Hunters Strength & Conditioning Blog
I’ve talked to quite a few hunters over the years who feel like they make slower-than-usual aerobic progress. Maybe that’s true. But it might also be true that they aren’t sure how to measure aerobic progress, they might just need a perspective shift. Let’s talk about a few ways to measure aerobic progress, develop a healthy perspective on aerobic results, and then chat about a handful of ways you can improve your aerobic training if you think it’s lacking.
People get caught up looking at times on specific tests. Times can be good measurements. But trends are typically better. There are quite a few things that could influence your time on a given day. So, while we’ll always use times as part of our aerobic testing, there are other measurements to consider.
Decreases in resting heart rate are a great indicator of aerobic development. This is because your heart is well-developed and pumps out a good amount of blood with each beat, so it doesn’t have to work as hard or as often. So, if you see your resting heart rate decreasing, you’re making aerobic progress
So, HRV is a complicated measure. High HRV scores can mean one thing in one context, and something else in another. The same is true for low HRV scores. All that said, improvements in cardiac function are typically reflected in a higher HRV score over time. So, if you’re seeing increases in your HRV, you’re likely improving your aerobic development. Now, like I said, it’s complicated. I can talk about that in future articles if you’d like (let me know!). But for now, if your HRV is trending up, take that as a sign of improved cardiac and aerobic function.
Your aerobic system is your recovery system. If it’s functioning well, you should recover more quickly from bouts of intense exercise, both in the short- and long-term. Go do something that gets your heart rate into Zone 4 for at least a couple of minutes. Then stop exercising. Count how many beats your heart rate drops in the first minute after exercise. If it drops 30 beats or more, you’re aerobic system is in pretty good shape. Consistently do the test every 13 to 16 weeks. If you drop more beats in the first minute, your aerobic fitness has improved.
Caveat, this is also reflective of your current training readiness. So, if you’re behind the physiological curve and you do this test, you might not recover as quickly even though your aerobic fitness has improved.
Okay, now that you have three more ways to measure your aerobic fitness besides running times, rucking times, etc., let’s gain a little perspective on what aerobic development looks like.
Before we jump into the deep end of what you can do to improve your aerobic conditioning, let’s set healthy expectations.
First, true aerobic development takes time. Like, at least a year, and you can continue to make aerobic gains with smart training for years on end. You should start to see results in 8 to 12 weeks, but those are just the initial results. You’ve gained capillary density. Your cardiac output improved. These adaptions support each other so that your heart sends more blood around the body. But those adaptations continue to improve over time and training. (And it takes the appropriate amount of volume to start that party. More on that in a bit.)
A year-long training cycle gives you enough time to incorporate all of the necessary aerobic training modalities. Fitness isn’t done all at once, it’s a layered process that requires some adaptations before others get got. For example, the adaptations I mentioned in the previous paragraph come mostly from low- to moderate-intensity work. They’re necessary before doing high-intensity aerobic conditioning for you to reap the full benefit of high-intensity conditioning. And high-intensity aerobic work must be done at the appropriate volume and intensity for it to work and for the adaptations to stick. So, aerobic development takes time and smart planning.
With good planning and execution, you can expect to see solid results. For example, a study on trail runners found that folks who diligently execute a year-long aerobic development program improved their race times by 10% on average. Some improved more, others improved less. So, put that in perspective. Ten percent improvement during the course of a year is good.
There’s something else that skews perspective on aerobic results, and that’s high-intensity interval training. The cool kids are calling it HIIT. A lot of training programs include a lot of HIIT and not a lot of anything else. Well, the thing about HIIT is you make super fast progress when you do it. That’s the problem. Folks see and feel that and they expect true aerobic development to be the same. But that just ain’t how it works. HIIT progress comes so fast because the adaptations aren’t as hard to achieve. And since they aren’t as hard to achieve, they don’t last as long. They are metabolic adaptations which are good and part of the deal. However lasting aerobic development requires structural adaptations (increase in capillary density, eccentric ventricular hypertrophy, increase in blood volume, increase in mitochondrial density, etc.). So, if you do a bunch of HIIT and get the metabolic adaptations without having the underlying structural adaptations, you’ll make fast progress and then plateau like a son of a bitch. (That’s why so many of our members come to us after doing HIIT-based programs telling us it was great at first then they stopped making progress.)
Okay, now that we have a healthy perspective and set of expectations, let’s go forth and chat about what you can do to improve your aerobic conditioning and make progress for years to come.
Below are a few, proven ways to improve your aerobic training and, as a result, your aerobic development.
Most folks just aren’t doing enough aerobic work to see results. Some studies say that you need to do up to eight hours of aerobic training per week to develop your structural aerobic system. I know a lot of folks don’t have that time, so I’ll offer a solution that bridges the gap in the next subsection. But when you’re trying to develop your aerobic system, you should be doing at least three hours of aerobic work per work, most of that at low- to moderate intensity. So, if you’re only doing one or two 45-minute sessions per week, you need to bump that up. That might require bumping back other types of training volume, say strength training. (Don’t freak out. You can maintain muscle mass with a surprisingly small amount of strength training).
We plan for two to four aerobic sessions throughout the training week plus a long weekend session. That way if time is short during the week, we make up the volume on the weekend.
Keep in mind that there’s also a difference between development and maintenance. Many of our HPPM clients have been with us so long that their aerobic development is in a great place, so there are periods throughout the year when they do only maintenance aerobic volume. But if you’re looking to develop your aerobic system, that’s not you. How do you know which camp you’re in? Testing.
It always makes me chuckle when guys want to walk around all day, for days at a time, on a sheep, elk, or extended upland hunt, but they can’t manage to walk around all day on flat ground at home. If you can’t walk 10,000 steps per day in normal life, what makes you think you’ll handle the walking volume of a big hunt? (Aron Snyder and I talked about this on the KifaruCast.)
That aside, increasing your activity level and achieving a healthy step count fills in the aerobic training gaps. Let’s say you only have time for three, dedicated aerobic training hours per week, but you walk more than 10,000 steps every day. Well, all of that activity helps your aerobic development. Don’t get me wrong, it’s best if you make more time for aerobic training. But activity level counts. Move as much as you possibly can throughout the day. Track your step count and steadily increase it until you’re over 10,000 steps per day. Then keep it there.
Walking, running, rucking, and hiking are our best tools for aerobic development as hunters because we spend so much time on our feet. It’s job-specific work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of time on the air bike and rower as well. But we can’t depend on seated modalities to fully develop our conditioning. Our cardiovascular system has to accommodate and deal with more pressure when we’re on our feet, and we need adaptations to deal with that pressure.
Trade some of your bike and rower volume for rucking and running. If you’re not currently running and want to introduce it into your training, start by testing yourself. Can you hold a 15-minute mile pace while walking for at least 20 minutes? If so, cool. Start with some conservative run-walk intervals that keep your heart rate under 180 bpm - your age. If you’re not running, and you’re healthy enough to run, I recommend introducing at least a little volume into your training. It doesn't have to be much, even 8 to 10 miles per week can make a huge difference.
No matter what, get on your feet more.
Relative strength is important for work capacity. What’s more important is the ability to express that relative strength over time and effort. What’s even more important is developing your muscle fibers at each end of the aerobic spectrum. We do that with two main methods.
First, tempo strength training. This method keeps constant tension on the muscle for 30 seconds to 1 minute per set. Then we begin the next set with incomplete rest, say 30- to 40-seconds. The constant tension, combined with the incomplete rest, deprives the muscles of oxygen, growing the slow-twitch muscle fibers. Much of your aerobic metabolism takes place in the slow-twitch muscle fibers. So, the bigger you make those suckers, the better.
Second, we do high-intensity continuous training (HICT). HICT develops the aerobic abilities of your fast-twitch muscle fibers. That makes carrying muscle mass far more useful because it contributes far more to your overall conditioning. HICT also increases your access to strength output even as you fatigue. That’s pretty useful when you’re hiking uphill with an elk quarter on your back.
Most conditioning programs are poorly planned. They have folks work at what they believe is high intensity, but they’re actually working at an intensity that doesn’t make them better at anything.
For example, the program prescribes super hard work with insufficient rest for a lot of sets in a row. Well, your ability to maintain that intensity takes a quick nosedive. So you’re actually working at a low intensity even though your heart rate is elevated. Insufficient rest limits your body’s ability to buffer things like lactate and replenish fuel and oxygen. That means you don’t really adapt to improve your aerobic system or your metabolic processes.
Instead, we train at each end of the spectrum. We do a lot of easy-feeling work and some super hard work. This helps us appropriately develop aerobic structures while also creating the necessary metabolic adaptations.
So, spend most of your time keeping your heart rate in Zones 1 and 2. And a little bit of time with your heart rate in Zones 4 and 5. Stay mostly out of Zone 3.
Remember, aerobic gains take time, and 10% gain over the course of the year is a good amount of progress. Once you understand that, act on the advice I laid out…then keep acting on it.
(Want help with the the training smart part? Click HERE to check out Backcountry Ready.)