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Optimizing Performance for the Female Tactical Professional
Tactical specialists are athletes too!
Females are an important part of tactical professions such as firefighters, police, paramedics, and military personnel, among others. These professions require an elite level of fitness that answers to the unexpected and can go from “zero to hero” in an instant. No physical task on the job is exactly the same, so these professionals need to train for the unexpected.
Just like athletes who train for their particular sport, tactical professionals train for their occupation. This includes drills that simulate real-life situations, such as carrying a victim from a burning building, jogging or hiking distances wearing 25 pounds of gear, climbing ladders, jumping over fences, and the list goes on. Just as the skill sets required to excel in a particular sport are specific to that sport, the physical skill sets for tactical professionals are specific to their particular occupation. From this arises to conception of “work fitness” and “gym fitness”.
To gain and improve proficiencies in the skills specific to a particular tactical profession, it is important that “gym training” compliments the unique physical demands of tactical occupations. Further, fueling, recovery and injury prevention are just as important as physical training.
Special Considerations for Female Tactical Professionals
Adequate fueling. This is one of the most important aspects of training for any female who engages in activities requiring a high level of physical performance. Due to the direct hormonal connections between energy availability, the stress response, and the menstrual cycle, a female’s ability to achieve peak physical performance is largely driven by energy balance.
For tactical professionals the workday can be unpredictable, so regular meals may not be an option on some days. Here are some suggestions:
Food prep - On days off or when you are off-shift, set aside some time to prepare food in bulk for the week. In addition to meals on the go, portable snacks are a great option for those non-stop days when a sit-down meal is not possible
Ensure adequate protein - Muscles need protein to repair and recover after physical intensity. Target protein consumption for high-performing women is 1g of protein per pound of body weight.
Don’t skimp on the carbs! - Optimal performance requires your “gas tank” to be full. Glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) is found within the liver and skeletal muscle and is responsible for the initial burst of intensity when duty calls. Some high-quality carbohydrates include sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, brown rice, steel-cut, and rolled oats, and whole-grain breads (watch out for the added sugar - Dave’s Bread is my personal fav!)
Nutrient timing. After a training or drill session or a physically intense call, be sure to have an on-the-go snack. Giving your body a little something shortly after exertion will go a long way toward effective recovery - especially if a sit-down meal is not possible.
Training. The mainstay for training for the tactical professional is the drills specific to each occupation. Gym training lends support to the drills to help build a base of general strength, stamina, and particularly muscle power.
Functional training. Methodologies such as CrossFit were inspired by Navy Seal training and are designed to prepare the athlete for anything they may encounter. The focus of training is proficiency in 10 physical skills and constantly varied functional movement at high intensity. This type of training is well-suited for the unpredictable situations encountered by tactical professionals.
Utilizing “Complexes” to build strength, stamina and power. Complexes are a series of weighted movements performed consecutively without recovery and target a wide range of complex muscle groups. To learn more about complexes and their role in tactical training, check out this NSCA TSAC report.
Upper body strengthening accessory. Many women struggle with upper body strength. Try adding this 8-minute accessory sequence onto a training or drill day twice per week.
EMOM (every minute on the minute) x 8 minutes
Odd minutes - perform 5-10 strict push-ups (depending on ability) - To scale the movement, use an incline (hands on a stable bench or box and progressively, over time, lower the incline angle until you can do them from the floor)
** The goal is to complete the repetitions in 30-40 seconds and leave the remaining time in the 1-minute interval for rest. Stay strict with the time domain! This is where the magic is.
Recovery and Injury Prevention. Unlike controlled athletic events and training sessions, the physical demands of the tactical professional do not allow for a thorough warm-up and cool-down. When the situation demands instantaneous intensity, this can increase the risk of injury, making recovery from “just another day at the office” that much more important.
General tissue care - Foam rolling, mobility work, massage, cold plunges, steam/sauna
Sleep - Sleep is essential for effective recovery. It is sometimes helpful to track sleep with wearable technology such as a WHOOP! Strap or an Oura ring.
Joint care - The demands of tactical occupations can put great stress on the shoulders, knees, and hips. It is important to spend time caring for the supporting muscles of these joints to provide stability, mobility, and flexibility and reduce the risk of injury.
Shoulders: Strengthening the rotator cuff and scapular complexes lends stability to this joint. My go-to rotator cuff strengthening system is Crossover Symmetry. Exercises such as Y-raises, T-raises, Cuban Presses, scapular push-ups, and scapular pull-ups are also effective.
Knees: It is well-known that women are at greater risk for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries as compared to men. There are many possible reasons for this including body mechanics, anatomical, and muscular differences, but there are steps that can be taken to minimize the risk. Learn more about ACL injuries and prevention from this piece published in the Female Athlete Series from Boston Children’s Hospital.
Hips. The hips bear the brunt of many functional movements as they are what articulate the largest muscles and bones of the body in the lower extremities and support the weight of the rest of the body above it. Hip-focus yoga sequences are an excellent way to recover the hip joint and the large muscles surrounding it. Five Parks and Pelaton have excellent hip-focused yoga sequences.
Mindfulness and meditation. Tactical professions are not only physically challenging but also mentally challenging given the circumstances under which their service is needed. For effective recovery, the stress response needs to return to baseline and from both the mental and physical standpoint. Headspace is an excellent app that teaches mindfulness and meditation in short, doable timeframes and has targeted practices for anxiety, sleep, parenting, and job stress among others.
I’m not a Tactical Professional but I Want to Train Like One
Training for the unexpected utilizing a wide range of modalities and physical skills is something that everyone can benefit from even if they are not tactical professionals. Functional training helps maintain fitness for movements that are part of everyday life which can promote longevity and physical independence even into the 8th, 9th, and 10th decades of life. Functional movements are infinitely scalable with movement options suited for any fitness level or limitation.
CrossFit has a functional fitness workout series emailed to your mailbox daily which includes advanced, intermediate, and beginner options. The sister blog to Performance Edge, Athletic Aging, has a weekly functional fitness workout series with additional modifications for limited equipment availability. There is also a FREE library of these workouts in the Athletic Aging archives. These workouts are a great start for anyone who is not a tactical professional but wants to train like one!