Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ah, Rest!

After slogging on for an unprecedented 12-week, no break stint, Time Off! Some of you Challenge addicts might be in withdrawal, but the hard-working members of the Crüe welcome the time of respite.

One of the most overlooked components of physical training is rest. It’s an integral part of the General Adaption Syndrome (GAS). I continue to believe that a large number of our die-hards still adhere to the adage: No Pain, No Gain. No one ever got fit without sweat. There is no magic pill or plug-in the wall thing that’s going to take the place of the Work Out. But muscles require rest to recover.

Pain is nature’s way of telling you to back off. DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) comes from microscopic tears in the cellular fabric of muscle cells. Leakage follows with edema, putting pressure on nerve cell endings. Extreme workouts can give rise to rhabdomyolsis, a potentially lethal condition where protein leaks out of the cells and interferes with the ability of the kidneys to process urea. We’ll talk more about rhabdo in an upcoming Blog.

But, back to the rest thing. Periodization is the process of allowing certain muscle groups to recover between workouts. For a muscle to gain strength, it must be stressed beyond the usual daily loading. Power, not to be confused with strength quickly becomes refractory to improvements after fatigue. Depending upon the severity of the workout, one day might not be enough. With advancing age, your recovery curve becomes a lot longer. Ah, the benefits of youth.

Regrettably, without the ability to look at blood serum enzymes, it’s difficult to know where you are. Staleness has some subjective cues, like “how do you feel?” Listening to your body takes some time. If you’re rolling out of the rack in the AM and feel sore and stiff, you’re not ready to pound your body into some kind of submission.

The major risk of overtraining is a susceptibility to connective tissue injury. Muscles can also tear, but because they’re heavily vascularized, they heal quickly, especially if you help out with rest and ice. Anti-inflammatories like Motrin are effective. Tendons and ligaments take a lot longer to repair because they have very little blood flow.

I think it would be interesting to look at our injury rates for this sport and compare them to say, softball. I think that we’re well ahead of that cohort. But it does trouble me when I hear of injuries to our competitors, regardless of where the injury took place. Sometimes its doing an innocuous activity that you would never guess had any risk- like walking up stairs.

The Sportsmedicine model of active rest and light range of motion activity has been proven to greatly accelerate the recovery period. No one who’s doing anything active is going to escape musculoskeletal injuries. We just want to be smart about it and remember that rest is the missing variable in a lot of workout routines.

From Whence Came the Challenge?

For the uninitiate (a person unfamiliar with a specific topic or subject) upon first seeing the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, the likely question: “What is this and where did it come from?“ Good questions, both.

Back in the dark ages of personnel selection, fire chiefs believed that big(ger) people tended to excel at the avocation. Ergo, there were minimum height and weight standards. No one considered that women would ever want a career in this most male of occupations. Disparate impact was an unfamiliar term in those days. So, in 1975, Chief David Gratz who was the director of fire-rescue service for Montgomery County (MD) and Dr. Leonard Marks paid us a visit at the Sports Medicine Center of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, Department of Kinesiology. They wanted to know if there was a way to measure what it took to, for example, climb a ladder and chop a hole in a roof. “Sure,” we remarked.

FEMA was still a distant gleam in someone’s eye, but the formation of what would become the National Fire Administration was gaining some traction. This new agency under the Department of Commerce would have money to fund research. A research proposal was cobbled together and submitted with the backing of our US Senator, J. Glen Beall. For the modest sum of $87,216 we embarked on a project that would become the first study to link empirically physical performance constructs with simulated job tasks for structural firefighters.

One-hundred greater Washington area firefighters were randomly selected by age and political jurisdiction strata and underwent laboratory-based tests for aerobic and anaerobic kinetics as well as other demographic data. The results were correlated against performance on a series of linked fire ground evolutions. Technically, we used mutliple-regresson and canonical correlation to create a model of success. In other words, a profile of fitness that could predict performance on frequently performed, non-skill dependent, arduous fire suppression tasks.

The Criterion Tasks were nominated by the Training Officers subcommittee of the COG Fire Chiefs Committee. These tasks were corroborated through surveys and have been replicated in numerous jurisdictions across the US. The objective was to focus on a core of Essential Functions that were ubiquitous to the fire service, much like hanging a door would be for carpentry. Local jurisdictions might feel strongly that they would want to add logical accessories such as the ability to swim where water was a part of the first due equation.

Morphing into what would ultimately become the Essential Functions Test (EFT), hundreds of fire departments across the nation in the early 90’s were signing on for the use of the “Combat Test” as a selection, or in some cases, retention test. In 1991 we held our first Washington, DC Council of Governments (COG) sponsored competition at the Maryland Fire-Rescue Institute. Never intended as a race, but rather as a personnel selection instrument, the EFT received kudos as being age and sex neutral (in other words, age and sex were not factors in scoring). But, you know how firefighters can be and speed to completion ignited a game.

The general premise in personnel selection is that your natural abilities can take you wherever you wish to go. The Constitution of the United States affords you with equal opportunity. The results are on you. This called the Merit System- the novel idea of hiring people based upon objective data.

With the rapidly ascending popularity of the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, the major focus of our efforts became the fine tuning of an International Sports competition. For several years, the great unanswered question was, “Can someone actually do this under 2:00?” Mind you, most firefighters would walk through the course in around five minutes. The very practical application of the EFT has been overshadowed by the 10-year run on ESPN, and the 20-years of a 24-stop annual US tour. There are still departments that require their personnel to walk through the course each year. The measurable benefits are increased safety by reducing line-of-duty musculo-skeletal injuries by fielding a fit workforce. Sounds like a plan to me. No one in our shop ever thought that these insane times would become the de rigueur.

Hopefully, this little tutorial might clear up some misconceptions that continue to linger on the still current and compelling need for physically fit firefighters.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bottoms Up

The number of heat records set this summer have shattered many that have stood for decades. It’s estimated that over 200M people were affected this year. All the while, the mighty Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge has bravely soldiered on. On a positive note, we’ve had one transport- an individual who admitted self medicating with Creatine.

I hear a lot of comments from spectators that it must be brutal wearing all that gear. And it is- if you had to wear it for periods longer than a few minutes. Fortunately, the time on the course does not add appreciably to the thermal load. The body has an amazing thermoregulatory system. Within a few minutes of maximum muscular contractions, core temperature can climb 1°C. We all know about the heat-injury-illness paradigm. Core temperatures of 104°F are consistent with heat stroke- except when it isn’t. Like in well conditioned athletes who can tolerate running a marathon with this range of core temperature without any consequences.

There is, however, a critical part of the equation: hydration. Your water on board has more to do with maintaining homeostasis than anything else. Even a well-conditioned athlete can’t make it without replacement. Another adaptation is retaining electrolytes. Well fit athletes lose less electrolytes than do unconditioned people.

Sports drinks such as Gatorade provide essential electrolytes as well as fuel. But these are poorly tolerated in the presence of arduous physical activity. I continually remind people that the thirst mechanism is about 20 minutes behind the power curve. In other words, but the time you’re thirsty, it’s too late. Sports drinks should be taken at least an hour before, and not again until the event is well over.

It’s rewarding to watch all the Challenge athletes walking around with their gallons of water. Proper hydration needs planning and you need to start the day before the event. Urine color is the best indices of your status. There is a risk of overdoing it and creating a condition of hyponatremia- where you’re losing electrolytes because you’re overwhelming your kidneys. While a rare phenomena, it can have grave consequences.

Staying out of the sun, ingesting about one pint per hour (to make up for insensitive fluid loss) is the preferred pre-race preparation. Training in the heat is the fastest way to become acclimatized to heat. But, the old adage: “everything in moderation” works every time. Oh yeah; and on the point of beer, it is not a good hydration source. You do not buy beer, you rent it. Alcohol will dehydrate you- before AND after the Challenge.