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The Tactical Athlete

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

The Tactical Athlete: Supporting a Healthy Career

By now you’ve read the term “Tactical Athlete” a handful of times on this website. Maybe you’ve heard it previously, perhaps on a podcast or an advertisement. Have you ever considered the meaning? Other coexisting terms include tactical fitness, occupational readiness, and tactical professions.

When speaking to the differences between athletes and tactical athletes, it comes down to specific traits and characteristics each possess; these are based off their chosen profession. This article will provide you with an understanding and in confidence, about what it truly means to be a tactical athlete.

What is a Tactical Athlete?

Tactical athletes are personnel in various occupations inclusive of military, law enforcement, rescue professions, and firefighting. Professions where unique training methods are used to optimize and enhance occupational performance. Personnel are required to develop general physical preparedness, in addition to technical and tactical skills, in order to achieve their objectives and overcome potential threats to their safety and reducing chance of injury.

What is Tactical Fitness?

Tactical fitness simply comes down to work. It’s about creating unique training programs that carry over into daily movements; movements that optimize your occupational performance.

These movements can be broken down into the “Big 8” which incorporate your ability to push, pull, carry, lift, drag, core performance, flexibility, and overall capacity. Pulling up a ladder, carrying an injured civilian to safety, or hoisting your teammate over a fence to continue pursuit. Simply put, these fundamental movements are relevant across every occupation to support your ability to execute basic job tasks, reduce occurrence of injury, improve recovery and resiliency.

Outside of the Big 8, cardiac fitness plays a massive role in these professions. If you can think back to any instance where you were too gassed to make a proper decision, did it effect the overall outcome? Your ability to react and think clearly under stress is a must. Increasing your cardiac capacity will help you perform longer, more efficient, allow you to make better decisions under stress, and recover faster. Cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of firefighter fatalities with a majority being preventable.

Understanding Demands Based on Occupation

Throwing weights around in the gym can be a good way to increase strength and endurance for the job, but have you ever considered that most of the time, objects being lifted in the line of duty are typically oddly shaped or awkward to move?

Equipment and objects often lifted on the job, are unequally balanced in comparison to weights you would see in the gym. It’s crucial in your profession to train with non-traditional equipment relevant to your field; these may have unequal weight distribution, be oddly shaped or require fine motor function to execute. This will ensure your body develops a connection with that piece of equipment, to learn how to move it efficiently and reduce the chance of injury in the future.

Take for example, a firefighter who carries a ladder. Instead of just working on grip strength to carry the ladder by holding a dumbbell in each hand, it would be more efficient to carry only one dumbbell to work on unilateral performance. A better progression would be finding something that resembles the length or awkwardness of a ladder. To become more job specific, you could eventually move up to carrying a barbell with weights on either end, working on each side individually while you walk.

Each occupation will require similar yet different demands on the body including physiological, biological, and biomechanical factors. Developing a strong mind-muscle connection is a universal tool that each profession should have in their belt.

Physiological demands are based off one or more of the energy pathways. These pathways include the ATP system, glycolytic system, and the oxidative system. ATP requirements are high intensity movements and short in duration, think 0-15 seconds like dragging a patient. The glycolytic system is based off moderate intensity from 30-120 seconds like load carriage. The last system is the oxidative system, which requires low intensity for long duration, usually over 120 seconds. Examples include stair climbing or long marches. This becomes important when learning how to train each of these systems to improve performance on the job.

Biological and biomechanical demands can be summed up by understanding how the body moves; in different planes, uses multiple joints, compound muscle movements, dynamic movement, and constant stability. This leads into upper and lower body strength, power, endurance, and mobility. These basic components translate into everyday movements like pulling an object or walking with your gear on. Pulling an object requires upper and lower body stability, strength, and endurance, which can be improved by incorporating planks, split squats, and sled pulls into your training program.

Basic Development of a Tactical Athlete

Based off of research from various models, development of a tactical athlete can be broken down into 4 steps.

1. Improving general physical preparedness with strength and conditioning

2. Develop and maintain technical and tactical skill expertise required for the occupation

3. Utilize specific strength and conditioning prescription to optimize performance

4. Sustain general and occupational physical preparedness for optimized physical readiness

It is important to be able to understand the requirements of your job, in order to develop an effective program designed to improve general fitness and tactical and technical abilities. A basic example can be drawn with the demonstration of a firefighter’s progression.

A firefighter requires many fitness characteristics to be able to perform their job including muscle strength, endurance, power, and flexibility. Common tasks on the job are not limited to raising ladders, pulling hose, overhaul of buildings, ripping ceilings down, and victim drags. Once general fitness is established by improving cardiorespiratory endurance, strength, and power, it is the foundation of which your technical and tactical skills are developed. Technical skills allow you to perform certain movements, where tactical skill allows you to analyze and use these skills to face the challenge.

You built up the strength to hoist a ladder; that becomes natural and automated based off improved strength from general preparedness. Since the action of hoisting the ladder becomes easier, it allows you to focus on proper technical skills to hoist the ladder, but also allows you to analyze the situation and pick the proper location to place the ladder (tactical skill). As your skills improve, you adapt and refine the programming to optimize your performance and sustain occupational preparedness and readiness.

Go Home Safe

In a 2012 report, a study had shown that 64 US firefighters had lost their lives, while 69,400 suffered non-fatal injuries while working. The cause of these injuries were overexertion, stress and strain of muscles associated with performance. As a result from studies such as these, many organizations have implemented physical fitness programs to be included in training, and created safety programs to reduce injury, stress and even fatalities.

As a professional, it is your duty to uphold these performance standards. It could be the difference between life and death. This just isn’t for you, it’s for your team; fellow comrades who rely on your performance to get home safe. It’s for the families you aid, and most importantly the family waiting for you to return home. It’s not only your health and fitness that needs to be developed and maintained, but your mental health also needs to remain a priority.

Remember to treat every day like it's your last. Every drill, every training session, because one day it might.

Get out there and train.

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