If you’ve followed this blog for a while, then you already know I’m a big fan of strength training and the nearly exclusive use of the barbell for all one’s fitness needs. I firmly believe that becoming stronger will benefit you in every other area of life, and that cardio (as we traditionally think of it) is profoundly less effective than heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses. So, my fitness efforts for the past 3-4 years have been devoid of any intentional cardio training – whatever my heart-rate spikes to after a heavy set of 5 is all the exercise my heart was going to get.
Now, when it came to preparing for hunts where I would be hiking multiple miles every day with weight on my back, and potentially hauling a load of roughly 150 pounds on my back should I harvest an animal, I did not deviate from my training protocol. My thinking was that if I am physically stronger as a whole, then the percentage of my total physical capacity required by climbing a mountain with a pack on was so much less that it wouldn’t be a big deal. In other words, if I could squat 350 lbs. for several reps, then propelling my body with a 40-pound pack up a hill would be a cake-walk by comparison. I was wrong…or at least, partially wrong. And I believe it was the confluence of two key areas that failed me in my imbalanced fitness regimen.
Now, I said I was partially wrong because I do believe that being physically stronger has made my efforts in the mountains much easier. I remember when throwing a 40-50 pound pack on my back was challenging all by itself, much less hauling it around for miles each day. I also believe that packing close to 150 lbs. of elk meat three miles back to the truck last year WOULD NOT have been possible if I wasn’t trained for putting more than twice that weight on my back on a regular basis. This is where increasing my total physical capacity really did come into play, and I still firmly believe it is a helpful component.
However, I also began to find that as I got into some longer hikes and physical challenges, my body was just not prepared for prolonged physical exertion. My particular brand of strength training involves heavy sets of typically no more than 5, with rests between sets anywhere from 3-7 minutes in length. If you take 5 steps in the woods and wait for 3-7 minutes, you will never get back to the truck! So, as I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other climbing a hill, my legs would fatigue very quickly. I would have to take an embarrassing number of breaks, and even began experiencing serious leg cramps (like, fall on the ground and yell while trying to force your quad to unlock itself kind of cramps).
I was even on one scouting trip this past year where I actually got a little worried for my safety. I live at 1,300 ft. in elevation, and was scouting an area at about 5,800 ft. So, the air was a bit thinner, but that is FAR from serious elevation that should really knock a person out. I was on my way back out from a couple points I had glassed for the morning, and was probably on mile 4 of what was going to be a 6-mile round trip…again, nothing crazy. Suddenly, I began realizing that I was getting light-headed and sweating way more than I should for the 82* it was at the time. I would stop in the shade for probably 10 minutes at a time swigging down water, hike another few-hundred yards up the hill, find another spot to sit and rest a while…I could never get the light-headedness to fully go away. Of course, I was hiking alone, and knew that if this got worse or I lost consciousness or something, things were going to suck in a hurry. Obviously, I’m writing this now, so clearly I made it back to my Jeep, ate some lunch, drank some Gatorade, and was fine…but that was the breaking point where I had to accept that I needed to re-evaluate my overall fitness plan.
The second area that I failed in my training was the mental game. It has been said that our physical bodies are actually capable of much more than we will ever achieve because our brains limit our physical output as a means of self-preservation. To my knowledge, that has not been officially proven or disproven, but it seems like sound reasoning. At the very least, I believe it is indicative of a simpler principle that the mental side of fitness is probably equally as important as the physical preparation you engage in. If your brain thinks you can’t do it, it’s going to send your body a strong message that you can’t, and you’ll notice yourself crapping-out quicker.
With my strength-training protocol, I had mentally prepared for doing something extremely hard for a short period of time. Now, this is a valuable piece of mental training, and it takes a lot of fortitude to step up to a weight you aren’t sure you can lift, take a huge breath, and get after it. I recommend it to everyone!!! However, I found that this mental state is vastly different from the frame of mind required to keep grinding - to keep putting one foot in front of the other when every muscle is on fire, it’s hard to breathe, and all you want to do is stop moving. This is the mental state you need to achieve on a long and arduous hike through the mountains, and I had not trained for it.
So, I had now accepted I was not fully prepared physically or mentally for the rigors of western mountain hunting, but what was I to do? I still had years of research and practical experience telling me that extended cardio sessions only serve to break-down muscle tissue, that total body strength was better than balancing on a ball while holding a 5 lb. dumbbell in a strange pose, and the simple fact that I like being strong and didn’t want to go back to being lanky and weak (what can I say, my wife is now very attached to my big, squatting butt). Well, as is often the case, it seems the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I didn’t need to swear-off barbells and start running marathons, but I also didn’t need to just keep pushing for new PRs all the time.
I decided to press pause on chasing “dem gains” and simply maintain a reasonable level of strength (roughly 80% of previous PR numbers) on all the major lifts (squat, deadlift, overhead press, and bench press). I then began adding some HIIT cardio (High Intensity Interval Training) at the end of each lifting session. This would vary depending on what lifts I had done that day (there was no way I was pushing a prowler after deadlifts), but was always done for higher reps/time and for the most part pertained to muscle groups or movements that would help me on the mountain. Weighted box step-ups are one of my favorite/most-hated, pushing the prowler around, hopping on the stair-climber at a high resistance for 8-10 minutes, and a few other gems that somewhat simulate the kind of rigors a mountain will throw at you. The goal was to get my heartrate way up, take shorter rests between sets, and basically end the workout with that “holy crap, I might puke” feeling. My hope was that this training would whip my cardiovascular system into better shape without being so prolonged (i.e. a slow jog for 30-60 minutes) that it would begin to counteract the strength training portion of the workout. If possible, I wanted to have the best of both worlds!
As for diet, I tend to roll with an “if it fits your macros” line of thinking. But, during periods of chasing PR’s, I eat a ton of calories and boat-loads of carbs. I decided it wouldn’t hurt on the mountain to be just a bit leaner, so I dialed back the calories a bit and significantly cut out some carbs. Granted, I was trying to maintain strength, so this was far from a traditional diet, but I was just trying to see if leaning out a couple body-fat percentage points would help as well.
Since adjusting my fitness program, I have now been on two hunts at higher elevations hiking multiple miles every day. Let me just say that the results have been amazing! I’ve been able to power up any hill I faced without the overwhelming urge to take a break until I reached the top. I only had one moment between the two hunts where my legs tried to cramp up, and it was a direct result of not keeping an eye on my hydration that day. My body simply feels like it can take whatever the mountain dishes out, and my brain seems to just know I can do it. I can always muster the will to take a few more steps, to climb a few-hundred more feet, or to just keep going until I reach my destination. It has only taken a couple of months, but this relatively small adjustment in my training has completely transformed my hunting experience.
Now, I’m still slightly addicted to strength training and the joy of hitting new PR’s, so I sincerely doubt this will become my year-long program. I’m sure in the off-season, I’ll make some more runs at new lifting goals, I’ll cut out the cardio and eat a ton of food again. But, a few months before hunting season starts, I’ll shift back to this plan and get myself leaned out and whipped into shape for tackling mountain peaks and hauling out huge loads of game meat.
I realize that this article is written with a broad-strokes view of fitness, and is probably not terribly helpful if you’re looking for specifics on a solid fitness plan. Having beta-tested the system on myself this past season (and proving it works), I plan to work up a complete plan that I’ll make available on this site. [Make sure you SUBSCRIBE to be notified when that goes live]. In general, the principle at play here is to train for the activity you plan to engage in. Don’t become a triathlete to carry your body-weight in game meat out of the woods, and don’t become The Hulk to hike 10+ miles a day at higher elevations. For hunting (especially western hunting) you need a well-rounded program that will prepare both your muscular and cardiovascular systems for the extremely diverse physical challenges this endeavor will throw at you.
So, is it strength or cardio that matters most in hunting? The answer is YES. Granted, you have to do that in the proper order and with the right method, but it will require effective training in both to be the serious, B.A. mountain-man I know you want to be. You can be out of shape and hunt – you really can – but you will have so many more opportunities if you have the physical and mental fortitude to get to where the animals are (which, let’s face it, are often the places hardest to get to). So, hit the weights, run some bleachers, deadlift heavy, and do a bunch of burpees. And when opening day arrives, you’ll hit the base of that mountain with all the confidence you need to charge up there and get it done!