Active and Passive Recovery for the Functional Firefighter

By Nicholas J. Higgins

Firefighters are athletes. Taking care of ourselves means not just getting evaluated by our primary care or department physician but truly embracing a healthy lifestyle. Being able understand your body and prepare your body is equally, if not more, important to ensure our personal protective equipment is in check, self-contained breathing apparatus bottles are topped off, and the apparatus is in working order. The rigors and demands of the job place a toll on our physical and mental well-being, and it is vital we prepare our body and mind for the work potentially ahead of us, not just for one shift or call but for an entire career.

In 2021, 41 percent of fireground injuries were strains, sprains, or muscular pain injuries, which accounted for approximately two out of five injuries on the fireground as per the “United States Firefighter Injuries in 2021,” report by the National Fire Protection Association. To go even further, strain, sprains, and muscular pain accounted for 58 percent of all the nonfireground injuries. Injuries will happen and are part of the job and oftentimes unpreventable. However, it is on us to ensure we are taking care of ourselves before and after incidents, training, and any type of physical activity. Out of everything we could do to prepare ourselves for the job both physically and mentally, recovery–both active and passive–is highly critical to increasing optimal performance on and off the fireground.

Active Recovery

Active recovery is beneficial to the body and may help us recover faster after difficult workouts or strenuous activity. I recommend that this type of recovery be on shift day or the day before or after to allow the body to recuperate from any physical activity performed on off days and to provide your body with some type of active, low-intensity recovery during shift so your body does not go into complete relaxation mode while on call. Limit active recovery exertion to no more than 75% of your typical workout level. The 75% level is just enough to keep the muscles warm and not enough to induce muscle fatigue.

Before we outline a few methods to perform active recovery, here are some of the benefits it provides.

  • Reduction of lactic acid buildup in muscles.
  • Elimination of toxins.
  • Helps keep muscles flexible.
  • Reduction of soreness.
  • Increase in blood flow.
  • Helps keep an exercise routine.
  • Release of endorphins usually associated with regular exercise.

Here are a few methods of active recovery that are simple, yet highly effective:

  • Walking: A gentle brisk walk for 10 to 20 minutes a day will help improve sleep, boost memory, and reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Swimming: A low-impact exercise that has researchers suggesting the time in the water may help reduce inflammation and prevent sore muscles. In addition, a study reported in the National Library of Medicine in 2010 found that swimming after exercise improved the performance of athletes the next day.
  • Cycling: Both street and stationary bikes are known to increase blood circulation without adding stress to sore muscles from prior work.
  • Stretching: Stretching will help increase range of motion and improve blood flow to muscles, which stimulates healing. A bonus is that it is a great stress reliever. Five to 10 minutes of both dynamic and static stretching will help with the active recovery process before and after activity or on an active recovery day.

Passive Recovery

Passive recovery is a type of recovery that entails resting for considerable periods of time after strenuous activity. Unlike active recovery, with this type of recovery, your body is allowed total undisturbed rest to repair muscle damage and recuperate.

Proper passive recuperation is necessary for firefighters who are sick, are injured, or need physical and mental relaxation. For firefighters, rest is highly important and needed to perform at an optimal level. Rest has physiological and psychological benefits.

A healthy and optimal life is all about finding the right balance. From a 24-hour shift to 48 hours off in most cases, it is critical to take a day in between every now and then to relax and balance out the body.

By allowing the body to rest and avoid weariness of the muscles, it is allowing the body’s glycogen stores to refill, therefore attributing to the enhancement in muscle recovery. While exercise depletes your body’s energy stores or muscle glycogen, leading to muscular tissue breakdown, adequate rest helps your body correct this problem by restoring muscle glycogen, balancing blood flow, and rebuilding damaged tissue.

Here are a few methods of passive recovery that are simple, yet highly effective:

  • Sleep: One thing firefighters have been known to lack is sleep. A lack of sleep has been linked to firefighters’ injuries and deaths due to shiftwork and interrupted sleep patterns. Since firefighters are more often in a state of physical exertion than others, the physical exertion leads to increased cortisol and adrenaline, two energy boosting chemicals. With too much of these hormones generated, it could lead to difficulty sleeping and add to exhaustion. Adding sleep into a passive recovery day helps restore your normal hormone levels, a key sign of good sleep and recovery. Try to add a minimum of seven hours of sleep on nonshift days to help restart your body’s natural sleep pattern.
  • Rest: Rest is crucial for overall recovery. An overworked, fatigued body and mind are a dangerous combination when working in immediately dangerous to life or health atmospheres not just for yourself but for those you work with. By not incorporating breaks in your training and hectic schedule, overtraining, otherwise known as “overtraining syndrome,” could occur, leading to lack of performance on the fireground, disinterest during shift due to lack of concentration and energy, and an increased incidence of injuries. Ensure there is at least one day of complete rest built into your schedule each week.
  • Hydration: This is an essential factor for firefighters all around. According to research, hydration is vital for overall health and wellness and your performance, along with recovery. The human body is made up of 66 to 70 percent water; through sweat, breathing, and bodily waste, it will lose around 35 to 90 ounces of water. During normal physical activity, however, the body could lose an additional 8 to 16 ounces of water. Firefighters, on the other hand, lose approximately 50 to 70 ounces of water in only 30 to 45 minutes during firefighting activity, five times higher than normal physical activity. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids for men and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women. These recommendations cover fluids from water, other beverages, and food. About 20 percent of daily fluid intake usually comes from food and the rest from drinks. Remember, proper nutrition throughout the day will assist in daily hydration. Some examples of foods for hydration are watermelon and spinach (almost 100% water by weight), cucumber, broths/soups, and herbal teas, to name a few.
  • Massage Therapy: With little to no effort, massage therapy can aid in reducing stress and recovering from minor injuries incurred along the way. This type of recovery is known to assist in alignment of the spine and reduce nerve pressure, relax the body’s muscles to help maintain good posture, reduce stress, elongate tight muscles, and help relax and calm the central nervous system to help with chronic stress and health problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and heart disease.

How to Use Recovery in Your Regimen

Adding active recovery into your training sessions can be done in two methods, and both are greatly beneficial to your recovery. The first is to add it into your current training session as soon as it has been completed, as a cool-down approach. This is where you will allow your body to ease itself out of your workout, allowing your heart rate and breathing to return to their normal states and reducing the amount of lactate in your blood. The lactate in your blood is an organic acid made by tissue and red blood cells in your muscles, which is what causes the muscle burn felt during exercise. This is the same approach as if you were driving your car and approaching a red light. Instead of slamming on the brakes to make the stop, you gently ease on the brakes for a gradual stop at the light. This same method applies to cooling down after a workout with respect to your heart rate and breathing, by going for a light walk or jog or adding in some dynamic and static stretches and yoga poses. The other option for active recovery is to incorporate this as a full active recovery day and implement the methods listed above as active recovery for the day, through swimming, walking, or yoga to name a few.

Both forms of recovery are crucial within your training cycle regimen to allow your body to find its balance repeatedly as you progress in your training. I highly recommend incorporating cool-down recovery, especially after high-intensity workouts and after fireground training sessions, for optimal recovery of the heart and body with at least one recovery day (active and passive) each week for maximum recovery and performance. In the end, listen to your body and what it is telling you. After all, it is the only place we truly have to live.


  1. Richard Campbell and Shelby Hall, “United States Firefighter Injuries in 2021,” December 2022, National Fire Protection Association.
  2. Rose Hoonan, “What’s the Best Way to Cool Down After Exercise?” January 27, 2021, Right as Rain by UW Medicine.
  3. Aaron Zamzow, “The Importance of Staying Hydrated,” August 8, 2011, Firefighter Nation.
  4. Veronica Zambon & medical reviewed by Jake Tipane, CPT, “What to know about active recovery,” January 21, 2021, Medical News Today.


Nicholas J. Higgins is a firefighter and district training officer for Piscataway (NJ) Fire District #2. He is a New Jersey State Level 2 fire instructor, a National Fallen Firefighters Foundation state advocate, and a member of the Board of Directors for the 5-Alarm Task Force—a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. He is also the founder and a contributor of The Firehouse Tribune Web site and has spoken at various fire departments and fire conferences nationwide. He is the author of The 5-Tool Firefighter and The 5-Tool Firefighter Tactical Workbook and hosts “The 5-Tool Firefighter Podcast.” He is a certified nutrition coach, battle ropes instructor, former collegiate athlete in baseball, and martial arts practitioner. He is currently working on completion of the Onnit Foundation Certification.

Nick Higgins [email protected]

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