Let’s start with a hypothetical case study to illustrate the importance of this month’s subject matter…
It’s the third week of September. The elk rut is in full swing. As dawn breaks you and your hunting partner sit behind your spotters on a finger ridge at the head of a backcountry basin, glassing the meadows, aspen pockets and treeline. A bugle tears the pre-dawn stillness in half. The chill you’ve been barely keeping at bay intensifies. Your hands shake as you look up from your spotter, grinning like a fool at your buddy. Another bugle pierces the darkness. This one closer. It’s on. Time to move.
You hike quickly but at a pace you could maintain all day. With purpose but focused on any movement, sound, or smell that might hint of elk as you ascend the finger ridge. You’re one up on the elk for a change. You know they’re here but they don’t know YOU’RE here. Yet.
The first bull sends another, longer, angrier bugle down range from the head of the basin. His throaty response has barely trailed off when, from what feels like right next to you, the challenger unleashes his rebuttal. Shit. He’s on your ridge. Ahead of you. Thinking quick you let out a barely audible and inquisitive cow call. Silence. You stand stump still. The entire mountain seems to hold its breath. A branch breaks, a crack too loud to be anything but the bull. He’s further up the ridgeline, but downslope on the valley side in the timber. You let out another cow call, this one a little louder. That gets his attention. It sounds like a freight train is headed your way. He’s coming.
You give your buddy the nod, an unspoken plan is made, a language learned over years of elk hunting together. He’ll stay back and call, focusing the bull’s attention and you’ll push forward and see if you can send an arrow to its destiny. It takes a mere second for this exchange.
You know you can, and should, move fast and aggressive now. You turn and charge up the ridgeline, at the absolute upper limits of what your legs can handle. You can hear the bull coming, he’s lit up and rut crazed, making a ton of noise on his approach. Now is not the time to be stealthy. Violence of action is called for.
You make it 75 yards above your buddy before your legs and lungs beg you to stop. He sends another cow call out. Silence. Did your rush spook the bull? As you stand straining to hear something, anything you attempt to get your heart rate and breathing under control. The bull is hung up. Minutes feel like hours. Your buddy knows this is a critical time, call too quickly or too loudly and the jig is up. As you regain control of your breath, you catch a flash of movement down in the timber. The bull’s moving again but cautiously now. Carefully approaching the mysterious “cow” he can’t see or smell in the still morning air.
Your buddy squeaks out what sounds, to your ears, like the most flirtatious “where the hell ar you, come get me” you’ve ever heard. 80 yards below you fleeting glimpses of the bull can be seen. A patch of brown here. An ivory tipped antler there. He’s big. You have to get closer.
Letting out your own cow call in the hopes it will make the sounds you know you’re about to make more “elky”, you drop down the slope angling back towards your buddy’s position hoping to ambush the bull on his final approach to his “cow”. It’s steeper than it looked from the crest and it takes all your effort and strength to keep your footing while continuously scanning for the bull. 40 yards later and barely in control you stop. Your legs are shaking from the force of your downhill surge. You’re sure he can hear your heart beating. Luckily the timber is so thick the bull didn’t pick up your movement and he’s making as much or more noise than you did.
You finally get a good look at him through a gap in the trees. There’s no mistaking it now, he’s a shooter. You don’t bother with your rangefinder. He’s on the move and whatever yardage you get will be wrong by the time you draw your bow. He’s roughly 35-40 yards out now, still paralleling below you, aiming for your buddy’s position. You don’t have a shot. But 10 yards ahead there’s a patch of beetle riddled blowdown. If you can make the edge of that you might have a chance.
As the bull passes out of sight behind a small rocky outcropping on the side of the hill you make your move. It’s the longest 10 yards of your life but you cover it faster than Usain Bolt would on a good day. You make the edge of the clearing drop to a knee, nock an arrow and draw your bow, not thinking anymore. Pure instinct taking over. The bull hits the edge of the clearing. 15 yards. Time slows. Remember your shot sequence. Back tension. The arrow’s away…
This fictional, but realistic example illustrates a set of circumstances, both environmental and physical, commonly encountered when hunting. Especially elk. As cagey as they can be, they’re big animals that make a lot of noise and when chasing bulls in the rut things can get intense. Quickly. Decisive action is often the difference between cutting a tag and a hard lesson learned. And the opportunities that present themselves will be likely be fleeting and require everything you have to pull it together.
From a training perspective, the ability to act on these decisions is the point of this month’s Mountain Fitness article. Given the availability and popularity of various forms of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and multi-modal (aka CrossFit style) training programs most people that train regularly are not lacking glycolytic fitness. Their other energy systems are a different story however. Glycolytic system training is the zone where you’re fighting the burn to keep going. Essentially any circuit that lasts longer than a few minutes and takes you to muscle failure will fall within the category of glycolytic system training.
As many of our readers know, our contention is this energy system is emphasized far too heavily in the majority of cases. We’ve spent plenty of time advocating for more “pure” strength work in the mountain hunter’s program but we have not discussed with any depth another critical component of one’s overall fitness, the alactacid system. This is the system that helps us handle the chaos of real life. The system that feeds intense, short but maximum output efforts that last less than 30 seconds. Although many hunting encounters feel like they last for minutes, in most situations we’re dealing with highly intense but short scenarios when the final moment is actually upon us. This is an aspect of our fitness that should be trained.
Our friends at StrongFirst have succinctly broken down the three primary energy systems that feed our training efforts:
Your muscle uses three energy pathways:
- The first, most powerful and least enduring, is alactacid. You can go very hard for ten to thirty seconds—and then the tank is empty.
- The second energy system, glycolytic, takes over. It has a lot less power—less than half—but lasts for several minutes, typically two to six.
- Finally, it is the turn of the aerobic system. It produces even less energy—but it can go on forever.
When the topic of “work capacity” comes up in a fitness discussion, it all too often is meant to refer to the glycolytic pathway. Any training session that at its core is based on completing a circuit for time, especially something in the 10 – 15 minute range, and takes you to the burn and muscle failure will be primarily targeting your glycolytic system and secondarily your aerobic system.
The deeper scientists look at our energy systems the more they realize that there is no clear line separating one system from the next. They all impact one another. But there is no question that very few people intentionally train the incredibly important alactacid system. For the hunter, as outlined in the fictional case study at the start of the article, this system can play an integral role when it matters most. The good news is this style of training is easy to incorporate into your weekly programming, no matter what type of program you’re following.
As noted in the bullet points above, the alactacid system fuels maximum output efforts in the 10 – 30 second range. For most people this style of training fills a critical void. Pavel Tsatsouline, founder of StrongFirst, makes the case for considering this energy system when your demands are likely to be unpredictable:
“Alactacid training does not replace your dedicated strength training. It adds a severely lacking high force component into one’s conditioning. Steady state endurance interrupted by occasional intense contractions is much more specific to the needs of a fighting man or woman than high reps of low intensity exercise, such as circuits of high rep pushups and bodyweight squats.”
In our opinion, what Pavel has noted as being more applicable to the “fighting man” or woman also applies to the hunter. Animals and their environments can be highly unpredictable. The physical demands faced often random. Bursts of maximum effort can and often are required in between long periods of slow hiking, stalking or even sitting. It is integral to train this aspect of your energy system so that when those intense moments happen you’ll be in control and able to make the shot at the moment of truth.
The approach to this is quite simple. You can read more about Pavel’s thoughts on alactacid system training in this StrongFirst article here. Chaos is the name of the game. Take a standard endurance focused workout, something in the 45 minute plus range and randomly insert 5 – 7 bursts of intense exercise that last 10 – 30 seconds with 5 – 7 minutes of active recovery (running/hiking) between each max output burst. These intense bursts can be steep hill sprints, weighted step-ups, one arm push-ups, weighted pull-ups, the list could go on. Basically anything that requires maximum effort for 10 – 30 seconds. For a true hunt specific training session, shoot your bow from different angles and odd yardages immediately after the intense bursts.
Here’s an example of an alactacid focused outdoors training session Editor in Chief Adam Janke has been using recently:
Basic Session: ~45 Minutes (Trail)
Run 5 – 7 mins for warm-up
10 second max effort sprint up steep slope
Shoot 3 arrows from 3 different standing (angled) positions and yardage
Recover/run 5 mins
~30 seconds – 3 One Arm Push-Ups Per Side
Shoot 2 arrows from kneeling position
Recover/run 5 – 7 mins
25 second sprint up moderate slope
Recover/run (downhill) 30 seconds then shoot 1 arrow from 40 yards, continue running for a total of 5 – 7 mins recovery
12 second max effort sprint up steep slope
Recover/run back to bow ~2 mins then shoot 3 arrows from kneeling, standing, sitting at variable yardage then run ~ 2mins for a total of 7+ mins recovery
~30 seconds – 3 pistols per side while holding bow in front
Recover/run 5 – 7 mins
The beauty of training in this manner is you don’t need much as far as equipment or access to mountainous/hilly terrain is concerned. You can piece together something to this effect very easily virtually anywhere. At home. On the road. At a hotel or motel. You name it. And because this doesn’t take you to the “burn”, recovering from these types of training sessions is fairly quick assuming you have a decent base level of fitness. Most people can easily train or lift the next day. At this time of year when it can be tough to stay on track with your programming this is a highly effective way to keep your body ready for whatever the season brings. So embrace the chaos and train your alactacid system. It could make the difference between a memory that will last a lifetime and a missed shot that will haunt your dreams for years to come. Stay alpha.