Training for elk hunting: Lessons from an Ironman

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Video training for elk hunt

In 2015, I finished my first Ironman triathlon. That’s a full 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run, all in one day. While that’s a bit overkill for training for elk hunting, it taught me some valuable lessons that made me a much more successful hunter.

In this post, I’ll break down why training for elk hunting is important, how you should exercise, and some great workout hacks I learned from my Ironman experience. By the end you should feel confident that you’ll be fit enough to tackle the mountains in September 2020. Here we go:

What’s your reason why?

If I’m being honest, my Ironman journey started because I wasn’t good at working out consistently. That all changed as I watched my grandfather start to struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Well into his 70s, he got out of bed every morning and lifted weights for over an hour. While that disease is a battle you can’t win, his resolve to keep fighting helped slow his progression for years.

I knew going hard on the weekends worked in my 20s but I also knew that wouldn’t work forever. I figured I’d do a “sprint” triathlon to give myself a reason for a daily routine. that small tri led to another, and another, and then I set my sights on the big one. Did I change overnight? Heck no. But I finally had a goal in mind and that’s what got me out of bed in the morning.

Let’s be real, you’re never going to exercise consistently unless you really have a reason why. I’m 100% convinced that you are going to be more successful and have far more fun if you’re in “elk shape”. But do youbelieve that? I’ll do my best to convince you here but it’s up to you to figure out what drives you. If it takes signing up for a half marathon, a triathlon, or simply buying a scale to track your weight, then that’s a great investment.

Is training for elk hunting really that important?

Short answer: hell yes. Even if you’re just car camping or hunting from a drop camp, fitness is one of the top 3 things that will boost your odds. One of the primary defense mechanisms an elk has is its fitness. The higher, steeper, and farther it goes, the less predators it encounters. Getting shot opportunities is directly correlated to your ability to do the same.

Yes, there are always stories of guys that shoot one right off the road. That probably works once a decade which is (not surprisingly) the standard success rate of 10%. If you want to beat the odds, you have to go where others aren’t willing to go.

So what does it take to kill an elk?

If you want to have a better than average chance at an elk, you need to be able to do the following:

  • Hike 3-4 hours and 1000-2000 vertical feet per day
  • Carry 20-40+ pounds around all day long
  • Do it day after day for 8 straight days
  • Optional: make 2-4 round trips with 80+ lbs of elk meat on your back

That’s not easy, but most people can go that hard for a day or two. I always tell guys that day three is when you know if you’re ready for an elk hunt. That’s the point where no amount of willpower will overcome your fatigue and your exhaustion starts to really impact your mental outlook.

Many guys laugh it off by taking multiple rest days or only hunting half the day. Sadly, that’s still not enough time to fully recover, so you’ll only be hunting half as much as someone who trained (at best). Do you want to plan all year, take a week off, and drive 20+ hours just to only hunt the equivalent of 3 full days? Me neither.

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Hopefully that gives you the kick in the pants you need. Yes, elk hunting is a vacation for me too, but I still find plenty of still, spiritual moments while I’m glassing or sitting a wallow. Plus your mind will be much clearer if your body isn’t screaming at you every time you move.

You have to train like you hunt

While this sounds like common sense, it’s surprisingly less common than you think. Most guys picture huge, muscular bodybuilders when they think elk fitness. While that looks good on social media, and some guys are just animals, you probably shouldn’t be spending the majority of your time weightlifting. Most people spend over 90% of an elk hunt hiking around without lifting all that much weight. If you’re not prepared for that, things aren’t going to go well.

I actually learned this the hard way: I focused on strength training for my first elk trip since I assumed I had the cardio in the bag. I distinctly remember feeling tired and weak early on and thinking “what the hell, I finished an Ironman just a year ago”. If I’d had the confidence to stick with what I knew, things would have gone much better. Don’t focus on the wrong system.

Which system are you training?

To simplify, your body uses two different systems to perform work: aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen). Aerobic is essentially cardio and anaerobic is basically weightlifting or any other short, intense exercise.

Those two systems use different types of muscle fibers (fast vs slow twitch) and even different types of fuels (fat vs carbs… but we’ll come back to that another time). So if you just weightlift, you’re training your body to build different muscle fibers and use different fuel than what it will actually be using in September!

So are you saying not to weightlift?

Not at all. You’ll need that strength to get around the mountain and (hopefully) pack out your elk. Weightlifting also helps stabilize you, prevent injury, and helps improve your efficiency + speed. Even at the height of Ironman training most coaches still dedicate two precious workouts per week to the gym for those exact reasons.

What I am saying is that you should focus the majority of your time on cardio based exercises since that’s what you’ll be using. I find that ⅔ cardio is a good ratio of cardio to weightlifting for elk hunting. But more on tactical tips for training later.

Training for elk hunting: Strategy & Lessons

This is where my Ironman experience really starts to pay off. Here are some important lessons for training for elk hunting:

Obey the 10% rule

I learned this one the hard way. I went all out the first two months I trained for triathlons and managed to tear a tendon in my foot. While I’m not saying you’ll get injured, I did learn through a lot of research (and conversations with some very good doctors) about the “Golden Rule” of endurance training: your body can only adapt about a 10% increase in volume per week. Any amount of exercise over that can actually hurt your fitness and recovery. For example, if you’re running 3 x 3 miles a week (9 miles total) you should aim to run 3 x 3.3 miles (9.9 miles) the week after.

Yes, that means that it takes a while to gain lasting fitness. If you try to beat that curve you’ll simply burn out, get injured, or both. We’re only 5 months away from elk season so it’s already time to start training for elk hunting! Pick something easy like 30 minutes a week and go from there… you definitely don’t want to go too hard. Why? Well…

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Consistency will make you a killer

This is the message that you (and I) really don’t want to hear and the single most important piece of advice I can give you. Since it takes a while for your body to adapt, that also means frequent, small exercise sessions are far better than large, infrequent efforts. Your body has more time to heal and it’s far easier for you to do more work when it’s spread out over six days instead of two or three. Working out every day is how to build quality fitness.

Recovery is as important as training

People literally write books on periodization, recovery, and tapering, so I’m going to be quick: rest = recovery. To gain fitness, you stress your body and then let it rebuild to compensate. Make sure you have at least a day per week to rest and aim for one reduced volume week per month. I saw awesome results from one “50% effort” week a month during Ironman training since it let my body fully recover.

This also explains why last minute work outs are a horrible idea… you’re literally tearing down your body without giving it a chance to build any fitness. Make sure to “taper” before your trip: do lighter workouts the week before you leave and you’ll have much more energy on day one.

How to train for an elk hunt

Ok, it’s time to get tactical instead of talking strategy. I’m not going to build a workout plan for you, but I can give some general rules so you’re confident you’re on the right track.

Cardio/weightlifting ratio

Like I said above, a good general rule is a 2:1 cardio to weightlifting ratio. Since consistency is key, try to work out six days a week even if that means you’ll do shorter sessions. During an average week aim for 4 days of cardio and 2 days of weightlifting. Try to fit in one long cardio workout (1-4 hours) on the weekend before you take a day off.

Weightlifting suggestions

In the theme of training like you’ll hunt, make sure to focus on lifts that activate multiple muscle groups at the same time. You don’t isolate a single muscle when you’re in the field, so lifting that way won’t give you much benefit. Here are some examples of great exercises:

  • Squats, snatches, cleans, deadlifts, etc (pretty much any olympic lift)
  • Multi-stage exercises like kettlebell swings, turkish/sandbag get-ups, or burpees
  • Anything that forces you to use one leg like lunges, single leg box step ups, or a stair steps
  • Core exercises like sit ups, bridges, and planks for backpacking stability
  • Don’t skip leg day! Your legs/hips are actually more important than your upper body

Tired of the gym or don’t know what those exercises are? A trainer, a plan, a class, or an app (my favorite is one called Fitbod) that pre-plans your workouts is worth every penny so you don’t have to overcome the hurdle of planning a workout each day.

Cardio suggestions

Exercise isn’t just exercise if you’re enjoying it. Training for elk hunting can mean running, hiking, biking, paddling, skiing, surfing, or whatever else gets you moving. Generally you want to focus on your lower body since that’s what you’ll be using come game time. Just make sure to set goals so that you’re progressing slowly instead of jumping between exercises.

Finally, the best training is always just doing the real thing. As you get closer to September, try hitting some hills/steps with a loaded pack and/or taking a few backpacking trips. There are some great water bladders you can buy on Amazon to add weight as needed. Make sure to wear the boots you’ll be using so you break them in.

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Exercise hacks from an Ironman

Here are some game changer tips I learned working out 2x a day, every day for the Ironman. They’re designed to make it easier for you to stay consistent:

Just walk around the block

Struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Make yourself a promise that you’ll always gear up and just walk around the block (or to the corner, door, etc) once. If you’re still too tired, you’re allowed to go back to bed. Over 95% of the time you’ll just go do your workout since you overcame the biggest hurdle. The key here is to actually go back to bed if you feel sick or really tired so your body realizes it’s an option.

Reduce the friction

Remove obstacles ahead of time. I always kept a single bag with a fresh change of everything I needed to swim, bike, or run. Yes, literally three outfits all in one place. Sound extreme? Well that way when I woke up groggy at 5am I had one less excuse (I still need to pack!). It’s also easy swap in fresh stuff when you get home instead of packing from scratch each morning.

This is also why paying for a plan or an app makes working out much easier (I still need to plan!). It’s no surprise that it’s hard to work out if you wake up and have to pack a bag, make a plan, get breakfast ready, and get to the gym. Do all of that the night before and you’ll see much better results.

Create some peer pressure

Need a little motivation? Give your significant other or close buddy a login to your Garmin app, Strava, gym account, fitness watch, etc etc. Have them set a reminder on their phone to check it each day… you’ll think twice about skipping that next workout.

Make a tasty recovery snack

A little positive reinforcement goes a long way. If you have something you look forward to when the workout is done you’ll be far more likely to do it. I’m not saying this is a great idea, but burning 400 calories on a workout and eating a 200 calorie donut is still better than not working out. Try something like chocolate milk, a protein shake, or your favorite recovery drink (more on nutrition later).

Summary: Training for elk hunting like an Ironman

Phew. That’s my longest post so far and I could easily keep going. To sum it up, you need to start by setting a goal and finding your “why”. Do cardio the majority of the time, start early in the year, workout consistently (six days a week if possible), and make sure to follow the 10% rule. Focus on compound exercises for weightlifting and get a plan (or a trainer) if it will help. Use my excise hacks if they help you get out of bed in the morning!

Picture this: it’s day three of your hunt in September and you just got out of your tent. You hear a faint bugle at the top of a ridge that’s over 2000 feet straight up. Are you fresh and ready to go chase it? Either way you’re going to remember what you did the rest of the year. One of my favorite sayings is that more elk are killed in March than in September. Now is the time to get ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Still have questions or want some exercise tips? Shoot me a note and I’m happy to help anytime.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>