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Backcountry Hunting Physical Preparation - Training vs Working Out

Adrian Guyer CSCS, NSCA CPT, RSCC, USAW 2, CSAC - Ridgeline Athlete Founder

Man rucking with heavy pack
Rucking Training

Ever wondered what actually happens to the body when you train? And I mean actually train, not just randomly showing up now again for a workout or getting a sweat or some random muscle soreness, or better yet just making up your "workout" when you get to the gym each day. Anyone can do that. I'm referring to actually having a tactical plan in place that you adhere to consistently every week, month, year, etc. A plan that was built specifically for the demands of your sport(s). That's the big difference between training and just working out, having a plan.

We've all heard it, a failure to plan is a plan to fail and it almost always rings true especially in the case of physical preparation for any type of backcountry adventure. The mountains don't give a f-ck how prepared or unprepared you are to pass through them, they are relentless in the stress they provide and at times the environment you are in, your playing field, can be extremely unforgiving. If you want to find greater success and most importantly, stay safe in your adventures into wild places, it's vital that you prepare mind and body for the challenges you might face. Making sure all of the "controllable" factors are checked off the list prior to walking into the woods will lead to more successful hunts, and as author Linden Loren refers to it as, a longer "hunting healthspan". Your health and fitness are extremely controllable factors, as are your weapons, your gear, your first aid and your research of the ground you will be hunting. Weather and other environmental factors, animal activity, private land boundaries and hunting pressure are examples of much less controllable factors.

But we can't deny that any hunt that requires a walk in and a walk out, combined with the potential for removing a carcass from the field will require a physical output. Man has certainly made big leaps in hunting technology since hominids first chased wild game to feed to their tribes, leaps that without a doubt have made it easier to do. ATVs, Bushplanes, 4x4 trucks, bikes, etc have all made these tasks easier, while simultaneously making us less capable hunter gatherers, who are much less physically capable as a result. But that's another topic altogether.

In the case of self supported backcountry hunts such as high country elk or mule deer, sheep, an AK moose hunt, tracking whitetail bucks in the big woods or the stand hunter who chooses to hike in miles to sit in a saddle and wait to ambush his prey there will always be a physical needs component that must be met in our training if you want to increase your odds of success. Not to mention the importance of staying safe and not becoming a liability to your comrades or your family. The reality is, if you are not identifying the needs that must be met and strategically preparing for them leading up to your hunt, you are in fact a liability. Control the controllables.

"We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training."

So which one are you? Do you just workout and hope that something good will come of it? Or do you have a strategic plan in place that identifies the physical requirements or demands of your sport and provides a structured plan to help you monitor and measure where you want to see change?

During my undergrad in Exercise Science almost 2 decades ago, we spent a lot time in labs, identifying problems or needs for a population of athletes, theorizing practical solutions, creating hypotheses, administering training interventions, monitoring them over time and then testing and analyzing our results to these problems over time. That's exactly what your training program should do. And just to be clear, a lab is not just a room full of bright lights, shiny instruments, and white coats. Our school weight room, the athletic fields, the gym, the treadmills, the cafeteria were all off shoots of our lab. My current training facility, XIP Training Systems, is affectionately referred to as the "lab" by our athletes, as is my home & my backyard, the hill I run intervals on or the trails I ruck on and the woods I hunt in. The lab is everywhere around you, quite simply being any environment where you test and obtain data from your training.

Get to the point already Coach - what's the difference between Working Out and Training?

So here we go, let's take a look at some examples of training vs working out that will help you make more informed decisions about your physical preparation this season.

1) Training is not random, there's a method to the madness.

Think about planting a garden, and the timing of each component that goes into growing healthy plants. Testing the soil, preparing the soil or tilling, adding compost and other organic matter based on the test results, fertilizer as needed, water, plant the seed, sun, water, weed, protect, sun, water, weed, protect, sun, water, prune, sun, water, harvest. The order of operations is really important if you want to grow a strong and healthy plant, if you screw that up the results can change dramatically. Training is no different. A random approach might yield positive adaptation or it may not. And even if it does it's unlikely you will know what actually helped you improve anyways. A scientific approach not only provides a evidence based order of operations, it also allows for easy tweaks to be made based on the data gathered during testing, aka your gains vs losses. You can then use this to improve future training phases, repeat what provided positive adaptation and make informed decisions on what should be tweaked in the future. The shotgun effect will only get you so far.


2) A training program provides an intentional & purpose driven approach to helping you achieve the goals you set for yourself. Find your why.

Being intentional about reaching the goals you want to achieve each day you show up to train is really important to being successful. It's also vital to having purpose and providing a why in your training program. Not having a why in your training is like boarding a ship with no captain. There's no telling where you will go and that makes it hard to trust in the process and put forth your best effort. Find your why and trust in the process and you are more likely to see positive change occur.


3) Effective training is sustainable.

The training stimulus should provide a positive stress to the muscles, tendons, ligaments & the central nervous system that allows the body to adapt and sustain the stress being applied over time. Too much stress can blow things up, while too little stress will not elicit a change, the key is finding the right doseage and the right intensity. What you see on social media might get you fired up to buy an online program and start training until you realize that you what you signed up for is really not sustainable, typically it's just too much stress. If you have access to a professional performance coach who is both vetted and knowledgeable of how to implement an evidence based approach to your training it will be worth every penny to go train with them. If you don't have this luxury for in person training, or if you want to train from home & want to hire an online coach I can totally understand. Do the research to find a knowledgeable professional, reach out to them and ask questions. Just buying what's hot on social media might not lead to the greatest return on investment in your health and performance.


Effective strength training for backcountry athletes
'Lunge with sandbag'

4) An effective training program will provide transfer of training to your sport(s).

The body is a really amazing organism that can and will adapt to any stress we apply to it - both good and bad. This is how we have evolved over many thousands of years to our reign at the top of the food chain. These adaptations, also referred to as the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) will help the body adapt to where it is you want to see change. This is where having an experienced coach worth his/her weight in gold can be extremely helpful and save you a lot of time and frustration. Because the body, and mind, will also adapt to negative stress or training modalities that simply don't move the needle closer to our goals, and in many cases can lead to injury as a result. I explain it to many of our young athletes with a road building metaphor. When we teach movement patterns if we let things slide and allow an athlete to do it incorrectly, over time their nervous system will pave a road for this pattern or movement strategy and use this pattern as the tool for fixing the movement problem it is faced with each time you encounter that situation. All movement is really just problem solving, and better movers have the right tools to solve the problems they are faced with. Biomechanically speaking, paving "bad roads" can be inefficient and have more metabolic cost as well as leading to tissue damage over time. A good training program will help you provide positive adaptation to the specific demands of your sport so that your body has the right tools to solve all the problems as efficiently as possible.

5) Using a hammer to screw in a light bulb.

Having the right training tools is vital to achieving the desired results and eliciting a positive adaptation to all of the hard work you put in, just as we talked about above. And "tools" don't necessarily mean the actual training equipment, rather it's more about the type of movement and how it transfers to your sport. As a career strength and conditioning coach I have a had the opportunity to work with thousands of different athletes over the last 20 years in this field. In doing so I have also studied almost every land based sporting discipline, motor sports & many water based sports so that I can better understand the different biomechanical demands each sport presents with. With that understanding it's quite evident that you can't just use the same training approach for all of them. Backcountry athletics might have similarities to other activities or sports but it also presents with very specific movement, force application and energy system demands that the training program must effectively address. I certainly don't use the same training program for my college football athletes that I do for a HS X-C runner. Even if each athlete needs strong legs to apply force to the ground there are some very obvious differences in the surface they compete on that must be understood and taken into account during the program design process. Backcountry athletics presents with specific needs analysis and the programming needs to utilize the correct tools for the job if you want to have your training effectively transfer so that you can be more successful in the mtns each season.

6) Consistency is key to success!

Lastly and likely most importantly you must be consistent in your pursuit of excellence. Having the best program in the world will not provide the outcomes you're after if you're not consistent with your training. The fittest, most durable and mentally resilient athletes out there aren't doing anything magical to get them where they are. But they are almost always relentless in their pursuit of excellence week after week, month after month, year after year. There is no offseason for these individuals, there is just a change in the emphasis of their training throughout the year, called periodization, and they trust the plan. Establish your why in training, put a plan of attack in action (your training program) and show up with a champions mindset each and every day and you will find success.

If you are a driven backcountry athlete and want to start implementing a training plan today Ridgeline Athlete has you covered.

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