Wildland Firefighting and the Approach to Fitness: How We Can Improve

By Armand Moini, MTI Contributor

Imagine you are on an NFL football team. Imagine that this team considers itself a running team. If you want to be on the team, regardless of the position you play, you’d better enjoy running a lot. Imagine that all the workouts are run by a couple of the players who have played for a while and that they alternate running the team through workouts that they are familiar with. It’s football season, and before your game, you run four miles at race pace and do a few sets of pushups and pullups. The next day, you do a deck of cards workout someone devised that morning, then get ready for a game. Your team does not train in pads, helmets, or cleats. Those are saved for games only. To make it to the team, you skipped the combine. Instead, you were evaluated by a 1.5-mile run, pushups, pullups, and sit-ups. Everyone had their own interpretation of what a pushup or a pullup is for this test. 

Could there be ways for this team to focus their training more toward their sport? 

I submit to you that wildland firefighting units are teams of athletes. They are athletes because fitness is an important–yet not the only– variable critical to success. They are a team because cohesion is another variable that is critical to success. They are a team of athletes, and the sport is firefighting. I would argue that the cost of failure is higher here than in recreational sports. 

Things that I am not:  1) A seasoned wildland firefighter. I spent five seasons on a crew. 2) Someone with an advanced degree in kinesiology. I will try to reference credentialed experts. 3). A professional writer. My vocabulary and skill in presenting a cogent argument limit me. I will do my best to surmount this. 

Things that I am: 1) Someone who has observations and opinions on ways to focus fitness training. 2) A personal trainer and washed-up athlete who has had moderate success (and many failures) in the realm of physical performance. 3) Someone who wants to progress the discussion focused on finding ways to improve. 

Where should we start?
The mission statement. On baseball teams other than the Washington Nationals, the mission is likely to win baseball games. Similarly, the mission of fire crews outside of CalFire involves suppressing fires safely and professionally. A strength and conditioning coach on a MLB team likely designs every workout with the end goal of performance on the field in mind. As should we in the fire community. Everyone leading a training session should be able to assess, and explain to the team why the workout is the most beneficial one to improve likelihood of mission success. Sometimes, this may require more hiking. Sometimes it may require an easy day. Additionally, workouts should build upon one another with a purpose, rather than becoming a series of disjointed “this is an easy go-to, I thought of it this morning” workouts. 

What are the demands of the job?
Wildland firefighting requires passing of a “work capacity test,” that consists of a 3 mile walk in shorts and running shoes, on a track. It is almost universally regarded as a farce. On a difficult day, the demands could entail miles of hiking over rough, hilly terrain in boots, with well over 45 pounds of gear. Upon completion of the hike, work can begin immediately, requiring movements such as throwing vegetation, lifting and carrying chunks of logs, operating chainsaws and swinging hand tools and swatters. This will often happen at varying intensities for long durations.

Creating a more specific fitness test can be limited by the need to have a standard nationwide and logistical capabilities. However, here are some suggestions based on common movements in the field:

Step-ups/Inclined treadmill/Stairmaster tests (in boots and gear), are more representative of the demand of hiking uphill under load than walking on a track in running shoes. Farmer’s carries can be a better simulation than what currently exists of the demands of carrying a chainsaw/equipment/stretchers. Tire flips can be a closer simulation than what currently exists of picking up heavy rounds from logs from the ground and throwing them. Sledgehammer swings can be a closer simulation than what currently exists of swinging a hand tool forcefully against the ground or roots. Lateral medicine ball throws against a wall can be a better simulation than what currently exists of throwing armfuls of branches or brush. As crews must hike in, work, then hike out, my proposition is that a work specific fitness test should involve a hilly hike simulation, a work capacity circuit consisting of the above exercises, followed by another hilly hike simulation. All performed with boots and a pack. While there can be a plethora of limitations or arguments, the bottom line is that there are many ways the current work capacity test can be improved upon to give a better assessment of work specific fitness. In order to build and evaluate our training programs, we need a baseline. We also need to re-evaluate periodically in order to measure progress. 

What is the fitness of the group and what should the focus be?
A crew that does an individual race pace hike on Monday, followed by an individual race pace run on Tuesday, followed by a 500 pushups, 200 pullups workout on Wednesday, topped off with yoga on Thursday does not signal that it is focused on improving at hiking. By using a realistic fitness test, we can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the crew as a whole. While there can be a range of fitness levels on a crew, understanding a group’s strengths and weaknesses can save limited time by tailoring training to focus on specific improvements. This can also help tailor training to achieving mission specific goals and avoid some training myths.  

Every unit is a bit different. Individuals have strengths and weaknesses, and the team has collective strengths and weaknesses. However, in a training program, it is important to consider these characteristics:

Long Endurance: A 1.5-mile run is a test of aerobic fitness, but rarely lasts longer than 10-12 minutes. How can we modify endurance training to prepare for efforts that last hours, often on a daily basis? This could mean longer training at lower intensities, or mixed intervals of varying intensities. 

Chassis Integrity: Sit-ups and Pamela Reif youtube workouts are good for showing off at the beach. The core strength on the job requires the coordinated use of the legs and the core. Picking up a log from the ground and throwing it laterally. Stepping up on a rock and lifting a fuel jug. Resisting a twisting motion while walking downhill, under load, on uneven terrain. In a field where injury runs rampant, injury prevention should be a key aspect of the training program. Studies show definitively that, “core stability’s strength and motor control play an essential role in preventing knee injury” (Guo, Zhang, Wu, 2021). 

Work Capacity: Many days, a crew may do a hike or run. Some days the training may be a circuit. This does not do much in terms of specificity as a work capacity circuit combining the two. According to the USDA, “for work capacity, where both strength and aerobic fitness are important, combined training makes good sense” (Sharkey, 2009). 

To my knowledge as of this writing, MTI is the only organization out there writing programs that are specifically geared toward work specific fitness in fire. Rob Shaul has assured me that I am not required to agree with his approach, but I think he has established a strong framework to use for training programs. Here is an overview of MTI’s assessments and programs:

Relative Strength Assessment: This is an assessment of an athlete’s strength relative to their bodyweight, with the purpose of moving in the mountains in mind. It involves a hinge lift, bench press, pull up test, and front squat. Muscular strength is an important precursor to muscular endurance and is pivotal to injury prevention. 

Tactical Athlete Work Capacity Assessment: This test is performed under a 25 pound load, and involves three sets of three minute shuttle sprints while getting in the prone every 25 meters. This is designed to assess the athlete’s capacity to work at high intensity. 

Wildland Fire Fitness Assessment: This test involves maximum strict pull ups, maximum hand release pushups in 90 seconds, a sand bag keg lift (lifting a sandbag laterally from the ground and placing it on a ledge) assessment (60 lifts on each side), the work capacity assessment, and a one mile run with 25 pound pack, 300 step ups with the pack, and an additional mile with the pack. 

Wildland Fire Endurance Assessment: This assessment involves a three mile run in boots with no pack, 600 step ups with a 45 pound pack, and 3 miles with a 75 pound pack. 

Wildland Fire Training Programs: These are a progressing series of five day a week training programs that aim to build strength, work capacity, chassis integrity, and endurance. These programs are designed for athletes to train with for the pre-season in order to be fit for work specific duties. 

It is easy to argue over the details of these assessments and programs, however that is not my objective. Are Mountain Tactical’s training programs perfect? Probably not, and individual needs/nutrition/goals can play a factor. Other articles can be devoted to arguing the details, but I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. These assessments and programs are important because they analyze the movements, intensities, durations, and conditions of wildland firefighting. This is something that is often missing in training programs and assessments for wildland firefighting. After an analysis of the mission-specific fitness is conducted, it is necessary to design programs with the goal of improving at the components of mission-direct fitness. This approach is currently missing in my brief experience. It is a well-known fact that a crew may have to hike uphill, lift logs, throw brush, swing tools, then hike back. Yet the assessment for this is a walk in running shoes, and physical training sessions don’t always reflect the job being trained for. 

Training Myth 1: Hard=Good,the more hard workouts, the better, it builds toughness.
Swimming a mile is hard for many people. So is doing a burpee mile. I would contend that neither would do much to benefit a soccer team during their season. Every training session should be designed with purpose. Testing a group’s toughness and grit can be very beneficial. I would argue that the purpose of the “gut check” should be communicated and nestled in the greater goal of improving as a firefighter. Our bodies use three different metabolic pathways, leaning on different ones more heavily during different intensities of exercise. In a study on training intensities, results showed that a group that trained at varying intensities and durations increased their VO2 max 50% more than the control groups that trained at only moderate or at high intensities (Coakley and Passfield, 2017). Not every hike needs to be conducted at race pace in order to be effective. Possible variations could include having longer hikes at a slower pace, moderate hikes with higher weight, short, fast hill repeats, short or medium hikes that incorporate work specific circuit training. 

Not treating every training session as a competition does not make the session easy or soft, it merely varies the focus.

Training Myth 2: I’ve been doing this for X amount of years, it works and we’ve always done it this way.
Just because you’ve always done it a certain way doesn’t mean that you weren’t doing it wrong. Or that you can’t do it better. In my brief experience, it is common for crews to take pride in going as hard as possible on every workout. Sometimes, this includes multiple days of running, week after week. While racing every run and hike may not always be intended, the culture of the group may promote this. When this is done without regard to the abilities of the members, it can become harmful. This is especially so when a crew can be called to a demanding fire immediately following a workout. Research on overtraining shows that, “periods of intensive training, where adequate recovery is not provided…can lead to decreased performance, physiological and psychological fatigue or illness, and can require several months for recovery (Symons, Bruce and Main, 2023). There is a high rate of chronic injury in the wildland fire community. This is exacerbated by the fact that many attempt to ignore these injuries out of a sense of duty to the team. Designing training based on the physical capabilities of the team members can help. 


1) Many wildland firefighters work seasonally. They are paid only half the year, but expected to train for their job on an unpaid basis. During winters, they may face limitations such as access to hills or equipment, or time to train due to school, jobs, or family obligations. Ideally, as a season approaches, a sports team should be shifting toward sports specific training and playing their sport as conditioning. For firefighters, this should mean that seasonal and new employees arrive fully conditioned and that workouts are conducted in gear and are representative of the job demands. This is difficult to do when much of a crew has had to train individually. 

2) Education. Leaders in the wildland fire community are highly trained and certified. Yet physical training falls off the wayside when it comes to their education. It is assumed that being fit is synonymous with knowing the best ways to train. If this were the case, elite sports teams would not waste money on professional strength and conditioning coaches. I would submit to you that some exercise science and programming training should be part of the professional leadership training for wildland firefighters. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge in this field can lead to decreased performance and increased injury. 

3) Time and unpredictable schedules. Research on endurance athletes shows that tapering before competition should be done by maintaining intensity and reducing volume by 41-60%. This has been shown to yield significant performance results (Wang and Zhong, 2023). However, it is difficult to do this when trying to quickly increase the fitness of a group that is in season, but has not had a chance to train together yet. Furthermore, training programs are often interrupted by unplanned time demands and fires. This could be mitigated by writing training programs for seasonal employees, with periodization that aims to prepare them for peak job performance by the start of the season. 

Armand is a USMC Vet, former Wildland Firefighter and current full time student. 


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