Fit for Fall, Part 2 – Big Game, Bigger Prep

By Nick Simonson

As fall progresses, hunters’ eyes will shift west over the plains and into the badlands of both North and South Dakota for a shot at a monster mule deer, or for some, a trip of a lifetime hunting elk in rugged, mountainous places like Montana or Colorado.  With the change in topography and elevation, comes a change in training and readiness regimens to prepare for hunts over rising and falling terrain.  As in the first part of this series, getting ready for those changes, and preparing the body for the rigors of pursuing big game will be key to a successful hunt this fall.

According to Brandon Dirk, Outpatient Physical Therapist with Sanford Health in Bismarck, those challenges of chasing big game require a training plan to meet them on their home turf, and preparation starts with those muscles that will power you to the shot of a lifetime.

“When climbing, you’re going to be using a lot of quad or glute mass, so strengthen those muscles,” he advises, recommending that preparing those bigger leg muscles prior to the season for moving up steeper grades in places like the badlands will help reduce pain after the hunt, not only in the muscles themselves but in joints like the knees and hips as well.

Dirk also recommends exploring the areas you will be hunting if possible, or simulating that terrain through hiking similar areas closer to home to get your body used to taking on the changes in elevation.  For big game seasons which come later in the fall, or for those with chilly temperatures at higher altitude, Dirk reminds hunters to consume plenty of water during the hunt to perform at their best.

“Make sure you’re hydrated,” Dirk said, “we think about it in warmer conditions, but not as much in cooler conditions when we’re not sweating,” he concluded, adding that places like the badlands in the chill of November or cold mountainsides will take a lot out of a hunter, and having enough water will keep muscles functioning at their peak.

For hunting points west, Luke Henderson, PT, DPT, Senior Physical Therapist with UC Health in Colorado Springs, CO, echoes that advice for those headed to higher elevations such as the Rocky Mountains in pursuit of big game like Elk.

“A key thing is working on their hydration and nutrition [in preparation] for higher elevations, there’s just a lot more stress on the body that comes with that,” Henderson says, advising that healthy eating habits now carry over into the mountains later, keeping the body fueled to face the challenges that come with the terrain.

Additionally, Henderson advises visiting hunters to prepare accordingly for their adventure.  A progressive exercise program involving flexibility and strength training, particularly for quadriceps, hamstring and glute muscles, along with the core will make tackling changes in elevation easier.

“The core is where we get a lot of our stability, and if you’re in the Rocky Mountains, you’re constantly walking over uneven terrain,” Henderson related,  “and if you obtain your animal, it gives you strength to move it out of there and keep you safe as you come down with your elk,” he concluded.

An aspect of hunting higher terrain which can catch some hunters unaware is altitude sickness, caused by a body not being used to the lower air pressure of high elevations, which makes it harder for the lungs to take in oxygen, in turn impacting various other functions, including muscle use.  Henderson advises that those not familiar with the condition, or venturing to high altitudes for a first-time hunt should be aware of the signs of altitude sickness.

“Some of the symptoms are headaches, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and generally feeling weak, it’s almost like when you’re first getting the flu,” he related, once again stressing staying well hydrated to help combat the onset, as more water is also lost by the body at high altitudes through breathing and other process, “I think altitude is underestimated [by visiting hunters] because it’s not something that you feel right away; know the signs and symptoms and be very careful with that,” he advised. encouraging hunters to listen to their body, and rest as needed.

Overall, proper preparation both physically and nutritionally will help hunters adjust to the challenges that hunting new places at higher elevations will present according to Henderson, and he recommends a progressive program to help them prepare for their excursions, increasing exposure to the challenges through a regular one hour hike, then two hours and maybe a third as the trip gets closer.  Utilizing areas such as the trails and parks in and around North Dakota’s badlands are ideal places to get ready for an upcoming hunt at higher elevation, as they are very similar in terrain and slope to places like the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

With preparation, hydration and nutrition in mind, and confirming all is in order with a physician before heading out, the probability for injury in these challenging locations is lessened, and the chances for success are heightened when hunting at elevation.

(Featured Photo: Hunting at elevation provides greater physical challenges, along with lowered air pressure and conditions that hunters need to be ready for.  Davis Zubke Photo)

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