As I’ve discussed in previous issues of this column, daily exercise is important to the EMS professional because high levels of physical fitness help prevent the number-one cause of death among firefighters/EMTs (cardiovascular events) because we function more efficiently and are able to prevent injuries common to our profession (1). Nonetheless, sometimes I have a hard time motivating myself to exercise. The cure for this may be a challenge in the form of some type of athletic event that is just crazy enough to be really dreadful, if a regular training regimen isn’t followed.
I recently talked to Allison, one of the editors at JEMS, and she was excited because she had just completed her first half marathon. Allison, a former cross-country runner in high school, had trained for about 14 weeks and noticed a significant improvement in her endurance during this training period. “I just needed a goal, something to motivate me.”
For Allison, it was a challenge of the half marathon that cured her lack of motivation, but 13.1 miles is a long way to go—too long for me at least. Those of us who may not be ready for a ½ marathon could do something a little easier.
Going the Extra Mile
The 5K (3.1 miles) is an example. Sure, most people could get through the race, if they had to, without training, but the regular regimen of training for the 5K is going to make that race a whole lot more enjoyable. Googling “5K races in Montana” produced literally more than a hundred races, scheduled almost every weekend from January through November. More populated states probably offer more races.
This same strategy worked for one EMT in Butte, Mont. Marc, who had been a track star at Montana State when he was in college. “When I was in college, the training on a daily basis was already laid out for me. All the members of the team had to practice. It was a requirement.” He was a scholarship athlete and there was no way around it. However, when he became a working man with a family, training took a back seat to, well, just about everything else.
We conducted a fitness assessment for the EMTs in Butte and discussed strategies to address the fitness deficiencies of each individual. For Marc, the solution was simple: get him to start competing again. For the past decade, he’s had no real immediate or tangible reason to train. So it’s hard to tell someone, “Well, if you don’t train, you might have a heart attack in 30 years.” Mark is competitive, and he began training regularly once he started committing to participating in the actual races. He, like Allison had done, is now training for something more challenging, a half marathon in July. “Without a doubt,” Marc said, “registering for these races motivates me to train.”
Your event doesn’t have to be a running event. Personally, I don’t like running and would rather do just about anything else, and plenty of other events to participate in exist, such as bike races of varying distances from March through November. Mini triathlons, which combine swimming, biking and running, are becoming more popular and, though they are “just” mini, most people have to dedicate themselves to a well-thought out training schedule to prepare themselves for this event. Any other kind of sporting event could be considered. One close and well-conditioned friend of mine fought in the World Masters Judo Tournament when he was 72 years old.
It’s important to allow ample time for training. The training time required for a specific event will be different for different people and will depend on the specific competitive event they choose. The nice thing is athletic events are happening all the time. So monitor your progress and, when you feel your performance is at an acceptable level, go for it. This is easy enough to do with timed sports, and the training time may be as little as two-to-four weeks. With more demanding sports that may have variable demands, you may have to consult with training partners, teammates and/or coaches about your readiness to compete.
A training partner, maybe one who has agreed to compete in the same event, may also be a helpful option. Although some sports require partners and some don’t, it might be a good idea to recruit a friend to become your training partner to help motivate you.
I advise taking a little break following the event you’ve been training for to allow your body some time to recover. This can consist of an active form of recovery by choosing a different mode of exercise, such as swimming or biking, or it may involve a few days of no physical activity followed by gradually working your way back to the training schedule. Different people have different approaches to the post-event recovery strategy. I’m not biased towards any of them, but I do suggest getting back into the swing of training in a relatively timely fashion. Problems arise when the post-event celebration continues for a prolonged period. Go ahead and indulge for a day or two after the event, but don’t let it get out of hand.
Finally and maybe most importantly, compete against yourself. The nice thing about a standardized race like the 5K is in being able to evaluate your performance over time. Although race courses and conditions can vary considerably, the race time is still an objective measurement that allows you to track your progress during training and from race to race. Consider it a successful race or training session if your times are improving despite what place you finish in. If the event you’re competing in doesn’t allow you to evaluate a simple objective measurement, then you may have to adjust this approach, but you can still adhere to the same concept.
For example, some dynamic sports may not allow you to compare times, but setting quotas for various types of technique attempts may be a way of objectively measuring success despite whether you’ve won or lost. For example, the tennis player can set a quota for how many times they use the top spin on their forehand stroke, or the grappler can set a quota for the number of foot sweeps attempted during the stand-up grappling. I competed in my very first mini-triathlon this past summer and, although I could’ve calculated some objective goal based on the times and distances of the events, I simply established a goal of not drowning in the lake (seriously) and finishing the race. It was close, but I didn’t drown, and I eventually crossed the finish line.
If you’re having a hard time staying committed to an exercise schedule, the cure may be as simple as signing yourself up for an event that requires you to train consistently in order to complete it.
1. National Fire Protection Association. Firefighter Fatalities in the United States – 2007: http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/PDF/osfff.pdf