With the bulk of the fall big game hunting season behind us, it is time to start the process of looking at the next season.  Like many of you, the Big Woodslife I like to lead never really stops, it only shifts focus.  For me there is hare hunting and ice fishing, then sugaring, turkey hunting, scouting, running, flyfishing, paddling and hiking; pretty soon it will be time to start chasing bulls and bucks again!  It really can be a blur. 

Still, the peak of my yearly training effort is getting in the woods after New England whitetails, with a bonus opportunity to chase moose or elk if I’m lucky and play my cards right.  If you like to chase critters around the woods in the fall, now is the time to begin preparing for next season.

The year round approach to preparation does not require you to put out maximum effort 100% of the time.  This will usually lead to overuse injuries and poor long term outcomes.  This is a lifestyle that you need to be able to sustain over the long haul.  Generally it is easier to ‘stay’ in shape rather than have to ‘get’ in in shape.  To do that, you need a measured approach that takes into account not just your fitness, but your overall health.  The off-season is the time to do that.

Depending on your goals and the timeline for this fall, your off-season can be any length, from 8 to 12 weeks, but generally should run through the end of March for a New England hunter.  Out west, with an earlier season start and wrap up, this off season may last only until mid or late February.  We want 6-7 months of focused training before the season starts, so determine your time line based on that.  This off time should not be spent sitting around idly, but instead should allow for work on a couple of different things that often get neglected.  There are really two main performance goals at this time of the year. 

1-      Recover and rehabilitate from last season

2-      Refresh your body and mind in preparation for training for the 2016 season

It is important to review what happened this past season as this will impact your focus for the next year.  Examine your hunting areas, techniques, equipment and fitness.  Everything is on the table to change.  Spend some time contemplating how you performed last season from the stand point of physical fitness.  Keep in mind that each year is a little different in terms of demands based on factors that are often outside of our control like the weather, the terrain we hunt, the tags we hold and how things played out.  If you shot a buck on opening day and didn’t hunt after that, then you probably assume you are in great shape.  If you had a hard three mile drag or eight mile pack out at the end of the season, you might think you never could get in good enough shape.  In either case, make a list of your strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement from last season on all fronts. 

Some questions about your fitness to consider

1-      How was your cardiovascular fitness (each day)? 

2-      How did you feel after five days of hitting it hard?  Ten? A month? 

3-      How was your mountain climbing and descending?

4-      How was your shooting?

5-      Did you go as far as you wanted to?  Did you ever give up too soon?

6-      How tired are you?

7-      Did (Does) anything hurt or not feel right?

8-      How was your balance and flexibility?     

9-      Did you gain or lose weight?

Questions one through five will be the focus of your build up to next season.  Six through nine should be addressed now.  Some level of rest is important to recover initially, much like a buck after the rut.  Our post season should be similar to his, where we focus on rest and food.  There are multiple, and related, systems that get fatigued in our body.  On a day to day basis, there is fatigue of the energy system.  This is usually improved with a night of sleep and taking in good nutrition.  As we keep hunting, there is structural fatigue of the musculoskeletal system.  This is a general breakdown of the bones and muscles after days and weeks of abuse.  This recovers with a lengthier process of rest, but it is a pretty resilient system, especially if you’ve trained well.  We can delay recovery here for the duration of our season.  The consequences of not fully recovering from a musculoskeletal stand point are soreness and breakdown, with an eventual plateau and then decline of performance, but this takes place over months so is not of great concern.  Lastly, our neuroendocrine system, the hormones and nerves that keep us motivated and control the basic functions of our body, can get fatigued as well.  We often sense this by a severe and persistent drop in motivation, a general sense of being tired that doesn’t get better with a night or two of rest, an elevated resting heart rate and interrupted sleep patterns despite the tiredness we feel.  This is brought about by a long hunting season on top of the previous months of training.  Rest is the answer here as well; usually a bit longer than the energy and structural systems require.  The length of rest is driven by how deep the exhaustion is.  For me, taking time off from the end of our muzzle loader season, around December 15th, through the beginning of January is usually sufficient.  I like to wait to get started until my mind clears and my motivation to train returns to a high level.            

The answer to the long term breakdown we suffer after a challenging season, structurally and neurologically, is simply to eat, sleep, and get back to some level of “regular” life.  After a couple of weeks, reassess how you are feeling.  You should be sleeping well and feeling better.  Any injuries or pains should be evaluated and treated during this time.  If you suffered a sprained ankle, twisted knee, sore back, tweaked shoulder or neck you should probably get it looked at.  Don’t simply rely on Father Time to heal things up.  Often the problem will feel better but is likely to become a small area of dysfunction and it will either crop up again next season or cause some other area to hurt because you favor it.  Certainly I recommend physical therapy, but any professional who specializes in movement dysfunction will be beneficial.  If you think something might need surgery or imaging, see a doctor, otherwise look up a local specialist and at least pick their brain.  Most people will benefit from postural work and core strengthening, so start there if you decide to try to rehab yourself. 

Balance and flexibility issues are also common problems in otherwise healthy hunters, especially as we age.  We tend to tighten up and get unsteady over time unless specific attention is paid; thankfully both are easily improved with a little work.  There are a number of individual exercises that can address deficiencies in this area, but I think 8-12 weeks of something like a weekly Yoga or Tai Chi class is perfect this time of year.  Other options might include some types of martial arts or even a Pilate’s class, though there is often less mobility work there.  With something like yoga there is an important mental component as well.  Learning a sense of calm and focus, meditation style, will benefit you in the woods this upcoming fall.  An added benefit with many of the poses is that there is a large requirement of balance and control, things I want when sneaking up on a deer in his bed.  Your attention to mobility and balance will likely be something you emphasize for a block of training and then push it toward the back burner through the training ramp up to hunting season.  You’ll want to continue with some level of this all year long, but don’t want to detract from other training.  Get to the point where you can add a few poses to the end of your strength training session or as a cool down after a long hike.  You should also get familiar with the use of a foam roller, which is something you can use to self-massage most of your muscles.

If you lost weight during the hunting season, explore the idea of keeping it off, with your doctor’s approval.  If you added some pounds, or are simply overweight, seriously consider spending a portion of the next couple months shedding a few pounds.  It is hard to lose weight when you are trying to perform at your best, as you need sufficient caloric intake to be able to train and work hard.  These offseason months are a great time to shed some fat.  Simple steps to take are to reduce your calorie intake, with an emphasis on taking in highly nutritious food with those fewer calories.  Drink lots of water.  Take a step back and look at the big picture of your diet.  Figure out how you sabotage yourself, what your weaknesses are.  Things that we think of as healthy, or that are slickly advertised as such, quite often are not.  About 80% of weight loss is related to diet.  Work on losing one pound per week as this is a realistic amount.  Then the key will be to keep it off when you jump back into serious training.

Exercise is not counterproductive during this time.  You should seek to add some variability to your routine, with an emphasis on reduced volume and intensity.  This is a great time to pick up something new or to take a class.  For cardiovascular fitness try swimming, biking, and some light walking.  Lifting weight is also reasonable, but weights should hover around 50% of your maximum.  Work very specifically on your form, learn a few new exercises and do not focus on gains during this time period.

I strongly recommend that you use the early part of your off season to reflect on last season from all angles and begin to move yourself toward next season.  On the performance side, recover and rehabilitate first, with professional help if needed, then start to work on preparing your body for your next hunt.  You have about 9 months until the chase for your buck or bull begins again.  The clock has started ticking.    

Matt Breton, PT, OCS, CSCS
BWB Pro-Staff