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First responders know a thing or two about sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation often comes with low energy and endless caffeine. But low energy doesn’t come from lack of sleep alone; it can come from diet and other lifestyle factors. Try these tips and track your energy levels over the following few shifts.
Intermittent fasting is all the rage in the fire service right now – but is it the best choice for optimizing energy levels? It depends! Some firefighters feel great skipping breakfast and enjoy having larger portions at dinner. Others feel tired, lightheaded, and hangry before breaking their fast. If you choose to do intermittent fasting, you can prevent this by starting with a shorter fasting window. For example, start fasting for 12 hours and then work to acclimate up to 16 hours. Pay attention to energy levels throughout the day. If energy tanks, go back to your regular eating schedule.
High-quality carbohydrates support physical training and energy levels throughout the day. Spreading complex, antioxidant-rich carbohydrates throughout the day can help fuel the brain and protect cells from free radical damage. Every meal, strive to include a fruit, veggie, or whole grain. Fresh, frozen, or canned produce all works!
Staying hydrated earlier in the day will help prevent the afternoon slump. Dehydration can lead to brain fog, fatigue, and headaches. Aim for 90-125 oz fluid spread throughout the day, with at least 45-60 oz down by 1:00 pm. Staying hydrated will improve mental clarity and energy, so keep that emotional support water bottle on hand!
For most healthy firefighters, 200-400 mg of caffeine daily is safe. Timing is essential for optimizing energy levels on shift. Lineup and early afternoon are the best times to have caffeine if you feel like you need it. Leave a minimum of 4-5 hours between your last caffeinated beverage and bedtime. Caffeine right before bed may not prevent you from falling asleep, but it will mess with your sleep cycles. Inadequate deep sleep can lead to more grogginess and caffeine the next day. Note that some people genetically process caffeine slower, so if you are still restless at night, try cutting off caffeine 6-8 hours before bed.
Of course, we can’t ignore that sleep is a primary factor in firefighter energy levels. If your sleep is garbage, there is only so much you can do diet-wise to improve energy levels. If you consistently get less than 5 hours of sleep daily, consider consulting a sleep specialist. Research suggests that 37% of firefighters have a sleeping disorder, and 80% of those firefighters don’t know it. Strive to hit 7-9 hours of sleep per day. Naps count towards this goal and can help improve energy levels if strategized appropriately. Time naps to 20 minutes or 90 minutes to optimize sleep cycles. A 20-minute nap is more of a brain break to focus on breathing. A 90-minute nap will allow room for all phases of sleep. Avoid napping in the middle of 20 and 90 minutes to prevent waking up groggy.
Megan is a Registered Dietitian and coach who specializes in firefighter nutrition. Megan’s mission is to help firefighters perform better, recover faster, and enjoy long, healthy retirements. Megan is the owner of RescueRD LLC, which provides nutrition seminars and coaching for tactical athletes across the country. Check out @Rescue.RD on Facebook and Instagram.