Spartan, Sloucher or The Middle Way

Lately, the fire service seems to contain two extremes of fitness:  exceptional or non-existent.  On one hand, it is full of incredibly fit people whose workouts resemble a Spartan special forces team and whose bodies look like someone out of Muscle and Fitness magazine.  On the other hand, we have our out of shape, overweight slouchers who frankly, seem to have thrown in the towel.  But is there an alternative to Spartan vs Sloucher?  Are we complete losers if we don’t go All Out every time we work out?  Is it all or nothing?  I don’t think so.  There is an alternative. The Buddha preached it and so did the Greeks (though probably not the Spartans).  It’s called the Middle Way.


When it comes to athletic ability on the fire department, I’m quite average.  There are many women on my department who are far more physically exceptional than me.  Some work out for hours a day.  Others work out for shorter periods a day, but with incredible intensity.  I do neither of these things.  But, I do have one thing going for me: long-term consistency.


Although, I do not go “all out” during my workouts, I’ve worked out moderately and consistently, week after week, year after year for over two decades.  I’m 46 years old, (yeah, I know!), relatively uninjured, and because I do what I enjoy, I’m able to maintain a routine year in and year out.  I do not do cross fit and I hate lifting weights, but, I do perform consistently well on fires.  I have good stamina and I think I hold up well.  Moderation has allowed me to make fitness a natural part of my life while not making my entire life about fitness or my body.


Consistency is the Key to Success.


My thing used to be running.  I loved to run, but I should really call it jogging because I was so slow it was embarrassing.  Even after twenty years of consistent practice, moms with strollers would blaze right past me.  I was slow as a tortoise, and yet I’ve held up on fires that other people have fallen out on.


Until one day I didn’t hold up, and that was I feeling I never wanted to have again.


I’d been holding a spot at Air Rescue for almost a year and while there I’d deepened my Ashtanga Yoga practice and cut back on running.  Ashtanga was great for Air Rescue.  It gave me strength, flexibility, tolerance for discomfort and mental focus.  But no cardio.  Still, I felt good!  Until I returned to the field, and Murphy, being the tricky little brat that he is, arranged a house fire my very first day back.


Of course it was the dead of summer, and I hadn’t been bunkered out in almost a year.  I remember how hot and heavy my gear felt right off the bat and it wasn’t long before I began to fatigue.  It was taking all my strength not to ask my LT for a break and we hadn’t even been working that hard, but I have enormous pride so I sucked it up.  Plus there was another officer on scene who, let’s just say, wasn’t a big Gea fan.  He didn’t think I belonged and the very last thing in the entire world I wanted was to fall out in front of him.


As we worked, I became increasingly light headed.  I could feel my heart racing in my chest.  With my whole inner being, I struggled to hold it together.  Finally, I realized that falling out was better than passing out.  So, I sat down on a low wall a few feet from my crew.  I rested a couple minutes and then I got back up.  No one said anything.  No doubt, it disturbed me way more than anyone else.  But, I knew right then:  I was not physically conditioned enough for firefighting.  It was time to step up the cardio.


I kicked up the running to two or three times a week and cut back on Ashtanga and the next fire we had, I was ready.  And, years later when my back began hurting me for days after a run, I momentarily panicked before switching to swimming and spinning instead.  I still do yoga, but I’ve learned that as long as I’m a firefighter, that’s not enough for me.  For others, it very well might be.  In this day and age, we have so many options.  There are a hundred different workouts we can try.  Surely, if we’re physical enough to fight fires, we’re physical enough to find one workout we like enough to do moderately on a regular basis.  We don’t have to exhaust ourselves, but we do have to exert ourselves.  If we can go into a burning building, surely we can sit on a bike for twenty minutes.


Moderation has allowed me to make fitness a natural part of my life while not making my entire life about fitness or my body.



943616_10201030627360021_1319295220_nI’m not saying we don’t need great strength and endurance to do this job.  We do.  But, we don’t have to be competitive cross-fitters to fight fires.  Nor do we have to run triathlons or be a fire house Navy Seal.  We do, however, have to be fit.  We need to make an effort.  People are counting on us to be ready and able.


I’m on an Engine but I run a lot of medical calls and every shift I see people who have given up on their health.  They’ve thrown in the towel.  At some point in their lives, they simply stopped trying to take care of themselves.  And then sometimes I look around the fire service and I see some of the same behaviors here.  We cannot eat anything we want our whole lives.  We cannot give up on fitness and know that our heart won’t one day give out on a fire.  It is our duty to make an effort.  We can rest when we retire.  It’s our job to be ready.  Not to be Spartans or fitness models but to be firefighters who are ready.


One of the greatest condolences of age is wisdom.  I’m getting older.  I’m not going to pretend I’m not and grasp and fight for ebbing youth.  I want to face my mortality and strive for wisdom and self-knowledge instead.  Yoga has taught me that we’ve got to tune in and listen to our bodies.  Strengthen them and know them.  It’s taught me to pay attention.  To know when I’ve got to get off my butt and work out or when I need to rest.


There are times in our life when we will step it up:  the academy, a certain team or position.  And there are times in our life when we’ll barely hang on:  pregnancy, an injury, a death in the family.  We must adapt to our lives and our bodies without giving in.  We don’t have to be extreme.  Remember, the slow and steady tortoise won the race.


I think it’s great the fire service has Spartans.  We need them.  They set the bar high and are role models and images of inspiration.  But we don’t have to be a Spartan to fight fires effectively.  We do have to be strong and fit if we want to be an asset and survive this career intact.  As firefighters we must know our strengths and weaknesses.  For some, their strength is power.  For others—endurance.  What ever your strength is, don’t let it go.  Refuse to relinquish it.  Fight for it.  We chose to be firefighters and that comes with a price.  We must never give up on ourselves.  We must stretch, strive, and reach for readiness.


It’s our responsibility to survive.

We must all be strong.

We.  Can.  Do.  It.




  • We set ourselves up for failure when we shove our desires down others throats. Whether it’s fitness, firefighting, or whatever.

    When they don’t live up to what we want we are disappointed and thus, we are never happy as we constantly seek our definition of perfection in others. It is an ideal state that they can never achieve because it doesn’t belong to them. It exists only in our imagination.

    Once you own your responsibility to strive to be the best that you can be (your “best” changes over time), and help others to do the same, everyone can move forward together.

    It is our responsibility to help each other survive.

    Thanks for reminding us to be humble G!

  • Jennifer DeShon says:

    Finally, an insightful, and reasonable, article on firefighter fitness! Thanks again, Gea. Goes right along with you earlier post about using different techniques than everyone else.

    Early in my career I was having trouble passing the physical agility tests I needed to take in order to become a career firefighter. It was frustrating because I knew that I was capable of doing the job. I WAS doing the job! I had been a member of a fairly busy Paid Call company for some time. So, I decide to hire a personal trainer, as I didn’t have a fire service mentor to look to for help. It worked! I was improving my times. But, it still wasn’t enough. Until one day my trainer said that sometimes you make more progress if you focus on your strengths instead of trying to shore up your weaknesses. So we just worked legs for two weeks. Hard! And like magic, I passed my next agility test! The improvement I made in two weeks was nothing short of spectacular!

    It was a life lessen for me. Don’t try so hard to fit into someone else’s idea of a good firefighter! I’m not like them. I never will be. But, I can be damn good anyway!

  • Shane says:

    Great read!!

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