Why SWAT cops need to be their own fitness instructors

Stress and fatigue are your two biggest enemies while trying to function in a tactical environment

Maintaining your optimal situational awareness and preventing physical exhaustion while on protracted SWAT operations may keep you alive while under the gun. Preparation for these operations in your workout routine is the key to enduring these sometimes lengthy and exhausting events. 

We’ve all experienced a SWAT call where we feel weighed down. Usually it goes something like this: the day before you had court all day, took a two-hour nap after dinner, and then reported to work your graveyard shift. At the end of that shift, you got a SWAT call-out. Before you know it, you’ve been up for almost 24 hours with only two hours sleep and you are now the primary counter sniper in a cold hide fighting to stay awake.

When that activation for your SWAT team is first sounded, your adrenaline kicks in for a couple hours as you gear up and prepare for the operation, so you don’t feel the effects of the previous day and midnight shift. However, you’ll eventually hit a wall and lose your edge. This is when you may make a mistake in a situation that doesn’t allow for it. 

Physical Fitness is Your Responsibility
Gunmen operations and other SWAT ops can last for two, eight, or even ten hours before they are brought to a peaceful resolution. When the op takes such a long time to conclude, you are struggling against fatigue and sleep deprivation. The next thing you know, your team leader is briefing for an entry into the barricaded gunman’s stronghold. You must reach deep into your physical and mental conditioning so that your situational awareness and reaction to threats is quick and accurate.

Many SWAT operators are typically men with ten years on the job — putting most of them in their early thirties. That is by design — SWAT commanders recruit veteran cops for their maturity. 

I’ve seen SWAT cops on occasion that can’t get out of their squad car without losing their breath. That is usually the fault of the agency — many agencies don’t require a physical standard for their SWAT operators. Even the agencies that do have a physical fitness standard are commonly just a basic conditioning requirement. 

What’s needed now is extensive training and physical conditioning so you can answer the call without jeopardizing you and your team’s safety. 

Physical conditioning is the responsibility of the individual SWAT officer. Your conditioning is what drives your ability to react quickly in deadly situations SWAT cops don’t hesitate to buy the newest and best tactical gear — which is a sound investment — but you should also invest in your physical conditioning.  

Today’s tactical operators have significant advantages when compared with the early days of SWAT. Today’s understanding of nutrition, modern technology, and a greater commitment to working out all contribute to greater success. We all have different strengths and weaknesses so there isn’t a physical conditioning program that works the best, however, you must determine what works best for you.

Balancing Weights and Cardio
When I first started in SWAT my physical conditioning routine was mostly spending time in the weight room with very little cardio. I felt great most of the time until those lengthy SWAT calls occurred when I noticed that I would hit a wall at some point and rely on coffee to see me through. 

I ignored the fact that just lifting weights wasn’t the answer for my conditioning routine, until a physically challenging upcoming sniper course had me training months in advance 
I prepared myself by running on a daily basis six months before the course started. I enjoyed the new workout and found myself doing more running than lifting. 

As luck would have it, the night before the sniper course was to start, we had a lengthy SWAT call out and what happened surprised me. During that 12-hour SWAT call I found my stamina to be greater than in the past. My lack of fatigue was directly related to the running. 

I spent another couple years focused on running rather than lifting until I injured myself and had to give it up. Unable to run — and preparing for an archery hunt — I decided to design a routine that would incorporate using my entire body during the workout. I purchased some heavy ankle weights, some 12-pound dumbbells and loaded my hunting pack with odds and ends for weight. 

I then walked around the track with ankle weights on my legs, and would do various lifting exercises with the dumbbells as I walked. I would start with a bicep curl, then an overhead shoulder press and lastly a triceps extension or fly while walking. 

The routine was strengthening my legs, getting in some low-level cardio, building strength in my core, and hitting my upper body. The only muscle group that didn’t get targeted during this workout was my back. That didn’t concern me as I spend a lot of time shooting traditional and compound archery all year. I still do this workout today to get ready for the fall archery season. 

CrossFit Before CrossFit
I would later realize that my routine is a little like that of the modern “CrossFit” craze. That strength and conditioning program has the aim of improving the ten main fitness domains: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. 

The goal is not to specialize in any of the fitness styles but to have a balance in all of them. CrossFit gyms have popped up around the country  If there isn’t a local CrossFit gym near you, don’t fret because it doesn’t take much to get started on your own. I’m living proof of that. 

We all know that SWAT cop who needs to skip the donut shop coffee break. If you’re a commander or team leader, it doesn’t do you your team any good by ignoring the problem and it won’t help by chastising that individual. Encouragement works best but if that fails it’s time for a cold hard talk with that individual. Speak with him honestly and place the responsibility on him if he doesn’t change. At the end of the day you owe it to yourself and your partners to maintain some level of fitness. 

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