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Training a Female Smoke Jumper Hopeful

Heidi Esh, Wildland Firefighter, Smoke Jumper

(This is an old article, Posted on my first blog, on March 1, 2017)

Outside of group class coaching, client retention, and other gym-organizing tasks, I have the privilege of working with a variety of athletes under my personal programming and coaching guidance. My most unusual athlete is a 5-foot tall 115 pound 30-year-old female. She is determined to pass through the rigorous smoke jumper training camp in mid-April of this year. She has underwent the challenge of this camp twice in the past two years, and has failed to make it through camp.

Females rarely attempt the rigors of this training camp, and even fewer succeed in becoming smoke jumpers. The stakes are high! I was happy she approached me for programming and coaching, and I have worked my butt off each week and weekend to provide her with precise programming and ample feedback. We have somewhat of a distance-coaching relationship, meaning I email her a week’s worth of workouts on Sunday using a google spreadsheet, and she completes the workouts 5-6 days a week on her own, filling in her feedback as she treks. I do keep an eye on her once a week when she comes into the gym to complete her strength/strongwoman training workout.

For online feedback, I log into the shared spreadsheet a few times a week to provide encouragement, coaching cues, and a bit of my humor to help motivate! Training alone at her intensity and volume is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. I am consistently surprised by her determination, perseverance, and drive. I have never asked her why she wants to complete this task, for I assume it’s personal and at the core of her being, but I am as determined to build her up as resilient as possible before she ships out.

Smoke jumpers must be able to work long days hiking with heavy packs through unforgiving and uncharted terrain after low-altitude parachuting out of a plane into a goddam forest fire in order to minimize spread and destruction. To make it through training camp, she will be tested this year more than any other because she is more capable than she’s ever been. Her training goals are broad and numerous:

Basic goals to pass her initial PT Test:

- Dead-hang strict pull-ups, one set (Goal = 19+ reps, current PR = 18)

- Strict push-ups in 3 minutes (Goal = 85+ reps, current PR = 78)

- Sit-ups in 3 minutes (Goal = 135+ reps, current PR = 123)

- Sub 9-minute 1.5 mile run (current PR 9:16)

- Sub 20-minute 5 k time (current PR 20:24)

- Sub 45-minute 10 k (current PR a whopping 42:12, ie fast)

- Be able to hike all day long with 60-120 lbs of gear through steep mountainous terrain

One of the physical tests is 3 miles for time with a 110 lb pack on flat terrain, and must be completed in 65 minutes or less. This is a near body weight carry for her! We’re 6 weeks out from her camp and have worked up from 30 lbs (week 1) to 90 lbs this week (week 19). We utilized a linear weekly loading progression which has really worked wonders for her.

- Be able to complete the Boise Smoke Jumper Camp’s PT test: 10 rounds of 10 strict pull-ups + 35 strict push-ups + 60 strict sit-ups + 400-meter run (Side note: this “test” is just one workout of many dozens that she will experience at camp)

- Be able to perform 100’s of conditioning “core” movements like Hello Dollies and Flutter Kicks in a single workout

- Camp is 5 weeks, and each week trainees may experience 50+ hours of physical work. Therefore, increasing her hourly, daily,weekly, and monthly work capacity is crucial to her success

She also has many more specific goals, some of which I’ll list below:

- Strength (double BW Back Squat and Deadlift, BW Push Press)

- Explosive Power (BW Power Clean for 5+ reps, BW Jerk)

- Stability (decrease or eliminate patellofemoral pain when descending on long hikes with large pack loads)

- Sprint speed (sometimes at camp they sprint! She needs to be fast, efficient, and technically sound)

- Agility (I believe the deceleration phase during agility drills like the 5-10-5 and L-Agility drill, to name a few, can provide dynamic hip/knee/ankle stability that will carry over to those long pack hikes on crazy-ass terrain)

- Running endurance (To keep her competitively fast, over the past few months, she has completed two weekend 5 k (3.1 mile) races, one 10 k (6.2 mile), and she has a competitive half-marathon trail run (13.1 miles) in a few weeks. At the beginning of her training, she outlined goals that she thought would support her through training camp. One of those goals is being able to go out and run 10+ miles for a workout, before and/or after body weight PT or parachute training. She has a unique perspective on the specific tests she will potentially encounter during training camp this year because of her experiences at past camps! Along with all other training, we are building her weekly running volume progressively to 40 miles before her final taper. This week, she’s at 36 miles)

- Endurance speed (this goes along with her need to perform a sub-9 minute 1.5 mile run on day 1 of camp testing! In addition, if any one of her classmates doesn’t make the time cap for the 1.5 mile run, all classmates will have to immediately turn around and run back that same distance at the same speed. That’s ~18-19 minute 5 k speed, hence her goal of a fast 5 k. The training goals are entangled in many useful and interesting ways)

- Explosive power (Increases in vertical and horizontal jumping ability, when combined with ideal sprint mechanics, helps increase RSA [Repeat Sprint Ability]. It’s a straight-forward approach to take a good sprinter and teach them to execute agility tasks well. This will also help with back/hip/knee/ankle stability)

- Tactical goals (imagery used, more below)

- Chronic work capacity (At camp, she will be subject to many hours of hard labor, testing all of the aforementioned physical capacities. Therefore, her training must progressively model this demand! I started her at 7 hours of total weekly training time on week 1, and she has progressed to a current training peak of 17+ hours. In the next 6 weeks my goal is to safely progress her to 21+ hours in her peak week, followed by a 3-week semi-linear taper to elicit optimal training adaptations as she glides into week 1 of the training camp, peaking her in the middle of the 5 week camp)

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is building will power. I believe will power is intrinsically connected with physiological trained abilities (all strength characteristics and chronic work capacity, which is reciprocal to recovery ability) and qualitative characteristics which can be simply summed up by the word “grit”. She trains all aspects weekly. Her mental training is perhaps the most unique part. She completes 4 mental training tasks each day:

1) Various types of mindfulness meditation throughout the day

2) Before extremely difficult training, she practices “Wim Hof” breathing

3) Daily body scanning (online: UCLA guided body scan meditations)

4) Imagery (she utilizes imagery to conjure up training and tactical/technical scenarios like tree climbing, performing a technically sound low altitude parachute jump, ascending the 100+ stairs on a 5-story jump training structure with 120 lbs of gear and having the energy to execute her jump training protocol proficiency after reaching the top. Since we can’t directly practice these things, I have instructed her to practice these situations in her mind. There is sport psychology and neuroscience research which strongly supports the efficacy of these specific mental training strategies)

We’ve been working together for 18 weeks. This is week 19. On Monday of this week, here’s what she did:

- 10 minutes of Imagery practice: imagine a difficult situation at camp with as much detail as possible (colors, wind, foliage, smells, textures, emotions, other people, pain, fatigue, etc.) and execute your tasks well. Once 5 repetitions of the specific task are successfully executed, move onto a different task.

- Explosive 15-minute dynamic warm-up

- 15 minutes of sprint 30 m, walk back recovery (23 reps)

- 6 rounds of the Full Boise PT prescription (1 Round of Boise PT is 10 strict pull-ups + 35 strict push-ups + 60 sit-ups + 400 m run)

- Camp Abs (110 air squats + 110 Hello Dollies + 110 Hip Thrusts + 110 flutter kicks; H.D’s and Flutters with 3-count)

- 7 mile easy-paced run

- Usually Monday calls for a 90-120 minute ½ pack hike (this week should have been 60 lbs for 90 minutes, but it rained and the trails were dangerously muddy). Instead to keep work capacity within the required realm, I had her perform a 45 minute AMRAP of 1000 m row + 20 body weight squats + 15 burpees. She completed 6+ rounds.

- 3 Rounds of stability work consisting of high rep banded and loaded lunges, glute marching (see Bret Contreras glute strength and hip stability exercises), Bench Pinch Planks (highly recommended to provide ADDuction strength and internal hip stability, and are also brutally difficult to execute correctly), and weighted calve raises to help with ascending steep mountainous terrain.Complete stretch and foot care follows training each day

This is day 1 of 6 for the week. Each day is difficult, and no days or tasks are repeated. This day came out just under 4 hours of training. She didn’t start at this level, though. She earned the right to train for 4 hours in a day, and she’s able to wake up tomorrow morning feeling good enough to conquer another 3.5 hours of quality work. Steady progression, intelligent loading, and purposeful varying of movements provide adaptations with less risk to mechanical (structural) or neuromuscular (CNS) overtraining.

I believe an equal part of driving physiological adaptations is placing an equal imperative on recovery modalities like sleep, meeting caloric demand, meditation, spiritual replenishment (if needed/desired), and soft tissue work like static stretching, SMR techniques, and various massage techniques. If she has a tough week half-way through and she’s only on week 2 of a 4-week training block, I go in and dial back her training for the rest of the week. Chronic adaptations are the main goal of her training and will support her through a holistically taxing smoke jumper camp. Therefore, much of my attention is spent on stressing her enough to elicit continued successful training responses while not overtaxing her ability to recover. It’s a delicate balancing act. I am fortunate to be a part of her training process and really look forward to her smashing the expectations of her drill instructors, classmates, and most importantly, herself.

This is a picture of Heidi with an 80 lb pack, at elevation, walking miles for time in the snow.

Thank you for reading. Did I mention that she lives and trains at elevation (5800 feet) in Forest Falls in Southern California and it’s wintertime? She’s truly a beast.


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