How to stay hydrated when you're fighting fires.

The past weeks on shift must have been very tough for us firefighters the length and breadth of the UK. The ambient temperature coupled with differing layers of personal protective equipment (PPE), would only have exacerbated the issues we face with hydration.

I've been in the fire service for nearly a decade now. The similarities between being an athlete and being a firefighter are very apparent. We have to be aerobically fit, have strength endurance, work as a team, and be prepared for action again and again.

The similarities don’t end there though.  Our nutrition and hydration strategies should be similar too. When I say should, I mean that I wasn’t following the strategies I used to use when I played national league rugby. I had mistakenly thought that my days of worrying about nutrition were behind me and I had fallen into the trap of believing that I could meet all of my nutritional needs through a whole food diet, not adding any salt to my food and drinking copious amounts of plain water throughout shifts. I’d had my fill of protein shakes, bar, gels and carbohydrate drinks!

 

Firefighters need a hydration strategy

 

However, I realised something was wrong last year when I had couple of hot wears over a period of a few days. The bad cramps in my legs, the ones I used to get in the middle of the night after a rugby match, had started to return. I thought nothing of this until another hard day meant that I got cramp during one of our incidents. Not good. Luckily it was only whilst rolling a hose up after a barn fire and not whilst actively helping anyone.

Coincidently, a couple of weeks later I was at the Bike and Tri show at Sport City and I met Andy Blow on the Precision Hydration stand. We had a brief chat about my cramping problems whilst I took PH's free online Sweat Test, which put me somewhere in the 'high' area when it comes to sodium losses.

I was intrigued, so I decided to take the full Advanced Sweat Test there and then. After 30 minutes of the easiest sports testing I have ever been involved in, my results confirmed I had a higher than average sodium sweat concentration. Andy explained that this was one of the reasons I was suffering from bad cramps, as the plain water I was drinking during shifts was coming nowhere close to replacing my loses - it was actually making the problem worse as I was further diluting my blood sodium levels.

 

Dehydration is dangerous for firefighters

 

He recommended that I should be drinking at least Precision Hydration 1000 and may want to try preloading before shifts on particularly hot days with the Precision Hydration 1500s. We discussed my shift and training pattern and came up with the following strategy:

 

Day Shifts

  • On waking, one pint (~500ml) of water with a 1500mg sachet.
  • A water bottle with plain water carried with me throughout the day on station.
  • 1 x 1L bottle with 2 x 1000mg sachets dissolved in for operation duties.
  • 1 x box of 1500 sachets in helmet bag to use post-incident, or as a top up if the nature of the job and climatic conditions dictate.
  • One pint of plain water before my ride home.

Night Shifts

  • On arrival at station, one pint (~500ml) of water with a 1500mg sachet.
  • A water bottle with plain water carried with me throughout the night on station.
  • 1 x 1L bottle with 2 x 1000mg sachets dissolved in for operation duties.
  • 1 x box of 1500 sachets in helmet bag to use post-incident, or as a top up if the nature of the job and climatic conditions dictate.
  • One pint of plain water with a 1000mg sachet in before my ride to the swimming baths for training.

This is how I stay hydrated, you're unique and should experiment with what works for you. With my new-found knowledge I have felt fully hydrated each and every shift and have suffered next to no cramping over the past year. It's very important for firefighters to be aware of their fluid intake and hydration status when training for/performing duties.

 

How to stay hydrated as a fireman

 

We can do this simply by monitoring urine colour, odour, and frequency, by understanding the environmental factors, and by estimating and tracking our sweat rates. On top of this, I strongly recommend that as a professional you get an Advanced Sweat Test to make your hydration strategy personalised to you. If not, at least fill in the online Sweat Test to give you a rough idea of where you sit on the ‘sweat line’.

Gareth Evans BSc(Hons) Msc. CSCS


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