Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Tools of the Trade: The road to recovery

March 27, 2020
By Sean Kingswell

When we think fitness, we usually think of physical exercise. Exercise is vital to fitness and health, but to be implemented effectively, there needs to be understanding and implementation of two crucial components: rest and recovery.

The reality is, we do not get in better shape while we exercise. We get in better shape during recovery while our body adapts to the stressors that were put on it during exercise. In the world of exercise, rest and recovery are two different things. Technically, rest is the time between sets during exercise and recovery is the recuperation period between workouts.

The rest between sets is relevant and needs to be adjusted based on your goals. For a lot of metabolic routines, the rest may be quite minimal. For hypertrophy (muscle growth), a rest time of 45 seconds to a minute is ideal. Strength or power workouts will have longer rests. The rep range and load are also tied directly to goals. Recovery can and should be an active process in a couple of ways. Firstly, you must have an active process, meaning something that we intentionally engage in, then focus on movement (being active) at the right levels can assist in recovery. Movement allows nutrient rich blood to enter the area for healing. It is more than our musculoskeletal system that needs to recover as our nervous and endocrine systems are taxed heavily also. Age may have an impact on our ability to recover and we need to pay close attention to how we are feeling over time.

Active recovery simply means being active during non-exercise days/times at a low or moderate intensity. Some examples of active recovery include stretching, walking, hiking, swimming, myofascial release and biking. These can be an opportunity to recover both mentally and physically without being sedentary.


There are also numerous recovery techniques that can and should be implemented. Sleep is probably the most important aspect of recovery. This can include getting quality night time sleep as well as naps at the right length.

Stretching helps blood get to the muscle and can include dynamic and static stretching. Some form of warm up is ideal before static stretching. The “hurting so good” massage also aids in recovery and can even lower compounds of inflammation. Myofascial release is beneficial and also helps with mobility and injury prevention. Many swear by the use of compression garments which are, of course, part of the R.I.C.E principle (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) and may assist the body in healing.

Nutrition is another crucial part of recovery. This includes both water and food. Water aids in digestion (getting nutrients distributed) and keeps the cells healthy and effective. Urine should be clear and plentiful if we are getting enough water. A balanced diet with an emphasis on adequate protein is a good idea as protein is vital for muscle repair and building. Hot and cold therapy can both be effective recovery techniques. Different modalities may work for different people and under different circumstances. Find what works best for you.

Firefighters do not just recover from exercise. We also recover from injury and this also needs to be a very active process. Following the recommendations of medical professionals should be a top priority. I have coached many people over the years who have had a nagging injury, who admit to not following the advice of physiotherapists when it came to exercises and or stretches recommended. Have a good health team in place and follow their guidance. Having a physiotherapist, chiropractor, massage therapist, doctor, etc., that you respect and have rapport with will aid in your health and overall recovery.

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be a consequence of exercise. This is typically due to the negative movement of an exercise as less fibers are recruited and the ones that are become heavily taxed. DOMS does not necessarily indicate a good or bad workout, but too much soreness can have consequences. A high level could certainly have an impact on a fire scene in terms of pain, mobility, range of motion and more.

Overtraining is just what is sounds like and the symptoms can include poor sleep, moodiness, fatigue, decreased performance and a change in appetite just to name a few. One very important point is that our effort at a fire could easily be considered a workout. If we are taxed physically, our body doesn’t know if it is from a fire scene or the gym. Incorporate recovery techniques post fire as well as post workout. Shower after a fire to ensure the best chance of decontamination. A shower can also be a passive warm-up for some static stretching. Keep the above strategies in mind after exertion both personally and professionally and understand that recovery is as important as the workload.

Sean Kingswell is an experienced professional firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program. Contact Sean at

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