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5 Important Factors for Preventing Injury in Tactical Athletes

Baseline Aerobic Capacity

At the heart of every tactical job is the need to escape or mitigate danger when it arises. It doesn’t matter the job: military, police, fire. You have to be able to chase down a suspect, escape an explosion, or go into and come out of a fire. All of that will take a toll on your cardiovascular system – whether it’s the stress on your heart immediately or if it’s your body’s process of using oxygen and expelling carbon monoxide. You have to be able to use your aerobic system efficiently to do your job well – which essentially means making sure you and your team is safe. Does this mean spending 20 minutes on a stair machine or running 5 miles a day? Absolutely not. Endurance based training is not what you’ll be doing on at a fire scene, while jumping over fences in a chase, or when doing obstacle courses. It’s a combination of power based and endurance based systems, so both need to be challenged to create adaptation. You have to create a mixture of long-runs or sustained movements combined with strength and power movements. And you have to work at a specific intensity, AS LONG AS YOUR MOVEMENTS ARE PROFICIENT. And you have to understand how hard your body is working – this is best assessed by listening to your body. We call this “ratings of perceived exertion” – or a rating of how hard you think you’re pushing it. If you feel like your workout is cake, you’re more likely to be at a 1-4/10; this would correlate to between 10-40 % of your heart rate maxium (the total your heart is able to pumped based on your age and other factors). If you felt like you’re working harder – not the hardest you’ve ever worked but definitely breathing hard, and getting tired of the movement, you’re more likely at the desired 6-7/10. This is about 60-70% your heart rate max and will help you push to gain aerobic capacity. You don’t want to get so hard that you can’t keep going – so hard you HAVE to stop is more along the lines of that 10/10, or 100% (at) your heart rate max. You don’t want to be here for long, if at all.

Baseline Load Tolerance

Tactical athletes don’t just run away form or towards danger. They also have to be able to manipulate certain pieces of equipment to do their job. For firefighters, this can be advancing a charged hoseline or moving debris within a home. For police, this may be physically fighting a suspect, carrying a variety of tools/equipment, or moving objects out of the way to apprehend a suspect. For military – this can be anything; carrying a battle buddy, carrying heavy ruck sacks, carrying specific equipment. All areas of tactical athletes do have heavy lifting. To lift heavy efficiently, you have to have a good baseline functional movement pattern. And you have to have a load tolerance. If you go from lifting chips to your mouth while watching TV and try to go directly to carrying your 160# battle buddy – you’re likely to get injured. Your body just doesn’t have a tolerance to that kind of load. You have to safely progress the amount of load/weight that your body is lifting and carrying slowly over a period of time. Any sharp increase in that load can and will lead to injury.

Nutrition

This should be pretty self-explanatory. You get out of your body what you put into it. If you’re consistently putting cheeseburgers and beer into your body, it will not perform up to standard. If you have to go out to a fire scene and your body is dehydrated because you only drink soda and you never drink water, with the amount of sweating you’ll do you’re more likely to pass out; at minimum you won’t be fighting a fire as efficiently as you could be. Whatever you put into your body that’s processed will take longer to be broken down, and won’t be broken down completely. Your body can’t take the nutrients from the food – the protein, fats, and carbs – to utilize them for fuel. And whatever excess you ingest will be turned into fat by your body. The more fat you have, the harder it will be to move with your gear. Not to mention there’s less cholesterol in your system to clog up your arteries. So, if it comes from a bag or a box – it’s probably not good for you. Be an adult, minimize your fast food chicken nuggets in favor of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Stress-Management Techniques

Here’s the topic that means the most to me! Stress management is so important in our tactical athletes. This is a population that sees the unimaginable and keeps going. They come to situation they may or may not live through, then once they do make it – there’s a memory lodged in their brain for the rest of their life. And the only thing they really have is the ability to talk to family members, chaplains, and their brothers (and sisters) to get some closure. A lot of tactical athletes turn to alcohol or other substances to quiet their minds, which obviously takes a toll on your body, dehydrates you, allows you to make bad decisions…the works. Figuring out how each individual tactical athlete deals with stress is the first step. Do they act out in anger, do they drink, do they exercise? Understanding your outlet is huge in being able to manage these actions, ideas, etc. Out of these, healthy exercise to increase chemicals in the brain that improve mood and that benefits their entire system is the best. But only if it’s healthy, structured, and safe; one of the biggest thing involved in this is adequate rest. Without enough sleep, the body can’t recover. Without recovery, it’s just added stress to the body.

Strong back, posterior chain, pelvic floor

Here we are! The strength in the system! Without adequate strength, feeding somewhat back into load tolerance, your system will not be ready to take on the challenge of power-based movements and actions. The specified areas here – the pelvic floor, posterior chain, and back; all of these are areas we typically see needing increased activation patterns in the general public. But the tactical athletes use these systems much more often. With a strong back, meaning one that’s resilient to load tolerances, you can move more efficiently and you reduce your risk of injury to this system. The posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, calves) is important in all lower extremity and trunk movements. When this system is firing adequately, it will reduce your risk of injury to the back and lower extremity. And finally, the pelvic floor – the one we leave out so often. This system is important in support of your internal organs and to the stability of your overall system. Making sure you know how this area works, and how to properly activate it – will also save you from injury in the future. Notice I never actually said weakness. Many of our systems aren’t “weak.” They have the adequate strength; they just need to be called to action correctly.

If you’re a tactical athlete that has any questions about these areas – in how to implement these principles into your workout routines, in how to find a workout routine, how to eat well, or how to deal with stress better. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me. If I’m not the person, I will find the resources to help. If you’re interested in becoming a tactical athlete or working with tactical athletes, also contact me. I’m always here to help.

tristan@vertexpt.com