The Legs Feed The Wolf
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The Legs Feed the Wolf
Day 3. Legs are drained and lifeless. Blisters are rubbing on blisters, as I’m sure parts of my feet are truly on fire. Not sure if I’m actually lifting my dusty boots over the rocky and rooted ground or merely shuffling along, but every time I feel my sore ankle, I find myself hoping not to fall down the crispy trail. Each of the prior days, including this one, had started with an easy 3 mile, gentle ascent on packed earth, to the last clearing, number six, before the trail continued upwards thru more wood choked forest, higher bowls, and deeper country. Clearing six, or the bed springs, as it was named, after the rusted remains of an old mattress someone had packed into the spot by horseback years before, was really just north and south facing slopes meeting at the valley floor and reaching over a half mile straight up to the top of the mountain on either side. The “shady side” was nothing more than a giant scree field, criss crossed with game trails. It had produced many an elk harvest by long range rifle fire from my dad’s trusty 300 Winchester Magnum over the years. But this was September archery, and close quarter elk combat in thicker cover meant climbing the opposite side of the valley. Terrain that excited, intimidated, and today, crushed me.
It was my first archery elk season, and I carried a longbow. I was green and unconfident in my chances for success. I had no calls, and my only intention was to spot and stalk my first elk. By day three, my lack of confidence in my equipment, combined with my lack of preparation for the Wyoming backcountry, combined to produce a feeling of hopelessness. More accurately, I felt like I was wasting my time. I had not encountered much sign, and not a single bugle was heard. I clearly remember, looking out across the vast ocean of pine below that afternoon, and thinking how locating an elk would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
On day 4, beat up physically and emotionally, I packed up and headed home, planning to return during rifle season. My lack of physical preparation and education about what I needed for bow hunting success of elk in the backcountry had left me defeated. I was a competitor and this failure did not set well.
As a collegiate and former sponsored runner, I thought my lean running conditioning was enough. As it turns out, in mother nature’s eyes, I was weak. My legs could run, but they weren’t ready for the grinding ups and the quad pounding downs. One of the best lessons that first season taught me was the backcountry requires balance. Strength, strength endurance, and conditioning, are all key components needed in order to set up the chance for success. If you can’t keep covering ground, opportunities will dwindle. I never wanted to feel physical (or mental) defeat in the field again. So, I adjusted my training, dove into strength training with a vengeance, learned every squat, lunge, deadlift, and step-up I could find, and prepared for my next battle with the backcountry.
In addition, I knew I was ignorant in the ways of elk and how to hunt them with stick and string. I started talking with people I knew who had killed elk with the bow. Success leaves clues, and I wanted my pack overflowing with elk knowledge. I read, I watched videos, and I learned how to call. I shot my bow every day. I continued to run, but changed the focus to more intervals, more hill repeats, and more mountain climbs. I learned, I practiced, and I trained. I wanted to feel confident entering the next season. As it turns out, it worked. Sort of.
Was I physically fit for the next archery elk hunt? Yes, I was. Even tho the hunt took place in the more genteel terrain of Eastern Idaho, I hunted 10 days straight, daylight to dark, and would have continued pushing on if time had allowed. I was confident in my bow, shot thousands upon thousands of times before the hunt. I felt much better about my ability to locate elk. I was fairly confident I could get close enough to scare a few bulls. And that’s exactly what I did. I had encounters (sometimes several) with elk every day of that trip. I missed twice. I made poor decisions that left me educated, more experienced, and burning for more. The previous year’s preparation put me in position for success, but there would need to be even more learning, practice and training before I earned the taste of success by taking my first archery elk.
From those first two elk hunts with a bow, came my hunting mission statement:
I believe we are born with the potential to become the ultimate predator.
But to reach our hunting goals, we must hone our craft by learning as much as possible,
practicing every chance we get, and growing our physical abilities daily.
While there are many excellent resources for gaining elk hunting knowledge, and practice is something you will need the internal drive to complete, I can help guide you toward growing your physical abilities.
From those early years chasing elk with my longbow, I have prepared for hunts from the sweeping plains of Africa, to the slippery steep mountain goat slopes of Alaska, and of course, there are those 20 years of Rocky Mountain elk and high country mule deer hunts. But what makes me more than a hunter offering fitness advice, are the 20+ years as a strength & conditioning coach. From that combined knowledge and experience, I offer a few tips for your next hunt preparation.
First, lets clearly define our goal. While I enjoy chasing elk thru a sea of deadfall and up and over mountains, some folks just want to get to and from their deer stand more easily. Others want to be able to move around with better breathing. Many want to be ready for the hard work of processing and packing out a heavy pack after a successful hunt. The list of hunting fitness goals could go on and on. For the sake of this article, lets agree that we all want to hunt stronger, feel better, and go wherever the hunt takes us.
From a training stand point, I truly believe the saying, “The legs feed the wolf.” Meaning, strong legs should be our foundation. While running can certainly help build a big base, we don’t actually run much while pursuing big game. We do however, hike. A lot. Hiking places a different stress on the leg muscles than running. Add in uneven surfaces, obstacles, packs, equipment, clothing, boots, up and down hills, and hiking turns into a completely different exercise.
To prepare for the demands of hiking I recommend doing just that. Lots of walking with a weighted pack. Long hour or more grinds are great, as are treks over rolling terrain. Sometimes you will want to hike with boots, as building the feet up to the pounding will help them become blister resistant. Other times, a good pair of running shoes will be great when we push for faster speeds. We should incorporate faster speeds or more challenging efforts into this hiking preparation. We can do this numerous ways, including running or hiking intervals, where we push hard for 30 seconds to 10 minutes, followed by a walking or slow jogging period. Another option is hill repeats, where we push hard up the hill and then slowly return to the bottom. Repeating several of these hard efforts a couple times a week is one of the quickest ways to improve your strength endurance and overall fitness level.
A sample workout could look like this:
10 minute slow hike or jog warm up.
10 x 1 minute hard effort, followed by 1 minute easy effort.
10 minute cool down hike or jog cool down.
If you can keep lots of various hiking workouts as your conditioning foundation, most hunters will already be fairly well equipped for the next hunting season. If, however, you want to reach the next level in your physical preparation, read on.
Enter, true strength & conditioning. This is where we change from the hunter who is semi-interested in improving their fitness to the guys and gals who want to dominate the field and know, without a doubt, they can handle anything mother nature throws at them. For hunters with this level of drive, I highly recommend adding in a wide variety of strength training. This type of work can include any form of resistance, including but not limited to, body weight, barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, sandbags, bands, machines, balls, tires, sledge hammers, etc. Additional outstanding conditioning tools include bikes, air dynes, and rowing machines.
As we transition into using these tools, it is important to note there is no magic or “right” formula. We simply want to put in work that will give us more real hunting world strength & conditioning. We can make this happen with any exercise or training combination, as long as we focus on intensity and variety.
We accomplish intensity in our training by extending the length of the set. We can do this by keeping rest intervals shorter. Instead of performing a set of squats and then resting for a minute, follow the squats with a set of medicine ball slams, shadow jump rope, a short run, bike or row, or any other exercise that keeps the heart rate elevated. We can also use several other intensity boosting techniques:
Increase resistance. It seems simple enough, but many people fail to challenge themselves often enough with increased resistance. Increasing the weight lifted in meaningful increments ensures the muscle is pushed beyond its previous point of failure thus maintaining the muscle building process. Aim to increase the weight when you reach eight to 12 reps and failure does not occur. Change the exercise. To achieve maximal gains all muscle fibers in a body part must be trained. Changing the angle (e.g to incline bench press) or introducing a new exercise will stimulate growth. Pre-exhaust the muscle. When an exercise involves two or more muscles the weakest will prevent you from working the primary muscle to failure. The answer is to first isolate and tire the primary muscle before immediately moving to another exercise that works the set of muscles to failure. Introduce supersets, tri-sets, and giant sets. This involves performing two or more exercises for the same muscle group without a rest interval. This means you have to utilize different muscle fibers which stimulate greater growth. Use partial reps. At the point of failure you will not be able to complete the full range of movement for a given exercise. Completing a partial rep that uses only a segment of the lift will still work your muscles beyond the point of failure. Use isometric contractions. This involves holding the weight still at the point of failure to stimulate a static contraction in the muscle.
As you begin to get the feel for the intensity you should bring to the table, also keep in mind the training component of variety. I see far too many people from all walks of fitness, who find exercises and routines they are comfortable with and then rarely deviate from those. Keeping variety in your training is one of the quickest ways to boost intensity, fitness levels, and avoid overuse injuries. Find different exercises, switch up your schedule or order of exercises, and challenge yourself with more variety to unlock new physical growth.
While there are many more components to well rounded strength & conditioning, we’ve covered a few areas you can focus on for improved hunt preparation. It really boils down to doing your best to prepare for the worst. Hunting can be hard. Mother nature can be tough. Animals can be unpredictable. Train your body similarly and you will be on you way to realizing your predator potential.