Training First Responders and other Tactical Athletes

Training First Responders and other Tactical Athletes

This blog was written by OPEX Ambassador and CCP Coach Andy Reardon. Andy is a Battalion Chief with the Austin (TX) Fire Department and coaches tactical athletes using the OPEX method. Follow Andy on Instagram here.


For 26 years now, I have had the privilege of being a firefighter and a police officer in Austin, TX. I can think of very few careers that have been as rewarding as they have been demanding, both mentally and physically.  

Having trained myself for years (bodybuilding, powerlifting, mountain bike and road bike racing, to name a few), I found the OPEX method. It intrigued me, because it gave me the structure I needed for my training and my job. Needing a little more structure, I found a coach that understood my needs as a tactical athlete.  

I slowly realized that I had a basis of knowledge, through job experiences and the OPEX CCP program, to start training my own group of tactical athletes. In addition to the general fitness clients I train, I have a dozen or so firefighters, police officers, and SWAT operators that trust me with their programming.   

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What is a tactical athlete?  

I am sure that the tactical industry has varying definitions of what a tactical athlete is, but let’s make it simple with a published definition (and one that I think hits the mark).  

The Strength and Conditioning Journal (August 2015, Volume 37, Issue 4) defines a tactical athlete as “personnel in tactical professions who require unique physical training strategies aimed at improving occupational performance.” Firefighters…police officers….military personnel.  

What are the physical demands of being a tactical athlete?  

The tactical athlete has no off-season. They don’t know when their event will start, how long it will last, and how many times they will have to perform in a given work period.  

Police officers go from driving in a patrol vehicle with 20 pounds of gear resting on their hips to jumping out on a dead sprint after a suspect; firefighters go from a dead sleep, put on 75 pounds of non-breathable gear and, with no warm-up, drag hoses and raise ladders on the fireground in the most extreme conditions. 

Tactical athletes are expected to effectively respond to a myriad of unpredictable, physically and psychologically stressful events; tasks only accomplished by continual physical readiness. In other words, tactical athletes are always operating in-season.

What are the training priorities for tactical athletes?

Training priority one is absolute strength.  

Absolute strength provides a base that improves all other areas. As tactical athletes, we need to train for today, next month, and 20 years from now. The carryover gained from strength training will prepare you for the demands of the job  

Firefighters and police officers work in stressful environments (the job itself, the odd hours, the lack of definitive meal times, to name a few). Strength training prepares the body to overcome loads and stresses, and it prepares you mentally for the job. You either lift the weight or you don’t. You either put out the fire and ready yourself for the next call, or you don’t. You either subdue the 250-pound suspect, or you don’t.  

Strength training is conducive to team building. As a profession, we suffer as a team, and we succeed as a team. There is no better feeling than slinging weights with your buddies, going on calls with the same group, and doing it again the next day.  

What I like to see are deadlift (heavy trap bar is one of my go-to exercises), pulling exercises over pushing ones, and single leg work. The tactical athlete works in a locomotion environment, so train for it. While we are talking about exercise prescription, throw in heavy carries (farmers walks, sandbags, and the like). The benefits to your core are something you will thank me for at your retirement.  

Training priority two is aerobic fitness.  

Despite all the hype around high intensity fitness, it doesn’t work in the long term for the tactical athlete. The job is stressful enough and your body doesn’t need the cortisol dump from high intensity, non-sustainable fitness.  

Repeatable (both intra and inter set) intervals preserve the central nervous system for both the rigors of the job and the strength training mentioned above. Think cyclical intervals here, using the assault bike, rower, ski erg, or running. Combine these with core,single arm, single leg, bend patterns and some heavy carries, and you have fitness for a lifetime. Good for the job and for the family. Reward the pacer!

How do you support recovery for tactical athletes?  

Recovery is the tough part for the tactical athlete.  

For firefighters, sleep is iffy at best. Some shifts you may get it, some you may not.  When you aren’t training, put the video games down, get off your feet, and rest.  If your department allows, naps during the day are good. Maximizing sleep while off duty is essential.  

(Learn our eight steps to better recovery here.)

For law enforcement, adequate nutrition is tough when you are in a patrol car and only have fast food in your district. Planning is key here—meal prep works and only takes a cooler and your imagination. It doesn’t have to be fancy—it needs to fuel your body and support your brain function. 

Water. If there is one thing that has positively affected me and my clients (general fitness and first responders), it has been drinking half my body weight in ounces of water per day.  Unfortunately, cops and firefighters are too often seen with energy drinks in hand. Give the water thing a shot, and you will notice a difference, almost immediately.  

Helpful trick for me: I have a 32 ounce water bottle, and I am looking for 90 or so ounces of water a day.  I put three of my wife’s hair ties on the bottle and when I finish a bottle, I move a tie up to the top, so I have an immediate visual on how much water I have had. Sure, your shift mates will make fun of you, but that is what makes us family.  

In summary

  1. Tactical athletes already have stressful jobs. Don’t add to the mix by prescribing high intensity, non-job related programming, whether it be strength work or energy systems training. Leave the Instagram workouts (lying on the floor in a pool of your own sweat and dignity) for the ‘gram.
  2. Program around their schedule(s). I adjust workouts according to how stressful the shift was (both personally and for my clients). After a particularly busy shift, I program easy, sustainable, aerobic workouts (mostly cyclical pieces). Your clients will thank you for it, their CNS will thank you for it, and you will be making them more resilient for years to come.  
  3. If they (because of their function) need high intensity work, program it before an off day. Maximize their recovery.  
  4. As a coach, your bread and butter energy systems training should be focused on cyclical exercises, heavy carries, and single leg work. It has worked for me for years. Try it and see for yourself.
  5. Unit cohesion is increased by working out together….be smart about it, and program movements that everyone can do with the equipment provided and in a safe manner.  If you want to be the SWAT team leader that programs “Murph” once a month in full kit, and still wonders why half your team is out with shoulder issues, then maybe the CCP is for you.  

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