person responsible for your health.