Every outfitter I know tells clients to “get in shape” before heading out west to hunt. For us of the chair-imprisoned, 40-plus brigade, this can be a daunting challenge. Our lives are hectic. Finding time to exercise rigorously every other day during every week is difficult. Yet it takes stamina to climb 2,500 feet from camp to an elk park before dawn, then drop down a thousand feet to glass a wallow and climb again to a perch along the tree line. You have to go to where the elk are and, occasionally, you have to do it on the run.
The next call you make after booking a high-altitude hunt is to your family doctor. Schedule a full physical if you haven’t had one in a year. Ask him or her to prescribe a stress test. Do it as soon as you can.
A decade ago, I decided to get in shape. My wife, a bright lady, suggested a physical first. My doc ordered a stress test, and when my heart reached 180 beats per minute, an irregular rhythm showed on the scope. We were living in Minnesota at the time, and the doctor called a friend at the Mayo Clinic. His pal discovered that I, like millions of others, suffer from a slight deformation of one of the valves in my heart. It’s not dangerous and doesn’t worsen with age, doctors told me. But I shouldn’t push myself past a pulse of 150 or so.
Based on nay doc’s advice, I shoot for a pulse rate of 135 when I work out. I wear a monitor to keep track of how well I’m doing. These are my suggestions: Start with a gentle warmup of three minutes, then move on to two to three minutes of hard exercise, followed by equal periods at an easier pace. As your conditioning improves, lengthen the periods of exertion and shorten those of relaxation.
Remember that the goal is twofold. You want to be able to sustain a high rate of exertion for a period of thirty minutes or so, but you also want your pulse to return to normal. The stress test you took before beginning your exercise program will help you develop cardiovascular targets that match your personal physical condition. Heed your doctor’s advice.
It’s best to start these workouts four or five months before a hunt. But we hunters are quintessential procrastinators. Although it’s already June, there’s still time to get in shape. Your conditioning strategies will be determined by where you live and how much time you can invest in breaking a sweat.
Last January, a friend who lives in the foothills of eastern Tennessee booked an elk hunt in Colorado. To get ready, he ran the lane between his house and the highway. The lane was perfect. It rose steeply from the paved road for about a third of a mile to the nose of a ridge. For a quarter-mile it was relatively level, then it climbed sharply again for a half-mile. From there, it dropped gently for a final third of a mile to his house.
Steve’s was a September hunt. When the redbud bloomed in early April, he started running from the house down to the highway and back three times a week. By July, he was carrying a daypack with a gallon of water in it. He added a second gallon by the end of that month and continued his regimen until he headed west.
Running may not be a good idea for everyone, especially for those of us in our fifties. Knees take a pounding. Better is the rise of a stair-stepper in a nearby gym. Less effective are treadmills because they lack the climbing motion of the stair machines. If you live in an urban apartment building, forgo the elevator and start using the stairs every time you leave or come home.
In the final two months before your bunt, start taking day hikes of five to ten miles. Select a trail that has sharp ascents and descents. Hiking downhill, especially carrying heavy loads, stresses leg muscles not used in climbing. Wear your hunting boots with appropriate socks during your hikes to break them in. Carry a daypack and increase the weight slightly for each hike. Weighted vests are also available, but it makes more sense to use your own backpack.
If your hunt involves horseback riding, hie yourself to a local stable and take two or three half-day trail rides. You’ll stretch muscles, particularly in your lower back, that you didn’t know you had.
As we age, and our work becomes more mental than physical, we lose flexibility and our sense of balance deteriorates. Your conditioning program should include exercises to improve your ability to bend and twist at the waist, to strengthen your lower back, and to strengthen upper arms. The best way to determine a regimen that fits your needs is to invest in an assessment by a professional trainer at a local gym.
It’ll set you back fifty to a hundred bucks. Big deal. The trainer will prepare a written plan that tells you which equipment to use, how much weight to pull or push, and how many repetitions per session. She or he will help you learn the difference between the pain associated with building muscles and pain that indicates potential damage. Brenda, my trainer at the Middleburg Fitness Club, showed me how to use the gym’s machines to do leg and back extensions, curls, bench and butterfly presses, and lat pull-downs. After two weeks, I had to admit that my back once in constant pain hadn’t felt better in years.
If you don’t have the time to go to a gym, your trainer can give you a list of stretching exercises you can do at home. They don’t take long–ten minutes or so–but over a couple of months, the payoff is evident.
Flexibility exercises will improve your sense of balance. However, Alaskan sheep guide Tony Russ advises his hunters to bring along a collapsible walking stick. Weighing but a few ounces, this multi-section, spring-loaded tube provides extra stability when negotiating boulder fields or crossing streams. When not in use, it ties to your pack. Purchase a model with a two or three-inch bail, or ring, around the tip. The bail keeps the stick from becoming wedged between rocks.
Diet and exercise go together. During your pre-hunt physical, discuss your weight with your doctor. He may offer suggestions about healthy ways to achieve weight-loss goals. Follow the advice, but avoid fad diets that promise rapid reduction. They’re seldom possible to sustain and can put your health at serious risk. While you’re eating smaller portions, you’ll find solace in the fact that each pound you lose is one less you’ll have to carry up the mountain.