Heat & Desert Training for Firefighters
Heat Training Guide
Or, “How to Avoid Dying An Early Death in a Terrible Desert Wasteland While Fighting Fire”
There are three keys to enhancing physical performance in a desert environment.
- 1.) Hydration
- 2.) Excellent Physical Conditioning
- 3.) Heat Acclimitization Training
If you’re living in Chicago and preparing for a job in Arizona or Southern California, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll experience a 40+ degree temperature increase on your first day of work. Without proper acclimatization, it doesn’t matter how hard you trained in the off-season– your physical performance will lag compared to the crew members that are used to the heat. You’ll feel lethargic, your recovery times will increase, you’ll be more likely to suffer from dehydration, and you’ll feel as if you’re starting the season off a step behind. The fire season is short (6 months or less) so there’s no time to catch-up. It’s your responsibility to show up fit for duty.
So how do you train for the heat?
Simple – train your body to sweat more, and to start sweating sooner than it normally would. And the only way to do that is to expose yourself to hotter environments that your body is used to operating in. Not surprisingly given the present state of affairs, the US Army has prepared an excellent Heat Acclimatization Guide for its Ranger & Airborne School students, and this section highlights its main points. For the physically fit firefighter, 14 days of regular heat exposure can be sufficient for acclimatization, though that figure varies depending on conditioning levels and the extremity of the environment. It’s recommended that you give yourself approximately 4 weeks to acclimate properly. Be aware that results are fleeting, just as the body is able to adapt quickly to hot environments, it just as quickly will revert back to its normal settings. The US Army estimates 75% of the effects gained through an acclimatization program will be lost within 3 weeks. Lesson: time your training.
Ease your way into the heat. Don’t jump right into doing an hour-long spin workout on a stationary bike in a sauna. Begin by simply immersing yourself in the heat, then add light aerobic activity like walking in layers or doing a stretching routine. Be conservative and give yourself time to buildup your tolerance to the heat. It’s reckless and self-defeating to push yourself past the brink of your endurance early on. The time you lose while you recuperate from your over-training will pale in comparison to any advantage you might have gained. Take it slow.
Drink Water. As you increase your body’s resilience to the heat, the amount of sweat your body produces will dramatically increase. It’s imperative that you increase your consumption of water and electrolytes. Your body can easily lose a quart or more of fluid in one hour in the heat – so hydrate early and hydrate often. If you haven’t bought one yet, pick-up a CamelBak. They’re indispensable and you can hydrate on the go much easier since there’s no fumbling with cross-threaded caps or stopping to put a bottle back in your pack. Mix a Gatorade into the mix too, or add some extra salt to your food to compensate. Old-School hotshots were known to pack a few soy sauce packets from Chinese restaurants into their line gear to replenish salts on the fireline. Whatever works.
Stick to it. Aim for at least 1.5 hours of constant activity in a hot environment before incorporating high intensity training like running or hiking. Then, aim for two hours total training time for a maximum.
Cold-Trailing For Hotspots:
So what do you do if there’s snow in the driveway and you’re expected to be ready for a desert fire assignment in a month? Here’s some ideas for raising the thermostat on some of your workouts.
Sweatpant Training. Fans of Richard Simmons rejoice! Don’t donate those sweatsuits to the Goodwill quite yet. This is the easiest (and cheapest option) for heat training. It’s also incredibly effective. Perform aerobic exercises while wearing layers to simulate the heat you’ll be experiencing shortly. Layer tight-fitting clothing like long underwear (Patagonia’s Capilene shirts and bottoms are perfect) under sweatpants to keep chafing and overall discomfort to a minimum. Remember to cover your head with a stocking cap or a hood. Running in layers isn’t fun. It is effective however.
Sauna Workout. This novel approach to heat training was pioneered by the mad hatters who race in the Badwater Ultramarathon. Not familiar with Badwater? It’s a 100 mile race…through Death Valley. The radiant heat off the pavement can create 200 degree microclimates, just a few degrees shy of the boiling point of water. Needless to say, heat acclimatization training is crucial to not only maximizing performance, but simply surviving. Arthur Webb, an eight-time finisher of the hellish endeavor, recommends 3-4 weeks of Sauna Training prior to a race. Starting with 15 minute sessions, gradually work up to 45 minutes. Make it a point to do a session every day, and to bring in a gallon of water and drink liberally while in to maintain fluid levels. While simply sitting is fine, Mr. Webb also mixes in light ab workouts, and calisthenics occasionally. Remember: do the Sauna session after running, hiking or strength training. For more information, check out Mr. Webb’s article on Sauna Training on Badwater.com.
Hot Yoga or Bikram Yoga. Yoga is no longer reserved for wacky new age mystic-types and creepy men with pony tails. NFL Athletes do it, triathletes do it, and firefighters do it. We interviewed the co-owner of BIkram Yoga Tempe, Ben Zorensky, who besides being a huge proponent of yoga, also played college basketball at Johns Hopkins University. Truthfully, If you’re not already doing yoga, you should be.
The mental and physical benefits are enormous and well-documented. Bikram Yoga involves performing 26 “poses” in a super-heated environment. You will sweat from pores previously unknown, your muscles will feel more elastic, and remarkably, many people report feeling recharged and invigorated following a session. If you have the time (and money – Bikram can be expensive) incorporate a Bikram Yoga session once or twice a week six weeks before your start date. Besides helping with heat acclimatization, you’ll notice a dramatic increase in flexibility and improved core strength. For more information, check out our interview with Ben Zorensky here, or learn more about Bikram Yoga here.