Hunting in the backcountry requires a special kind of endurance. You need to be able to hike for miles with a heavy pack, climb steep terrain, and still stay mentally focused even when the going gets tough. But how do you build the kind of endurance you need for backcountry hunting?
To build endurance for hunting focus on training both cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Full-body workouts with high aerobic conditioning such as riding an Assault Bike, rowing, or using a SkiErg are optimal. Trained at high intensity, with little to no breaks, can build endurance more quickly.
Hunting fitness is all about training with a purpose; it's not just building muscle to look better in front of the mirror or seeing how strong you are in the gym. We train for the great outdoors and life outside the gym's doors. It's functional. So in this guide, we'll give you the functional take on how to build your cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance, including a taste of how we do so with one of our free endurance workouts, and how mental toughness is the true MVP behind building endurance for hunting.
How to Build Endurance for Hunting: The Abridged Guide
For hunters, endurance is defined by a feeling more than a dictionary definition, and memory based on feeling is usually a sign of its significance. Endurance comes in many forms, but for this article, we'll stick to cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance.
Here's what you need to know:
- Cardiovascular Endurance: This is all about how efficiently your heart can pump blood to your lungs for oxygen and then send them throughout the rest of your body. The rate at which your heart can run through this cycle and still keep up determines the length and intensity of continuing activities. In simpler terms, someone with high cardiovascular is less fatigued or gasping for breath when hiking.
- Muscular Endurance: There's a limit to how many times your muscles can contract, and that limit determines your level of muscular endurance. A common example of this is cramping. Even if an athlete's lungs and heart are up for the task, they can be stopped in their tracks because of lower muscular endurance. After their muscles contract too many times, lactic acid builds up and seizes the muscle group.
Some people will innately have greater endurance than others, but for the vast majority, endurance is both a physical and mental ability you maintain and build through consistent training. This is why it's essential to build both your cardio and muscular endurance before you go hunting, but ideally, it's something you maintain and improves upon year-round. Here's an example of what that looks like as a workout.
Functional Endurance Workout For Hunting
Mountain athletes and backcountry hunters rely on endurance for success and safety. For the best of them, endurance training isn't a nice to have option.
We work with thousands of athletes on their hunting fitness every day. One of our favorite workouts that challenges your physical and mental endurance is the MTNTOUGH Triathlon. It looks like this:
- Assault Bike: 150 Cals (Male) / 120 Cals (Female)
- 600 Meter Run
- Rower: 150 Cals (Male) / 120 Cals (Female)
- 600 Meter Run
- SkiErg: 150 Cals (Male) / 120 Cals (Female)
- 600 Meter Run
If you think your endurance is ready for your next hunting trip, we challenge you to give this a shot - check out our whiteboard to gym video for additional details on the MTNTOUGH Triathlon.
Since the goal is to complete the entire workout as quickly as possible, keep the breaks to zero if you can. This workout is tough. And that's the point. If you sharpen your body and fortitude in training, you're far better prepared for anything in the wild.
If you tried the MTNTOUGH Triathlon and want more - check out the 14-day Free Trial. You can build your endurance from any number of programs; we've created year-long resources for the Backcountry Hunter, daily workouts anyone can do from anywhere in our Minimal Gear Daily, the grueling favorite - Heavy Pack Program, and many more.
And now for the million-dollar question...
How Long Does It Take to Build Endurance for Hunting?
The minimum time required to build proper endurance for hunting is 12 weeks. In this timeframe, it will take 2-4 weeks for your muscles to begin packing on mass, and another 8-10 weeks for your muscles to increase their endurance load. Cardiovascular endurance is built in parallel, taking 8-12 weeks.
Ideally, you train all year so you aren't rushing to get your endurance up for an upcoming trip. Plus, we always like to leave 16 weeks before the season starts to get ready, which is why our Preseason Prep program is 80 days. But if you were forced into a bare minimum, 12 weeks would be the lowest you could go without tremendous risk to safety or completely botching your trip.
Since there's more to getting ready for a hunt than building endurance, you should check out our article that walks through the areas to focus on (including endurance) and the science behind the timeline above.
Outside of the right training specific to hunting fitness, there are a few other things we've picked up over the years to help you reach your endurance goals.
How to Build Endurance for the Long Haul
It's been casually dropped throughout this guide, but now's the time to pause on the real way to build endurance - and that's by working on building your mental toughness. Knowing every functional exercise in the book for endurance won't mean a thing if you can only bust out a few reps now and again.
Building endurance is a grind, and it doesn't have an endpoint if you're serious about improving. You keep pushing yourself day in and day out. Without mental toughness, it's impossible to do that.
So for those of you looking to work on endurance in a way that it's ingrained into your mindset, then keep the following concepts in mind. They'll show you several key factors that will make you mentally tougher than anyone else - master these and you'll be able to handle any training in front of you.
1. Break It Up
The moment you realize you're only halfway through a 600-meter run is the exact moment your mind will start to build doubt. Your lungs start to feel shallower, your legs heavier, and your mind will start looking for the emergency exit. We're all hardwired to think this way.
Following this situation a bit further, you'll start thinking about how you barely made it 300 meters, so there's no way you can go 300 more. Or maybe you'll rationalize it with, "it's better than sitting on the couch." Sure, that's true. But neither helps in the endurance department, which is all about finishing the race.
This is catastrophizing in all its ugly glory. You've convinced yourself that you're in a way worse situation than you are and exaggerated the difficulty of overcoming the challenge. One way around this is to break it up into smaller more achievable pieces, which is a tip we're comfortable sharing more than once. The thinking pervades throughout history, but our inspiration is directly from the United States Navy SEALs and how only the toughest of the tough make it through months of physically impossible training.
Every Navy SEAL has to pass BUD/S training, which is a 6-month program designed to break you physically or mentally, and for most - it does. Somewhere between 70-85% of students won't make it past the BUD/S phase of training (there are other phases and many more months of training after this). So how do 15-30% of students make it through? One tactic is how they think about their days.
Instead of focusing on the 6-month slugfest that has to be completed, they focus on making it to breakfast. And then lunch. And then dinner. Rinse and repeat. You can do the same. If you have 16 weeks before a hunting trip, don't stress about your fitness to the point of demotivation. Rather, focus on making it to your workout today.
And if you struggle to make it through a workout, break it up into pieces.
2. Plan for Consistency
You might be in a tough spot if the only time you think about working on endurance for hunting is when August rolls around. But if that's your mindset, consider then that the idea of training endurance for a short period is antithetical to the word.
Endurance is a long-term struggle, and working on it isn't something to jump in and out of if it's truly something you're needing or trying to improve. It's year-round and a part of the philosophy of Always Ready.
A common reason many use to avoid consistent training is a lack of time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, yet some of us can leverage those hours more efficiently and make more out of them than others. How is that possible? It simply comes down to drawing up a plan and sticking to it no matter what.
Your health, which is really what we're talking about here, is important and deserves to be guarded.
If your schedule or lack of schedule is making that impossible, it's time to prioritize. But a plan is won't mean a thing if you don't stick to it. And consistency is the factor here. While time can be a factor in not consistently training, a lot of different things can crush consistency, and often they're from moments of mental weakness. If taking time to make it to the gym and back isn't possible, get your workout in at home. There are plenty of ways to do this, including bodyweight programs like the No Gear 60.
From catastrophizing (see section above) to being tired from staying up to late the night before, it's easy to stray off the plan without an ironclad mentality. If you're able to convince yourself to truly believe that aside from an emergency, nothing is going to stop you from training, your consistency will have a sterling record.
The best part of planning and being consistent with it is how you'll build positive habits. In Robin Sharma's book The 5 AM Club, you'll find it only takes 66 days of consistent behavior to form a habit that you ultimately stick with. This should be encouraging to everyone, but if that seems too long, remember to break it up into smaller pieces.
3. Three More Yards...
"Three more yards, then drop," is an adage some offensive linemen say to motivate themselves when they're exhausted. The idea is that if they can always go another down, and help push the ball at least three more yards before giving in, they'll drive the ball down the field.
There are two reasons to start thinking "three more yards..." At a physical level, whether it's adding a few more reps to each set, rowing a few more meters, or going a little bit further in whatever activity you apply it to - these small but challenging gains become your new norm. And when those start to become commonplace, you'll continuously be pushing harder. This will catapult growth and help you hike further, climb longer, and have greater success when hunting.
Mentally, it's a battle cry of sorts, when you're pushing yourself and feel you can't go any further, you flash "three more yards" in your mind and throw every fiber you have behind the task. You don't stop until you achieve your goal.
Build in your mind that if you say this phrase, you have to complete the task no matter what. If you do, you'll see that you can always go a little bit more and have a mnemonic that helps your brain remember you can do this.
4. Less Rest
Seemingly counter-intuitive and a bit at odds with the "three more yards" thinking, reducing rests in between sets or reps on some exercises can help you with endurance. Taking a break is a non-medical way of saying you're going to lower your heart rate. If you're able to keep your body working without a full break, it'll be able to handle more over time and do so with relative ease.
When you keep your heart rate up you teach your heart how to create and deliver oxygen (and blood) more efficiently throughout your body. Your muscles also get more efficient and require less oxygen and blood perform. This begins to lower your heart rate during stressful physical activity, which is the foundation of better cardiovascular fitness.
Hunting Endurance Requires Physical and Mental Toughness
In the end, what hunters need is a combination of physical and mental toughness. One without the other won't get you very far - they both have to be present for your endurance levels to rise steadily.
While this might be a different take than what most will focus on for building endurance, ask any of our mountain athletes and backcountry hunters what the driving force behind their hunting fitness is, and they'll tell you it's mental toughness every time.
How could it not be, given the conditions of what it takes to hunt in the backcountry?
It's going to be a challenge, but with mental toughness and the right training program in place, everyone can build their endurance. Push yourself further than you ever thought you could go by breaking it up, embrace the "three more yards" mentality, and stay above your resting heart rate during a workout, even during a break. If you do this regularly, your hunting endurance will be through the roof in no time.