The Sports Science of Firefighting: A 5 Part Series. 

PART 3: Firefighting's silent devil is repetitive motion injury, which occurs over time and is difficult to diagnose until it's late in the game. The good news: with strong, progressive, skills-based training programs, these injuries can be reduced or prevented altogether.  

My most recent injuries include a busted biceps tendon in my shoulder (read: run in with a tree onskis), strained calf muscle (post summer triathlon), and that nagging hip pain I get with long distance running (wish it would go away). While these injuries have caused me similar discomfort, turns out each of them have unique treatments and preventions, ranging from shoulder surgery to Active Release Technique (ART)to yoga and foam rolling recovery

Let’s explore the difference, and why it matters to us as we train for the fire ground....

Ask any other athlete like me to describe a time they got hurt or injured, and often they’ll describe falling, tackling, cutting, twisting an ankle, tearing an ACL, getting a "sweet cut", breaking a wrist. Immediate pain, blood, or deformity makes these "traumatic episodes" obvious and recognizable. But they may also talk about what’s been “bothering” them. This silent devil is injury over long periods of time from repetitive motion, or “overuse injury.” Dr. Michael Alaia, Assistant Professor for Orthopedic Surgery at NYU Langone Hospital for Joint Diseases, asserts that overuse injury "can account for about half of all injuries in sports and occupations that require significant strenuous activity (read: firefighting).” He continued that “rapid increases in training level — for example, someone who runs 2 miles a day trying to do a [half marathon]— as well as an imbalance between training level and recovery time, are... the main reasons that people develop overuse injuries.”

Fire ground maneuver requires firefighters to go from zero to sixty — hauling hose, breaching doors, pushing, pulling, venting, climbing, heaving — over and over and over. Professional athletes do the same — thrashing their muscles, ligaments, and tendons again and again when they play their sport. But firefighters play their sport loaded with 60 lbs of weight in gear and tools, and they definitely don’t indulge in the perfect warm up (ever). Weight load exacerbates and magnifies common repetitive motion injuries such as tendonitis, IT band syndrome, rotator cuff strain, and stress fractures. This makes firefighters especially prone to overuse problems, and makes fireground-specific training critical to long term health. 

Additionally, risk is compounded for overuse injury, says Dr. Allison Arensman, Orthopedic Surgeon at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. She notes that “there [and] behaviors that put people at risk — sudden increase or new activity, poorly designed [or not ideal] work environment or equipment — but  there also seem to be people who are anatomically predisposed to such injuries or maybe even just more sensitive to the symptoms.” Dr. Alaia agrees, describing this risk as a perfect storm of "extrinsic and intrinsic factors." He says that an athlete's internal anatomy, “such as alignment and arch height”, and conditions external to the body, such as sports mechanics and training intensity, combine to cause damage to tissues. 

This all sounds depressing, but there’s great news! Dr. Alaia reminds us that “the best ways to prevent overuse injuries are readily identifiable and can easily be altered. Making small changes in equipment, sport mechanics, and training regimen can go a long way.” He cautions that starting or shifting any regimen should be gradual. In addition, the body must be trained for specific skills that you want it to accomplish — advancing charged firehose, crouching and crawling during search team operations, carrying a victim down a flight of stairs, stabilizing a 50 lb hydraulic extrication tool… you can fill in the rest. 

That’s where we come onto the scene. We’ve done the heavy lifting (pun intended and proud of it!) for you. We’ve broken down the fire ground into 8 simple maneuver areas and studied the key physiological risks within them. And we designed basic training to prepare you for this work. Our Steelhoses and circuits provide a one-stop shop to train skills-based movement with graduated weight-load.

Whatever your program, most important is to get out in front of risks and injuries before they man-handle you and your team. This way you can focus on fighting the fire and not your body!

Recommended Sports Medicine Reference for Overuse Injuries: American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM)