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Fit for the Field

Do you need to get in shape for hunting season? You bet your life.

By Keith McCafferty

At my athletic club, we pedal stationary bikes up an imaginary mountain. "Hurt So Good" blares from the boom box as our instructor barks out orders. As I am the lone male in a sea of spandex, one might question if my motive for being here has anything to do with exercise. But each time I rise out of the saddle, a corner of Montana's Bridger Mountain range peeks through the windows. If I want to climb that mountain to hunt elk in November, I have to climb the one that exists in my mind now.

"Whoa!" you say. "Wait a minute. I hunt in Texas, and the tallest thing I have to climb is a tower stand in Live Oak County. Why do I need to exercise before deer season starts?"

Well, to pick just one of a dozen reasons, becoming fit is the best way to ensure that you stick around long enough to eat your venison. The average age of the American hunter is climbing, placing more of us in the age bracket where heart attack is a concern. As researchers at Michigan's William Beaumont Hospital discovered, you don't have to hunt bighorn sheep to place yourself at risk. Hunters fitted with heart monitors regularly exceeded the pulse rate they could achieve on laboratory stress tests just by walking through cornfields, and the pulse of one bowhunter spiked from 78 to 168 in less than a minute when a 10-point whitetail buck appeared underneath his tree stand. While he was sitting still. Such strain is more likely to cause heart attacks among couch potatoes than it is among the physically fit.

But even if you aren't in a high-risk group, an exercise regimen that stresses the three tenets of physical fitness - aerobics, stretching and strength training - will make you a better hunter. How do you find a program you can stick with? The most important ingredients are 1) finding activities you enjoy doing regularly, and 2) staying motivated by working toward a goal. My brother, Kevin, schedules a couple of long-distance races each summer to give him the incentive to run. Another hunting partner enters tennis tournaments. He has to practice, he says, because the alternative is to embarrass himself on the court. Because I find it easier to train with others, I sign up for classes at my health club.

Aerobic exercises include walking, running, swimming and endurance sports such as tennis and soccer. Exercise at least three times per week to bring your heart rate up into a target zone - calculated at 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate (your maximum heart rate is your age subtracted from 220) - and keep it there for 25 minutes. Stretching is a pillar of fitness that doesn't receive due attention, but a flexible hunter is less susceptible to injuries. Simple hamstring stretches such as placing your foot on a rock and bending toward the outstretched leg will help increase flexibility.

Strength training also helps maintain bone density among older hunters. You'll get more benefit from free weights, which require smaller stabilizing muscles to work in unison with large muscle groups for balance, than machine weights, which isolate muscle groups during exercise. Those stabilizing muscles also help steady your rifle or smooth that shotgun swing. Remember that strength radiates from the center of the body. Stomach crunches and back exercises are the foundation of any strength-training program. Exercise your upper legs, too. It's the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh that take stress off knee joints during hiking, climbing and lifting.

Regardless of how fit you feel when the season arrives, be careful in the echo of the shot, when the real work of hunting begins. According to the Michigan study, dragging a deer causes more heart strain than any other hunting activity. Invest in a game cart. It's a small price to pay for good health.

Listen To Your Body!

Anyone over 40 who has not exercised in several years should consult a doctor before starting a training program. Regardless of your age, exercising can result in serious medical problems. Danger signals during cardiovascular workouts may include discomfort in the chest, arms, neck or jaw. Any tightness, burning, aching or feeling of fullness can indicate a coronary blockage. Shortness of breath may point to a heart problem, too, especially if previous training at the same intensity didn't produce the reaction. Bone or joint pain during stretching or strength training also are red flags. At the onset of any of these problems, whether you feel them in the field or in the gym, stop and seek medical help.

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