Recovering Through Nutrition – A Path to Longevity

March 31, 2019

One of the first steps in applying for a position of a firefighter is reading the job description on the entry application. Generally, there is a list contained within the application detailing the minimum requirements a candidate must meet in order to qualify for the position. There is one piece of important information missing, however, that most departments don’t require, but is essential for a long and healthy career as a firefighter—that is the understanding of the nutritional needs of the position. It is not hard to understand this fact, especially seeing the levels of injuries occurring on a daily basis throughout the profession. It is just plain physiology that the job of a firefighter is not always compatible with the design and capability of the human body. Firefighting is a hard and strenuous activity that requires a maintenance schedule and a nutritional intake of that of an Olympic athlete in order to avoid any unnecessary injuries.

Recovering after working on the fireground is key to longevity as a firefighter and your quality of life. While there are many factors in the recovery process, nutrition is often neglected in the fire station. With an occupation as physically demanding as firefighting, it is important to nourish the body so you are ready for the next run and be pain-free the next day.

Repair, Rebuild, Replenish

With a physically demanding occupation, it is important to repair, rebuild, and replenish your body from the damage created in the fireground. Similar to an athlete taking care of their body post-workout, it is crucial for firefighters to prioritize recovery with a job that requires life-or-death feats.

Post-fireground, you want to address the following:

● Inflammation – Inflammation can cause pain, stiffness, and soreness after physical activity. Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s.
● Muscle Repair – If you don’t replenish damaged muscle after prolonged strenuous exercise, the tissue damage will lead to limited performance and limited training adaptation. Muscle damage does not only occur during strenuous activity, but can continue for hours after.
● Fatigue – While sleep is the main contributor to low energy and fatigue, nutrition can impact your energy levels and mental sharpness. Low energy and fatigue can be dangerous for firefighters because you never know when you will be called into a potential life-threatening situation.
● Performance – Part of recovery is to improve your performance for the next run. Similar to athletes replenishing their bodies post-workout to improve their endurance, speed, or strength, providing the right nutrients to your body will help you improve physical performance and reach goals like weight loss or muscle gain.

Quality Choices

To repair, rebuild, and replenish your body, it is important to make quality food choices. This takes awareness of the body’s needs and a conscious effort to fulfill them.

While there are medication and tools to decrease inflammation, one of the most powerful tools is consuming anti-inflammatory foods. According to Harvard Health Publishing, an anti-inflammatory diet should include tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fatty fish, and fruit. These foods are high in antioxidants, healthy fats, and polyphenols, a protective compound found in plants.

To repair muscle tissue damage, you need to replenish glycogen and stimulate protein synthesis. According to the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, glycogen will not be replenished until there is adequate carbohydrate intake, and intake of carbohydrates and proteins is essential for protein synthesis.

There are also studies that show intaking dietary cholesterol after high intense training may increase protein synthesis. One study showed an increase in lean mass in elderly men and women after 12 weeks of exercise and high cholesterol intake. Cholesterol also aids in cell membrane viscosity, which might help muscles repair and adapt faster.

To optimize recovery, choosing the right types of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is essential. First, choosing whole, unprocessed foods in every category is important, because highly processed foods can increase inflammation, damage cells, and negatively impact body composition. High sugar and refined carbohydrate intake promote inflammation and can lead to fatigue and reduced mental clarity. Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are good sources of carbohydrates to replenish the body after strenuous activity. Also, vibrant vegetables and fruits are filled with micronutrients to boost your immune system.

Choosing the right type of protein post-fireground is important to stimulate muscle repair and minimize high cortisol levels generated in the fireground, as constant high cortisol levels can cause damaged blood vessel and arteries and high blood pressure. Consume fast-absorbing and easily digestible protein like lean meats, fish, legumes, nuts, and eggs to limit cortisol production and stimulate protein synthesis.

Healthy fats are essential to rebuilding and replenishing your body after intense activity. Foods filled with trans-fat and refined oils, like fast food, are not good sources of fat or dietary cholesterol, increasing inflammation, negatively affecting energy levels and mental clarity, and slowing down metabolism. Omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish and healthy fats found in foods like olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and nuts decrease inflammation, reduce aches and pains, improve body composition, improve mental sharpness, and lowers risk of heart disease.

Creating a post-fireground diet to optimize recovery will help your career as a firefighter and improve your quality of life. Don’t make the process too complicated. By slowly incorporating these recovery foods into your diet, you will allow yourself to properly nourish your body for duty and provide an adaptation period for a long and lasting career.

By Alicia Iwakiri, Grapevine Staff

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