Train to Hunt
For those heading to the mountains this year, whether that be Dall sheep in the arctic or elk in the Rockies, the season is creeping up a lot faster than any of us realize.
With the calendar pages flipping quickly, there are two piece of good news and one not-so-good. First and foremost… hunting season will be upon us in what seems like a blink of an eye! Secondly, there’s still time to get into better physical condition if you’ve been slacking. Now for the not so good news… there’s no time left to procrastinate.
Last year, as I prepared to film a sheep hunt in the Brooks Range (you can watch that video here), my mindset was to fly north as light as possible without sacrificing too much muscle. It worked, for the most part, and if you want to drop a few LBs before the season starts, you can read about how I lost 15 pounds over the course of the summer, here. I went north at 176 pounds… the lightest I’ve been since high school graduation. But truth be told, I did pay for that weight loss in strength.
This year, I’ve changed my pre-season approach. I’m heading back to the same region in northern Alaska to film another sheep hunt, but the circumstances have changed on a few levels. The differences between last year’s trip and this year’s trip - which I’ll outline shortly - have given me new priorities as I look at how I want to go into this trip, physically. In order of importance, here’s where I want to be in comparison to last year:
· Increased lower-body muscular endurance
· Optimized cardiovascular performance
· Better flexibility
· More lower-body muscle mass
It’s not like any of these things weren’t of importance to me last year. They were, except maybe flexibility and mass, but my overarching goal last year was to be light. My cardio was pretty good last year, but still had room for improvement. Anyhow, this year’s hunt has three main criteria that weren’t present last year.
First and foremost, I’m hunting caribou myself in addition to filming. If I can get my ultralight rifle completed in time for the trip (you can read about the rifle build, starting here) I’ll be dragging about eight extra pounds in the form of a rifle, scope and ammunition, at least for part of the trip.
Secondly, there’s simply more work to be done this year than last. With a little luck, I’ll have a caribou to pack out, one friend of mine has a Dall sheep tag, and her husband will have a grizzly bear tag. If everything goes as planned, there will be plenty of meat, hide and horn to haul back to the landing strip.
Finally, I’ve upped the video ante. I’ll be taking two cameras along this year instead of one (a Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon 80D as backup), more lenses, a Vortex Razor HD, better audio equipment, an extra monopod and a few other pieces of video equipment will likely triple my video production payload. I’m not looking forward to the extra weight, but it’ll drastically improve the quality of video footage.
All told, the extra weight and likelihood of more loaded miles will mean that I need to go into this hunting season at a higher level of athleticism than last year. The best way to achieve this is to check off that list of bulletized items above. I’ll break each one down individually, but first, a note on…
I’m not going to kick this dead horse for long, but I’ll speak about it briefly because last year’s workout and diet regimen was pretty unique, and I’ve abandoned some of that. DO NOT underestimate the importance of diet in any workout regimen!
This year I’m not watching my carbohydrate intake as closely. To build muscle, or maintain it while lowering body fat percentage requires energy. Carbs = potent energy. This year I’m back up to an average carb intake, but they’re all clean (complex) carbs: oats, brown rice, sweet potatoes, etc.
Most importantly, I’ve increased my protein intake levels. I try to eat 150 grams of clean protein each day. In reality, I’m probably only getting 130 grams, but I try my best to get more. The bulk of that protein comes in the form of eggs and chicken. I take a whey protein shake once daily (post-workout), and every now and again I eat fish and beef. I’m eating about six times a day, and going to bed with a belly full of chicken. My calorie intake is higher in general this year, too, to the tune of about 40%.
In regard to supplementation, I’m taking glucosamine and chondroitin, which are good for joint support. I’ve done this because I’m asking my major joints – hips and knees – to do more, heavier work than before. I’m also taking one zinc pill right before the end of the day to support natural testosterone production.
Finally, I’ve written off alcohol for the time being, as I usually do headed into any bomber hunt. As much as I love a heavy, bourbon-barrel stout, booze negatively impacts your athletic performance in at least three ways. Alcohol contributes nada in terms of nutrition; it’s just empty carbs and calories. Secondly, it dehydrates your body. Finally… and dudes hate to admit this to themselves… booze kills your natural testosterone production. With all that said, if I can spare a little space and weight in my pack, you can bet I’ll have a flask of something strong for that special night after notching a tag.
This one is kind of obvious. I’m expecting to have about 60 pounds in my pack at all times, and up to 140 pounds once there’s meat on the ground. Sixty might not sound like much until you take into account that a day in the Brooks Range could include covering 10 or more miles in various terrain. Then get up and do it all over again for nearly two weeks in a row.
My approach to increasing muscular endurance is primarily two-fold: increase volume and frequency of leg and lower back training. For the brief time I spent powerlifting in my early- and mid- 20s, I tried to annihilate my legs once each week, or maybe once every 10 days. The goal at that time was maximum weight above all else. Now I weight train legs, in some manner, about three times a week. Sure, if my legs are roasted and really sore, I’ll skip legs, but otherwise, I try to keep rest intervals to two days or so on that muscle group. All of my other training revolves around when my legs can handle another lift.
I try to use weights that make me fail somewhere between 8 and 20 reps. In my humble opinion, you really should be going to a point of failure on each set. So if you make it to 20 reps and you’re physical capable of doing more, raise the weight.
As far as sets are concerned, I never exceed 12 on any exercise. That goes against what a lot of trainers will say, but I’m trying primarily to increase endurance. I’ve found that, at least for me, between 9 and 12 sets is about as far as I can push it before I reach a level of fatigue that leaves me stiff for three or four days straight. And that’s counterproductive to frequent training.
General intensity should be noted too, and that applies to weight training, cardio, and any other physical training (and life in general, if you ask me). The human body is capable of more weight, more volume, and more overall capacity than most people give it credit for. When your brain tells you that you’re spent, your body still has twice as much to give. The most famous boxer of all time was once asked how many crunches he did during an ab workout. His reply? “I don’t know, I only start counting when it starts to hurt.” How often do we quit as soon as the pain arrives?
I only use about a half dozen different exercises to condition lower body, in addition to running and hiking: Front squat, dead lift, glute/hamstring machine or good-mornings, a variety of calf raises, lunges, kettlebell swings, and occasional sumo squats. Keep it simple, and watch your form.
I don’t need to dwell on why this is important, especially if you’re hunting at any altitude. I ran a lot last year during my preparation. But long runs don’t do much to build strength. Extended running and jogging can actually be pretty detrimental to leg strength. So I limit myself to about four miles, but have raised the bar on intensity. My cardio workouts are pretty short. Lifting hard and hiking with a pack (more on that later) eats a lot of time over the course of a week, and I try to do cardio six days a week, so it needs to be efficient.
I accomplish this in two ways. Most often, my cardio takes place first thing in the morning or over lunchbreak. The workouts take about 20 minutes, max. If it’s not raining, I do jog/sprint intervals. My regular run is about two and a half miles, and after about a half mile of warm up, I sprint, all out, for the distance between two telephone poles. Then I jog slowly for the same distance, and sprint again. I keep this up until I’m about a half mile from my starting point, and jog slowly to cool down. If you’ve never done sprint intervals, you can’t appreciate quite how much this will tax your lungs, legs and core.
On rainy days, I accomplish the same thing indoors. I set the clock for 20 minutes, pick three exercises, and never stop moving. I just keep doing the same three things as aggressively as I can until I’m about vomit. At that point, I’ll rest as long as needed, and continue.
Burpees are my go-to, and I make them the base of my indoor cardio circuits. I do 20 of them in a set, and more if I can. Toward the end of the workout, I get gassed and sometimes can’t do more than 10. After a set of burpees, I jump rope as fast as possible for 200 reps, then go into a third movement, based on what part of my body is not currently sore. Sometimes I’ll do L-sit pullups, sometimes it’s kettle-bell swings, sumo squats, dips, whatever. I go around and around for 20 minutes. If you’re hitting it hard enough, 20 minutes might be all you can handle.
Working on flexibility becomes more important with age, and goes a long way in injury avoidance. My lower body flexibility has always been horrible, and I’ve had lower back pain as early as my teens. I’ve read that a lot of lower back problems come from tight hamstrings. So I’ve picked about six stretch exercises that I found online or learned over the years, and added two calf stretches to the mix, and do them once daily before my cardio. I’ll also stretch before and after my leg workouts.
Spend some time on Google, find about a dozen that’ll help in the areas where you need it most, and do them daily. After two weeks, double up and do them twice daily. Don’t push it really hard to begin with. Muscles and connective tissue need time to adapt, especially if you haven’t stretched in a long time.
My back never hurts anymore, and it seems easier to loosen up for a run now that I stretch often. Just make sure that you’re performing the stretch correctly. Stretching should be uncomfortable, but not painful.
Lower body muscle mass
I’ve always been that guy that looks like he goes to the gym and spends all his time on the bench press and the curl bar and avoids the squat rack. I’m not what most people would consider “built” but my upper body simply doesn’t need to be trained as hard as my legs in order to hold mass. Blame it on genetics. My legs need more work.
Some people hear you talk about mass and roll their eyes. They write you off as vain, but I think there’s an element to carrying more muscle mass in your legs that can be hugely beneficial. Beyond simply adding to muscular endurance, the quantity of leg muscle you’re packing can help tremendously while afield.
A pack full of meat takes a toll on anyone. It takes less of a toll on well-conditioned folks who can max squat 400 pounds than it does someone in the same condition that can only max squat 250 pounds. Simple. But beyond that, more muscle adds a level of stability.
Stronger hamstrings and quads help you balance a heavily load more easily, and stronger calves – at least I would think – can help you to avoid rolling an ankle. Whether on a hill, crossing scree, or traversing muskeg, muscle will inherently make you more surefooted.
Adding muscle mass is as much a product of diet as it is exercise. Quality carbs and high protein intake are the only things that’ll allow you to naturally build muscle. So eat your oats and chicken, and in the gym, use overload principal when weight training. Use more weight than you did a month ago. This is not a speedy process.
Set your starting point: get a known number of reps at a known weight, and make note of it. Work at that weight for, maybe, six workouts. Then add 5% of your starting weight. Again, pick a weight that’s hard to do, but not so heavy that you can’t do it without breaking good form or cheating. That’s asking for an injury.
You’ve likely heard it said that the best exercise to prepare you for hiking uphill with a pack is… hiking uphill with a pack. There’s plenty of truth to that, but if you only have an hour to get your workout in, that’s not always possible, especially if you live in an area that requires you to drive somewhere to find an imposing hill.
I hike with an 80 pound pack whenever possible. Usually this only happens on weekends, but in the month leading up to my Alaska trip this year, I’ll do my best to increase that to three times a week. Find a pack that fits and find a way to put weight in it that won’t A) hurt you or B) destroy your pack.
I wrap steel Olympic plates in sweatshirts and then stuff them into a crappy old backpack, which is then crammed into my hunting pack.
I use the internal straps to lash the plates as tight as possible to the frame. I also jam a bunch of heavy, old clothes in the bottom of my pack in order to keep the weight high in the pack. You want the bulk of the weight to be up toward your shoulder blades instead of sagging down around the small of your back. Adjust your waistband so that it’s bearing most – if not all – of the weight. Better to have the weight on your hips than crushing your spinal column.
Now, get out and train. And apply for more big game tags (get some tips on that, here). Hunting, and training to hunt, can be the catalyst for a healthy lifestyle for decades to come. For me, it’s my main motivation, year around.
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