The Race for Glory

By Jamie Rockwin, PT, DPT, PN1, FASNY Health and Wellness Committee Vice Chair

Springtime marks not only a time of renewal, growth and beauty, but it also spurs a blossoming passion for the parade and drill team season that burns inside many firefighters. Parades and drills bring a wave of anticipation heightened by an overwhelming sense of camaraderie that sets the atmosphere.

Ladders clang, water sprayed from the pressure checks cools the air, and a warm breeze carries the smell of barbecue through the air. We won’t mention the added bonus of a little spirit in your glass while rooting for your team to win the “Race for Glory.”

What department will take home the trophy for “three-man ladder”? Who will be the fastest on “buckets”? Who will win “best appearing department”?

In New York State, there are 101 drill teams and 1,786 volunteer fire districts. Parading and drilling is taken very seriously in the fire departments. For over 100 years, departments have been competing against each other and displaying their firefighting skills.

Parading and drilling are physically demanding skills. It is no easy task to walk two miles in a straight line while keeping in step with your fellow members. Being fully dressed in heavy polyester longsleeved jackets and shirts while donning hats and gloves doesn’t help your body cool in the heat of summer. Some departments even carry heavy, waving flags that are strapped around their waists while marching in the formation of a color guard. Trust me, I know the feeling firsthand. As a former member of the North Merrick Ladies Auxiliary and wife of a sitting North Merrick Fire Commissioner and Ex-Capt. Scott Rockwin, parading and drilling were thrilling and familiar functions for us.

In these fun and exciting times, no one ever expects to get hurt, but it occurs every year and it can happen to you. As in any sporting event, accidents are inevitable. One can get hit in the face with a hurled coupling, trip over a strewn hose, twist a knee jumping off a truck or fall while climbing the ladders. But – and here is a big “but” – many of them can be prevented.

“Old fashioned” and “motorized” competitions alike each require specialized skills and place extreme physical demands on the human body. You not only need to be able to possess the skill to run the race; you have to have the basic physical capacity to do so.

Skills can include, but are not limited to, the ability to run, jump, climb, lunge, squat, lift, carry, push and pull. You will have to be proficient at these tasks quickly and while under great stress.

Jumping off a racing car, carrying, lifting and throwing heavy buckets of water are just a few physical requirements of the race. You need to climb, lift and dig wet moving ladders, and hold down a heavy moving hose while pressurized water streams through it.

These are no easy tasks. A team cannot be triumphant without the key foundations of these skills. There can be no weak links in the “Race for Glory.”

Flexibility and mobility of your upper and lower body are the first prerequisites. One cannot be expected to move efficiently, let alone quickly and abruptly, without symmetrical range of motion throughout the body.

For instance, if your shoulders are tight, you cannot reach to  you cannot run quickly, lunge, squat or change positions. Poor flexibility and mobility can result in the loss of the race due to poor performance, but it can also result in injuries such as rotator cuff and hamstring tears.

I have treated a few firefighters with these injuries as a result of the “Race for Glory.” In parading, everyone needs to move in unison. If one person has tight shoulders and hamstrings, their swing and stride are not symmetrical. This results in a poor appearance: not “best in show”!

Once you establish your ability to move well, your focus needs to be on efficiency of motor control. Motor control is the process by which we use our brain to activate and coordinate the muscles and limbs involved in the performance of a motor skill.

To win the “Race for Glory,” this next building block is required to achieve optimal performance and avoid injury. Stability of your core is essential for keeping your spine aligned during activities such as jumping off a moving truck, running with a hose, lifting and climbing up a moving ladder, or carrying a heavy flag.

Even the act of marching in place requires core stability. Poor reflexive stabilization can compromise stability and can cause you to injure yourself. It sets up an increased risk for a fall while carrying a hose when the water pressure is hit, or misstep when running or climbing particularly on ladders or wet grounds. Back, shoulder and knee injuries are at an all-time high without these fundamental abilities.

Achievement of key functional movement patterns will allow optimal performance. One must have flexibility, reflexive stability and the ability to shift weight to coordinate the fundamental movement patterns required of each task to win the “Race for Glory.”

Let’s use the bucket competition as an example. This is a functional task of running to the water vat to fill the bucket, squatting into the vat and then lifting that bucket to hand to the first man on the ladder. This functional task of passing the bucket requires mobility of the arms and legs, stability of the trunk, overall strength and good body mechanics. You cannot do this well or without potential for injury without the essentials. Training for the “Race for Glory” requires not just lifting heavy weights or running for endurance. It requires practice in functional movement patterns.

How does one know if they lack flexibility, stability and proper movement patterns? Basically, you don’t even realize it.

Our bodies typically compensate for lack of mobility or strength and then you move in a dysfunctional pattern that predisposes you to potential injury. Now, couple those bad postures with weakened muscles in a physically demanding task and it is a race not for glory, but for disaster. Injury is imminent.

No worries, help is here. One mission of the newly created FASNY Health and Wellness Committee is to educate you in preventative measures. We will create tools to help you learn to improve your flexibility and mobility, increase your stability and motor control, and provide you with proper strengthening techniques so you can not only win the “Race for Glory,” but the race for life!

The 2015 NYSVFP&DTCA New York State Championship Motorized Drill at Ridge on Saturday, August 15th, 2015

Here are five tips to prep for your “Race for Glory” …

1. Hydrate before and after the race

  • Before activity:
    • At least four hours before, drink 16 to 20 fluid ounces of water
    • Drink eight to 12 fluid ounces of water 10 to 15 minutes before exercise
  •  After activity:
    • The easiest way to figure this out without any calculations is to examine urine color. The lighter the color, the more hydrated you are. If you have dark urine, 20 to 24 fluid ounces will replenish your water loss.
    • Example: If you weigh 200 pounds, you should drink 134 ounces a day

2. Stretch (dynamic and static)

  • Before activity:
    • Dynamic stretching is moving your muscles in a precise manner, lengthening the muscles to warm the tissues up. Studies show that this is the best type of stretching to do before activity as it decreases risk for muscle tearing.
    • Dynamic stretching should mimic the activity you are about to do and repeat these basic moves for 10 reps.
  • After activity:
    • Static stretching is holding your muscles in a lengthened position for 10 to 30 seconds two to four times.

3. Train your core with resistance exercise

  • Train each major muscle group two to three days a week using a variety of equipment. Remember, you don’t have to use a leg press or a dumbbell. You can make it fun by flipping tires!
  • As a rule, two to four sets of each exercise with 10 to 12 repetitions will improve your strength and power.
  • Note: Wait 48 hours between resistance training exercises for muscle recovery.

4. Improve your endurance

  • Adults should get 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercises a week. You can break these up into multiple sessions of 30 minutes 5 days a week or smaller sessions at 10 minutes at a time. Remember to always work up to activity and intensity to avoid injury.

5. Functional fitness training

  • Neuromotor exercise is recommended two to three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes each session. They will help “train your brain” for certain activities needed for the “Race for Glory.”
  • These exercises should involve balance, agility and coordination.

Stay tuned for more on tips on how to stay active, healthy and strong from the Health and Wellness Committee!