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The Vital Connection: Sleep, Performance, and Recovery for Emergency Responders

In the demanding and high-pressure world of emergency responders, achieving peak performance is not just desirable—it's essential. While physical fitness and basic skill training are often emphasized, one crucial aspect often overlooked is the profound impact of sleep and recovery on overall human performance. That is why this blog will unveil the vital connection between sleep, ultimate human performance, the significance of focusing on recovery, and how breathwork can tie it all together nicely.

While physical fitness and basic skill training are often emphasized, one crucial aspect often overlooked is the profound impact of sleep and recovery on overall human performance.

We’ve all heard how important sleep is. Most likely, you’ve had experiences where you know how horrible you feel when you don’t get enough sleep. But even with this first-hand knowledge, research continues to show that most of us are still sleep-deprived, and even worse, we’re doing it to ourselves. Simply put, sleep is the cornerstone of human performance. During sleep, our bodies repair and regenerate, consolidating memories and enhancing cognitive abilities. All-nighters need to be a thing of the past, including shift workers. (GASP!) I’m not going to get into the shift schedule debate here, but we, as a group, need to start looking at options to ensure our emergency responders are healthy both at work, at home, and during retirement.

Man sitting cross-legged with eyes closed.
Firefighter at YFFR Class 031 practice Tactical Breath Work

Quality sleep becomes even more critical for emergency responders who are frequently exposed to stressful and physically demanding situations. Sufficient sleep duration and quality promote physical recovery and bolster mental resilience and emotional well-being, enabling emergency responders to perform optimally in their challenging roles. This includes when we’re not at work. Have you ever come home and cannot adapt to “real life” as soon as you get through the front door? When the antics begin, and the dishwasher needs to be emptied, or where the dog has barfed all over the floor and your kids are nowhere to be found to help clean it up. Yeah, that's kind of real life. If we consistently sleep 7-8 hours a night, we are ready for whatever comes our way, even at the end of a busy shift.

This is especially challenging for those who work at least a 24-hour shift. We can’t control when someone calls 911, and sometimes we get zero minutes of sleep. That is more common for some, based on the assignment. All is not lost, however. You can still control your mentality and approach surrounding sleep. When you’re not at work, you have (almost) all the control in relation to your sleep habits and systems. Turn off your phone an hour before bed, make your room cold and as dark as possible, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, and reserve your bed for two things: one of them being sleep. By controlling the easy things, we start to create new neural pathways around sleep, making it more effective and consistent. You can start to identify as someone who is a great sleeper.

Restoring the Body and Mind:

Recovery is the bridge that allows emergency responders to build upon their physical and mental capabilities. Without adequate recovery, the body and mind become susceptible to fatigue, stress, and burnout. While physical and basic skill training build strength, endurance, and proficiency, recovery processes such as rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation are equally vital. Recovery activities like Yoga For First Responders, foam rolling, massage therapy, and mindful relaxation techniques help restore and repair muscles, reduce inflammation, and improve overall mobility. When emergency responders prioritize recovery as fervently as they do physical training, they create a solid foundation for optimal performance and long-term health. It’s not all about just doing more burpees. Sometimes, you need to chill the heck out!

When emergency responders prioritize recovery as fervently as they do physical training, they create a solid foundation for optimal performance and long-term health.

Black dog lies next to a yoga student on a yoga mat with a training manual on the floor in front of them
Service dog for the US Capitol Police knows the value of rest and recovery. Class 033.

Sleep and Performance Optimization:

Sleep directly impacts an individual's ability to think clearly, make quick decisions, and react effectively to emergencies. Research consistently demonstrates that sleep deprivation negatively affects cognitive function, reaction times, memory, and attention span. When emergency responders are sleep-deprived, their performance can be impaired, compromising their effectiveness in critical situations. Prioritizing adequate sleep enhances alertness and responsiveness and fosters the ability to handle complex tasks, problem-solve under pressure, and communicate effectively with team members. Oh, and by the way, there’s a direct link (in multiple peer-reviewed studies conducted with firefighters and other shift workers) that shows an increased risk for cancer. Unfortunately, very few organizations even talk about this. Sleep deprivation might give you cancer.

What if I struggle with Sleep? Help me!!!

One of the common byproducts of our jobs as emergency responders is we see a trend and a decline in sleep. It’s hard to go to sleep. It’s hard to stay asleep. “Even if I can sleep, I wake up exhausted and need more rest.” There are a ton of factors around this, including hypervigilance, your window of tolerance, sleep apnea, hyperventilation, and even shift work disorder. If these are common to you, go and speak with your primary care physician and get ahead of them. There is hope!

One thing you absolutely can do starting now is breathwork. Incorporating breathwork into daily life can significantly improve overall well-being and enhance recovery. Conscious breathing techniques, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing and controlled breath patterns, activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels. Focusing on your breath can regulate your heart rate, calm your mind, and improve your resilience to stressors. Practicing breathwork regularly, even for a few minutes daily, can profoundly impact physical and mental recovery, allowing you to recharge and rejuvenate. This can, of course, even be done on shift, and no one has to know you’re doing it!

Man with hat practicing yoga.
Police officer at YFFR Class 032 practices "Removing the Armor" fascia release techniques.

Start with a simple 2:1 breath protocol. Try to do the whole thing exclusively through your nose if possible. If you can’t tolerate this yet, you’ll easily be able to track how effective focused breathwork is for you as you increase your CO2 tolerance and train your body to work using only your nose for respiration. The 2:1 ratio has increased parasympathetic tone and feelings of rest and relaxation. All you have to do is double your exhalation count from your inhalation count. Repeat for up to five minutes. A good place to start is a 4-second inhalation through your nose, then an eight-second exhalation through your nose. Don’t hold your breath using this protocol. Just be present in the moment, enjoy the time that you’re giving to yourself, and focus on your nasal breath. Try to fill the lowest lobes of your lungs first and fill your container up all the way into your neck. Then exhale through your nose, reversing the process with the lowest lobes being the last to empty.

To unlock ultimate human performance, emergency responders must recognize the pivotal role that sleep, recovery, and breathwork play in their lives. Prioritizing quality sleep, investing in recovery strategies, and integrating breathwork into their daily routines are indispensable steps toward achieving peak performance and maintaining long-term well-being. By fostering a holistic approach to training and self-care, emergency responders can excel while safeguarding their physical and mental health, ultimately leading to a more resilient and effective emergency response community.

7 yoga students lying down on their mats recovering.
Class 032 practices "Neurological Reset" after an intense YFFR class with SCBA face masks and Training Mask regulators.

Kevin Housley is the founder of Firefighter Craftsmanship and the host of the Firefighter Craftsmanship podcast. He is currently pursuing his Masters Degree from the University of Denver in Sport Coaching with a specification on Human Performance Psychology. Kevin is a Captain on a career engine company in Ft. Collins, CO and started his career in 2005. In 2017 Kevin was the lead instructor of the largest fire academy in the state of CO and was a finalist for the Colorado Firefighter Instructor of the year. Kevin is married and has three wonderful children. Kevin is the Co-Chair of the Terry Farrell Firefighters Fund-Colorado Chapter and enjoys giving back to the fire service through this organization.

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