Training for a half-marathon. All other photo credits: Stefan Wilson
We are all looking for an edge. We buy the newest gear and learn the latest tactics to try to gain an advantage over the game we pursue. We practice endlessly to become more proficient with our weapon of choice and we search the internet for any bit of information that might help us become better hunters. This is all well and good, but for too many of us, we fail to look at the biggest factor in our growth as hunters: ourselves.
If you want to be a better hunter, then the best place to look is at yourself and how you can improve as a hunter, outdoorsman, and athlete. In this article, I will discuss three ways to become a better hunter this offseason (or any offseason, for that matter). If you do these three things, you will be more educated, more disciplined, and more prepared to have your best hunting season yet.
Hunters are by nature goal oriented. While we love being out in the backcountry, we also like to have a goal in mind that drives our ambition and preparation. Since this is the case, it only makes sense to build goal achievement into other aspects of life to train our minds to strive more for our goals. There are two main reasons why you as a hunter will be improved by running a half-marathon:
Fitness is essential for the backcountry hunter. Anyone who has hunted in the West knows that it does not take long to get winded as a result of the high elevations and steep terrain where deer and elk like to live. Covering miles in the wilderness cannot be done effectively without being in shape. While a well-rounded approach to fitness is far more than just cardio, running long distances is a great way to establish a higher level of cardiovascular fitness and health. Setting a goal of running a half-marathon will allow you to build up your cardiovascular fitness as you train.
There is another reason why running a half-marathon is a great way to improve yourself as a hunter. A half-marathon is 13.1 miles – a serious task for any runner. There will be points during training as well as during the race itself when your body will want to give up and you will want to throw in the towel. Mental toughness is what separates great hunters from the rest. Those who are mentally tough are willing to stay in the field longer, hike farther, and push beyond the discomforts of the backcountry; those who are not mentally tough give up when things get too difficult. Running a long distance like a half-marathon will train your mind to push through the discomfort and reject all of the temptations to quit. You will be a better hunter when you run a half-marathon because you will be more mentally tough as a result.
You could just go out and run a half-marathon, but you will be asking for a lot of problems without proper preparation. To prepare for a half-marathon, you need to have the proper gear, eat the right foods, and have the right training regimen.
Running requires minimal gear, but this does not mean that any pair of shoes, shorts, and shirt will do. You want light, breathable clothing that will wick away sweat and keep you cool. Most modern performance apparel will accomplish this; just be sure to avoid 100% cotton as cotton will hold on to moisture and does not breath as well as performance blends.
Shoes are the most important piece of gear for running. This is not an area to try to save a few dollars. Cheap running shoes can cause injury, will wear out faster and can make the entire experience less than enjoyable. Buy the best shoes you can possibly afford—your knees, shins, and ankles will thank you. Brands that make high-quality shoes specifically for long-distance running include Nike, New Balance, Asics, Saucony, and HokaOneOne (I personally wear HokaOneOne because I prefer the design of the sole for my stride). To choose a shoe, go to a dedicated running shoe store (not Foot Locker or Finish Line) that specializes in shoes for long-distance running. They will have you run on a treadmill and will analyze your stride, thus allowing them to know exactly which shoe design is going to be best for your specific stride. This is incredibly important because an improper sole design for your stride will lead to all kinds of joint issues. Once you have the gear, you need to be mindful of your nutrition and your training to maximize your efforts.
Your body is only going to be as good as the food you put into it. If you eat like garbage, your training will suffer. A good rule of thumb when running long-distance is to eat a high-fat diet (good fats, not bad fats). Sources of good fats include fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and coconut oil. These foods help reduce inflammation in your joints. Fats to avoid include anything fried, excessive red meats, and processed fats such as partially-hydrogenated oils; these fats will cause inflammation to increase. You will want to eat plenty of carbs from whole grains and fruit to help promote recovery after your runs, but avoid unnecessary amounts of processed sugars. Protein is a necessary nutrient for the rebuilding of muscle tissue. You should shoot for a 3:1 carb:protein ratio for this type of training. You will be burning enough calories that you do not need to worry about the excess carbs having a negative effect on your body composition.
A nutrition hack that you are sure to love is Jello. Jello will become your best friend during distance running training. One of the main ingredients in Jello is collagen, a structural protein found in connective tissue. Eating one to two servings of Jello per day will help give you a little bit more cushion during the ground-and-pound your joints will take.
If you are getting off the couch, the first step is to just run any distance at all. Start with half-mile to one mile runs for the first week to get your joints used to the new type of impact. Going all out right out of the gate will ensure that you will get injured. Instead, run short distances at a comfortable pace for a couple of weeks to get used to it.
Once you are ready to go some longer distances, find a half-marathon plan online that fits your schedule and timeline for the race. Any good plan will include three to four days of running and some rest days for recovery.
When you complete the half-marathon, you will not only feel accomplished, but you will also have grown in your mental toughness and ability to work through difficulty.
Shooting 3D is a great way to train as a bowhunter. Not only does shooting 3D give you practice in various shooting environments and scenarios, it also trains your mind to function properly in a real hunting situation. There are 3D tournaments all over the country and it is pretty easy to find local and state shoots by simply contacting your local archery shop or searching online.
Shooting in 3D tournaments has multiple benefits. First, it allows you to use your exact hunting setup in a similar scenario as you would while hunting. This will allow you to get acquainted with your exact setup in the field before you ever take it hunting. You must make sure to shoot with exactly what you will be using while hunting though. Use the same sight, stabilizer, quiver (or no quiver), mounts, and release that you will use while hunting. I shoot my hunting setup with all hunting accessories. I also keep one empty spot on my quiver when I shoot, just like I would if I nocked an arrow while hunting. I use a trigger style wrist release when I hunt so I am not going to use a hinge release while shooting 3D, but will instead shoot with my hunting release. Doing this will ensure that everything will be second nature in a hunting scenario because I have been competing with the exact set-up that I will be hunting with.
When it comes to which 3D shoots to participate in, you should decide your motivation for shooting. Are you going to participate to just have fun or do you want to compete for a cash prize, title, or other awards? While fun shoots are great for having a good time and getting some practice, you should compete in a few tournaments or leagues in which there will be something on the line. This will help you with the second benefit of competing in 3D tournaments: improving your stress response.
Shooting in high-stress scenarios requires incredible focus and muscle memory. You cannot just sight in your bow, go hunting, and expect to execute a good shot on a trophy bull that just came busting through the trees while bugling. Stress causes finite motor skills to break down and without muscle memory, you're sunk. Competing in 3D tournaments with something on the line recreates (to a certain extent) this stress response. By practicing under stress, you will perform better under stress in the backcountry.
The second reason why competing in 3D is a good idea is because of the difference between aiming at a 3D target versus aiming at a circle. Our brains associate familiar images with certain actions. If you only shoot at circle targets all the time, then you will have a very hard time making a precise shot on an animal because your brain will subconsciously be trying to find the bullseye that doesn't exist on that elk—enter target panic and a sub-par shot. Instead, shooting at 3D targets trains your brain to "pick a spot" on the side of the animal and put the arrow on the correct part of the anatomy.
Shooting 3D also allows your brain to get used to subconscious processes necessary for executing a good shot for a quick kill. If you want to improve as a bowhunter, find a 3D tournament near you and go compete.
We all recognize the value of school and professional training in any trade. Bowhunting is no different. Seeking out the instruction of professionals is a great way to grow in your understanding of your equipment as well as your skill. There are two great options for receiving professional instruction: lessons and certification
Most local pro-shops have staff who are certified instructors. These instructors can spend an hour with you and give you more information about proper shooting form and tuning than you could have learned in years on your own. For a modest price (usually between $50 to $100 per hour), you can receive professional instruction and improve your archery form without having to travel too far from home.
Bow manufacturers offer training schools at their factories and corporate headquarters that cannot be matched by anything you can receive locally. These schools are usually two to three days long and cover both shooting and technical training. Upon completing the workshop, attendees will be certified technicians and some schools even offer instructor certifications. There is one catch, however. Most companies require you to be employed by a local dealer before you can attend. In my time searching for an option for myself, I found one exception to this rule: Precision Shooting Equipment (PSE) in Tucson, AZ. PSE offers a three day school that anyone can attend and also use their own equipment. Attendees can receive two days of shooting instruction on their own equipment from gold medal Olympic coaches and one day of technical instruction, again using their own equipment. This is a unique option as you will learn with your own gear, getting to know your equipment better than you ever could have by simply taking your gear to a local shop. If you are willing to pay the cost of travel and attendance, you will very likely learn more in a weekend than you could have learned in a lifetime on your own.
If you want to grow as a hunter and you are willing to put in some time, money, and energy, you can take steps to being a better hunter than you could have imagined. But it won't be easy. Are you willing to better yourself? I hope so.