Elk Hunting is an Endurance Sport!

To be honest, I don’t love endurance training. My jam in the workout sense is interval training and circuits. To each his/her own of course. But I’m glad I incorporate some endurance training into my conditioning plans. 

My favorite sport, or pastime – really a passion, is elk hunting. I love almost everything about it. The nature experience. The quest. The reverence towards the elk. The challenge. The field to table journey. The gear. And while I also love most of the training I do in preparation for elk hunting, I’m not totally enamored with the endurance training required to be optimally effective as a backcountry elk hunter.  

As the title states, elk hunting is an endurance sport. Yes, you do need some strength, power, speed, and agility…but you need a LOT of endurance in the elk woods and mountains. Strength comes into play when carrying loads. Power is necessary to hike up super steep terrain. Speed is required occasionally when you need to get somewhere quickly. And agility when climbing through deadfall is a must. But mainly, you have to be able to move, albeit it often slowly, ALL FRIGGING DAY (at least on some days). This is the definition of endurance – cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular fatigue resistance. If you don’t have a ton of these qualities, you simply can’t grind all day, get into and out of the country, and stay focused on the hunt instead of your exhaustion.

That last point is so profound that I can’t restate it enough. We’ve completed 2 of the 5 weeks of the general firearms season for elk in Montana, and already I’ve got 61 miles in. And that’s over mountainous terrain, much of it off trail and in snow, with a pack and rifle. This is not atypical. I’ve seen a few elk and had one encounter, but the conditions for a successful harvest have not presented themselves yet. Sure, I’ve had years where I shot an elk on the opening day of bow or rifle season, but I’ve also had seasons where it went down to the wire on the final day. And that’s where the endurance thing comes in again. To go big on any given day, and to do that for a number of days, is critical. 

I’ve seen a lot of ostensibly fit people, including myself at times, be able to put in one good half-day before fatigue became the dominant theme as opposed to being a capable apex predator. Back when I was mainly doing sprinting and weight training I had plenty of power but ran out of gas a little too soon. And when I did triathlons, I had a specific kind of endurance but not really the type that helped me to carry load on uneven terrain. Elk hunting endurance is specific. You’ve got to have the scientific parameters like maximal oxygen uptake, movement economy, and submaximal repetition efficiency – but you just have to be doggone DURABLE.

Developing this type of durability is not really magic, but it does require careful consideration. Just the other day I was texting with a client, a hunting athlete, and we were talking about various aspects of training, including endurance work (shout out to you, Big TW!). We broached the topic of running. I like talking about my view on running, both as a natural human locomotive capacity and as a training tool. I think everybody (among those who are not limited by orthopedic or systemic problems) benefits from being able to run a little and from doing a little running in their training. But I definitely see it as a bell-shaped curve. Sure, the marathoners dive deeply into their sport and that’s actually a specialized application. But most of us don’t need that much running to either develop endurance or to be athletic. In fact, I say that my minimum locomotive requirement for clients is to be able to do 3 things. Sprint a 40 without blowing a hammie. Jog a mile without stopping due to exhaustion. Walk 5 miles continuously. On demand. Any time. Back to back if necessary. That’s it. This doesn’t take a ton of running to accomplish. It’s more about having that ability in your athletic toolbox than using it all the time. 

The client stated that he finds the modest amount of running he is doing in his program to be the most demanding aspect of his conditioning. We put that in because he enjoys that challenge and it is very convenient for his situation. But I also mentioned that there are many ways to build endurance besides running, or even just doing any form of steady-state aerobic conditioning (cardio). The nice thing about running, for those so inclined, is its convenience and simplicity. Fitting a couple runs per week around other forms of training is relatively easy. But when I’m training hunters, I actually don’t emphasize running too much.

I prefer backpack cardio or rucking as my main conditioning mode for hunters. I also like and utilize this training with many other athletes. For hunters, the beauty of rucking is the specificity…it’s one of the main things you need to be prepared to do. In addition to the aerobic conditioning and leg work, there is also a strength, stability, and balance contribution. In the Fit for the Field program, we emphasize three rucks a week over the pre-season buildup period. Every weekend there is a longer excursion on trail (if available), and there are two shorter sessions midweek which utilize heavier loads and intervals. After just a couple months, the ability to cover ground and carry load is significantly enhanced. 

One of the keys to building endurance is to keep most of the hiking at fairly low intensity. I’ll roughly follow the proven 80/20 model of endurance training with most of my program design. This is the time-tested approach that practically all elite and world/Olympic champion athletes use to develop endurance. It’s been made popular recently by the work of Stephen Seiler, PhD, among others. With this method you basically do about 80% of your aerobic training at very easy outputs, Zone 1 & 2 (I’ll describe those in a minute), and then in the other 20% you really get after it, go like hell, and use Zones 4 and 5. 

Zone-based training has been around for a very long time. For the purpose of simplicity, if you think of output as perceived effort, percentage of max heart rate, percentage of maximal oxygen uptake, pace, or several other parameters…you can identify 5 zones of training. Here’s a very basic breakdown:

  • Zone 1 = Recovery
  • Zone 2 = Endurance
  • Zone 3 = Tempo or Threshold
  • Zone 4 = VO2max
  • Zone 5 = Max Capacity

While it’s not written in stone, Zones 1 and 2 are usually done as steady-state sessions. Z3 can be either continuous or interval-based. Z4 & Z5 are interval or repetition workouts with varying but generally longer rest periods (as intensity increases). 

Most of the rucks should be Z1 and 2 to help develop that ability to just go steady. A few interval hills or even some dandy lunges thrown in complete the mix. 

We also employ additional forms of aerobic training, including modest amounts of running (again for those who desire) as well as cycling, rowing, and swimming. Most of this is where we’ll use intervals and high intensity circuits.

Ultimately what we are trying to develop in the backcountry hunter is this “go-all day” capacity with the ability to throw in some surges here and there as the situations require…without ever crashing, bonking, bottoming out, giving up, getting hurt, or quitting altogether. That’s the goal and the training is the secret. If you are in your 20’s and you hunt all the time…this happens automatically. Otherwise, you need proper training and I guarantee you it gets more important with every decade. 

To all you hunters in our community, I hope your season is going well. I hope your training is paying off big time. And if you are interested in learning more or setting up a better program to support your passions, just let me know. And if you don’t hunt but you want to find out how you can sculpt your training so that you can look, feel, and perform your best, at any sport and in any phase of your life…that’s what I’m here for. Thanks for joining me today. 

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