Mountain Fitness for Senior Bowhunters
August 10, 2016
As young bowhunters, the concept of growing old was unthinkable. We were hard-chargers, lean and strong. Our energy had no limits.
Most of the old donkeys we knew spent more time braying about their past hunting exploits than actually hunting, and those who did hunt rarely strayed far from the comforts of camp.
We laughed at them and convinced ourselves we would never founder like that when we grew up, although deep in our hearts we dreaded the possibility.
But there was always that one old guy — you know, the one who left camp before everyone else and returned to the campfire long after dark, often with blood on his hands. We all wondered how an ancient dinosaur of perhaps 50 years of age managed to maintain such a pace.
He was a legend in the camps and in the bow shops, and those lucky enough to hunt with him usually struggled to keep up as he plowed up the mountain like a two-legged Jeep. All of us young Turks wanted to be that guy someday. Paul Navarre IS that guy.
Paul is my 75-year-old neighbor, friend, and role model. When most his age are planning their trip to Friday bingo, he's preparing to strap on a backpack and head into the mountains, alone, to hunt America's toughest big game with a bow.
He began last season by killing two turkeys and a great pronghorn buck, then backpack-hunted solo for elk, killing one on his 21st day in the wilderness. In November, he hunted 13 days alone for deer, ending the big game season with a gorgeous whitetail buck.
He stayed local during the holidays and killed five Greater Canada geese with his bow, foregoing his usual three-week trip to Arizona for Coues deer. It's a strenuous schedule for a 30-year-old, never mind someone in his eighth decade.
Paul didn't start his mountain bowhunting career until age 52, when he moved to Colorado from Ohio. At that age, many big game bowhunters are already tending camp, cooking chili, and telling more stories than actually hunting. If they do hunt, it's often wandering out to a nearby treestand.
In the next 11 seasons, he managed to take Colorado's "Big Eight" with a bow — mule deer, whitetail, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn, elk, bear, and cougar. Did I mention he's also a cancer survivor? Yep, he beat the Big C too, recovered from the tortures of chemo, and is still going as strong as ever.
Age Is Only a Number
Last September, four guys from Wisconsin moved in near my elk base camp. Each morning they would leave in the dark before I got up. They'd trudge back to camp at midday to shower, eat, nap, and wash clothes in a bucket. They struck out again in late afternoon, and often didn't return until I was ready for bed.
Three of them were young pups in their 40s. But there was this one guy who looked as tough as the sole of a moccasin and stringy as a stick of jerky, with a prosthetic arm attached at the shoulder, and he was right there with the young fellas step for step, day after day, climbing four or five miles up above timberline, back down to camp for a siesta, and then plunging into the wilderness again for the evening hunt. He did this for two weeks straight.
Most younger hunters would be gassed after a day or two of this forced march. Not this man. Ken Jaeger is 65, and he's one of those guys, too. Ken didn't start bowhunting until 2000, and he has been hunting the Colorado mountains for elk ever since.
After fabricating a special fitting on the end of his prosthesis to hold his bow, he averages 16'“20 miles a day on foot, every day; and when an elk is down, he packs his share out of the wilderness alongside the youngsters.
I met another gentleman who was hunting deep into a different wilderness, putting on many miles a day, every day, with his younger son-in-law. He was 66 and seemingly fit as a Navy SEAL. He told me he needed a few days off from elk hunting the next weekend to compete in an Ironman Triathlon. He was disappointed to "only" finish second, because he believed he should have won his age group.
At the Pope & Young Convention in Rochester, Minnesota, several years ago, Larry D. Jones, the Hall of Fame bowhunter, writer and videographer in his 70s, emerged from the hotel gym soaked with sweat and walked through the café past several dozen bleary-eyed bowhunters trying to shake hangovers from the night before. Larry is definitely one of those age-defying bowhunters.
A few years ago, I started studying older successful mountain bowhunters to learn their secrets. I was in my late 50s then, and hoped to continue doing what I loved for a few more years. What I found is no surprise, but should be taken seriously by any DIY hunter who thinks hardcore bowhunting has to end at a certain age.
Older hunters who perform at a high level share one primary attribute: Maintaining hunting fitness is not something they do a few months before the season. They live it.
They are not bodybuilders, but they exercise regularly to keep their muscles toned to support joints, ligaments and tendons, and to sustain the cardio system. They watch their diets and their weight. Some run, some bike, some hike for endurance and cardio health.
They have been active their entire lives, often playing sports growing up, and staying fit as they grew older because they understood that to continue doing this bowhunting thing we love, it was not optional. With a very few exceptions, they aren't the athletes they were in their youth, able to run trail marathons and climb peaks. That's not necessary, and can be detrimental to aging joints.
But each one I've met is as tough as an old boot, lean and wiry, with a determined spark in their eyes that is missing from most seniors who've given up the pursuit. You don't see any overweight senior mountain hunters.
Paul is quick to acknowledge that genetics and luck play a part in it. He "chose his parents wisely," but he hedges his bets, too. He hits the gym every other day. When we come through the door, the cute workout bunnies wave at him, calling out, "There's Paul! Hi, Paul!" He walks the track carrying a 10-pound dumbbell, and varies his exercise routine to hit all muscle groups and keep it fresh, along with endurance training for cardio fitness.
"We do this because we are hunters. We have been hunters as long as we can remember, and we want to do this for as long as we can."
This isn't something he does for a few months before the season — it is a year-round program. He carries dumbbells in the back of his pickup camper to stay toned while scouting and fishing. Besides watching his weight and diet (except for cookies, his one deadly vice), he advises that it's important to listen to his body, backing off when needed so he doesn't hurt himself.
He believes stretching is crucial as we grow older, and that legs and lungs are the drivetrain and engine for older hunters.
You Are What You Eat
Diet is a topic for a different article, but it was interesting to learn that Paul and I share nearly identical menus — lots of lean game and fish, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish oil supplements, no sodas, and little processed sugar.
Ken is at the other end of the spectrum. He insists he never works out at all, and says he doesn't believe in gyms. Instead, he says, "You have to have it in your system." But he watches his weight and stays very active.
One of 11 kids raised on a farm, he has always been strong and fit. He believes mountain hunting is less about raw strength, and more about stamina, endurance, and mental toughness built over a lifetime and sustained as an element of everyday life. That's how he pounds the steep, high-elevation slopes for over 200 miles every season.
I'm somewhere in between. At 62, with mild asthma and a metal hip, I'm not the mountain goat I once was. But I've also lived a life of high activity, backpacking and playing competitive sports into my late 30s, always exercising and being physically active, hiking, biking, watching my weight and diet, and specifically working out for hunting.
These days I hike outdoors with a pack, lift free weights and a kettle bell, use band-resistance tools and a rowing machine, and do core exercises. When the weather is harsh, I ride an indoor bike with a weighted wheel. Like Paul, I listen to my body, and if a tendon flares up, I back off that part for a bit.
I hunt mostly solo for 40'“50 days a season, and I scout hard all summer. It's tough to sustain that pace for weeks at a time after six decades of hammering my joints. So when my body tells me it's time for a break, I'll hunt close to camp for a day, maybe explore someplace new, go into town for a dinner and groceries, and recharge.
The important takeaway is that hunting for a lifetime requires a lifestyle of fitness. "Getting in shape" for a couple months before the season may have worked in our 30s. Not so as we age. Growing older, it becomes more difficult to exercise, to pick up weights, to climb that hill. There's always something else to do. Sixty may be the new 40, but only for those who take that axiom seriously.
It's Never Too Late
My good friend Kevin Steele is also a senior mountain bowhunter with a metal hip, who is a personal trainer specializing in hunting fitness (and who holds the Colorado state deadlift record). His business is Trinity Fitness. I asked him to outline a realistic basic regimen for seniors.
The first bit of advice was, "It's never too late to get in shape. Get off your butt and get started." He favors body weight exercises and a kettle bell over machines. But the best thing we can do, he believes, is to put on a pack and hike while gradually increasing the load upward from 10 pounds, using a "wave cycle" which gradually increases over four weeks.
His wave cycle starts out with walking one mile twice a week with a 10-pound pack. Week two is 1.5 miles three times with 15 pounds. Week three is two miles four times with 20 pounds. Week four has us doing 2.5 miles five times with 25 pounds. Week five backs down to 1.5 miles three times with 15 pounds before starting the cycle again, and at eight weeks, hike three miles five times with 30 pounds.
It's important to take days off to let muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments recover. His recommended exercises include pushups, chin-ups, rowing motion, hip extensions (burpees, pushups), squats, and various swings with a kettle bell.
He suggests a workout routine of four or five of these exercises, one minute per exercise. Do three rounds of this, with a one or two-minute rest in between each round. The entire program can be done in 17'“19 minutes. He emphasizes that proper form and technique are critical to avoid injuries. It may take time to work up to the 5x1x3 goal, so do what you can at first, and don't overdo it.
Kevin suggests three types of cardio. Steady State, which is walking, running, machines, and swimming. Hybrid Cardio, comprised of 100 reps of kettle bell snatches and body squats. The third is my preference, which is Interval Cardio. Those are exercises like hiking with a pack, jumping rope 30 seconds on and off for 20 minutes, kettle bells, running sprints, and riding a bicycle.
Working on a treadmill or stair-stepper while wearing a pack can accomplish the same goal, as will climbing the stairs at the stadium if you live in the flatlands. Interval is a great workout because it emphasizes pushing to a limit and building quick recovery capability. I like to incorporate single-arrow shooting into this routine whenever possible. It prepares mountain hunters for when we climb to the crest of a ridge, spot that monster bull or buck within range, and then have to execute an accurate shot.
The "extreme hunting" fad leads many to believe that superhuman conditioning is required for mountain hunting. It's not. Whatever exercises you decide to incorporate into your daily life to prepare for mountain hunting, the important thing is to make it part of your lifestyle, and not something you dread.
Mix it up, and reward yourself afterward. If some elements become boring, try something new. The opportunities for exercise are everywhere, and expensive gym memberships aren't needed. Determine your own level of fitness based upon your situation.
The only judges are you, the mountain, and the critters you pursue.
It won't be easy at first. You have to want to do it. But the benefits are immense, and your enjoyment of life will improve dramatically. As Paul says, "We do this because we are hunters. We have been hunters as long as we can remember, and we want to do this for as long as we can."
When I grow up, I want to be like Paul.