Hunters Strength & Conditioning Blog
Ask yourself this question:
Do you want to give up nine months' worth of the things you love to do?
For the love of everything Holy, I hope you answered no. (I’m sure you did.)
Well, that’s what you’ll do if you tear your Achilles tendon. You’ll have surgery, then spend nine painful months rehabbing to get your function and range of motion back. And you won’t get your function, or range of motion, back if you aren’t diligent.
Why am I bringing this up?
I know of three guys in their late 30s and early 40s who recently popped their Achilles tendon. (30 to 60-year-old men suffer most of the Achilles tendon ruptures.) They were all active and in relatively decent shape. Two were playing basketball. One was doing operator-cool guy-type stuff.
There’s no way to say that training can completely prevent an injury, but it can certainly reduce the chances and decrease the severity. These guys certainly had a gap in their exercise routines. They weren’t doing any plyometric training.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, that makes sense for folks playing basketball or doing operator stuff. How does this apply to me as a hunter?”
You’re human first and live a whole lot of life outside of hunting. You might end up in a pick-up basketball game, or jump in on the annual Thanksgiving Day backyard football game.
There are also plenty of instances where reactivity is important while hunting. You hop a stream. You step in a hole. You have to quickly bound downhill. You have to run uphill.
So, it’s best to condition the muscles and tendons of your lower legs to handle all of those potential situations, because they will pop up. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
Let’s walk through the plyometric training you should do as a hunter to ensure you’re feet, ankles, and calves are bulletproof.
We’ll start with a quick explanation of the science.
Tendons are dense collections of soft tissue that attach muscles to bones. Muscular force wouldn’t much matter without them, they are the mechanical bridge that translates muscular force into movement. They also serve an important role in energy dissipation. They stretch before the muscle, storing energy for the muscle to use while also protecting the muscle from damage. Your foot hits the floor, the tendons of your foot and leg absorb some of the force, stretch before the muscle does, and store some of the energy gathered from the landing to dissipate through the muscle and redirect into the ground.
But they don’t do their job if they aren’t conditioned to do it.
It makes sense, but most people who pop their Achilles are sporadic exercisers – or those doing something their body hasn’t done for a while. For example, playing pick-up basketball when your only consistent means of exercise is strength training. Lifting weights is great, but it doesn’t prepare the muscles and tendons of your lower leg to absorb and redirect force when your foot hits the court.
That’s basketball. How about hunting?
Well, most Achilles injuries happen when the foot suddenly plantar flexes. (Think of pushing through the ball of your foot to sprint or change directions). Picture yourself trying to move swiftly uphill through rocks with a pack on your back. Then bam! It feels like someone hit you in the calf with a baseball bat. Or, how about you catch your foot on the edge of a hole, then kablooey! It feels like a horse kicked the back of your leg. You’re not immune just because you’re not jumping for a rebound or setting up for a crossover J.
I’m not trying to be all dark and gloomy on you. There are positive reasons to plyometrically train your lower leg. The big one is saving energy. Elastic muscles and tendons are better at storing and redirecting energy at a lower cost. (Think springy.) This means you spend less energy with each step. That’s a big deal when you’re hiking a bunch of miles.
Here’s the takeaway:
Your tendons help your muscles move your bones. They also stretch and store energy to protect your muscles from tearing while also helping them redirect force. If they’re conditioned to do their job, it’s less likely that you’ll injure them. And, as a bonus, elastic muscles and tendons in the foot and lower leg help save energy with each step.
Now let’s talk about how to train your feet and lower legs for healthy muscles and tendons.
As always, we begin with raw materials. Does your ankle move as well as it should? And do your tissues stretch as they should. The fancy term for this is extensibility. If you don’t have sufficient ankle mobility, and if your calf muscles and tendons don’t stretch as they should, the system inefficiently absorbs energy. You don’t move as well as you should, and you’re at a higher likelihood for injuries. So, you have to train ankle mobility and tissue extensibility first. Hell, even if your ankles move well and you have good calf extensibility, you should keep training it to maintain what you have. It’s also great prep work before doing plyometrics.
Here’s an easy-to-do foot and ankle routine that improves/maintains ankle mobility and tissue extensibility in your feet and calves:
First, let’s define these puppies.
Plyometrics are power exercises that require fast stretch-shorten cycles in the muscles and tendons. For example, jumping rope is plyometric because there are a lot of fast foot contacts that create a fast stretch-shorten cycle. Box jumps done right, however, are not plyometric because there is no rapid stretch-shorten cycle based on contacting the ground.
There are two types of plyometrics, low-threshold and high-threshold.
Low-threshold plyometrics are things like jumping rope, jogging, and doing low rebound jumps. High-threshold plyometrics are things like sprinting and repeated broad jumps or bounding. Low-threshold plyos tax your nervous system less while high-threshold plyometrics place a big tax on your nervous system. While we do include some high-threshold plyometrics in our training, we mostly focus on low-threshold plyometrics to prep the feet, ankles, and calves. As hunters, we don’t need a lot of high-threshold plyometric work. Let’s talk about the low-threshold plyos we use in our programming and what you can do to prep your feet and ankles.
Jumping rope is the best place to start with lower-leg plyos. It trains rhythm, which is a physical ability that every human needs. And the foot contacts are super low-threshold, meaning not too stressful on your tissues or your nervous system. You can also jump rope every day without much cost to your body. Jump roping’s repeated and extended foot contacts build resiliency in the muscles and tendons of the feet, ankles, and calves. We include jump roping in our programming throughout the year. Right now during our in-season program, we do a few sets of 1:00 during our Wednesday workout.
If you played basketball, you’ve likely done line hops at practice in a sweaty, starchy, hand-me-down 1980s uniform. Those things were sweet.
Line hops are just what they sound like; you hop back and forth over a line either forwards and backward or laterally. The directionality of line hops helps prepare your feet, ankles, and calves for different types of landing and redirecting force.
You can do these throughout the year for sets of 10 to 30 seconds. Work them into your power training before lifting.
Rebound jumps are slightly more intense than jump roping and line hops because you’re hopping higher. More force is directed into your legs with each landing that must be absorbed and redirected. We start with a two- to three-inch plate and work up to six inches or so. (We also do a higher-threshold version of rebound jumps with a higher box.) We do sets of 10 to 30 seconds during our power work on one of our strength training days, and we sprinkle them into our training throughout the year.
Plyos are necessary, but we also do a couple of other things to prep our feet and lower legs throughout the year. It starts with a daily dynamic warm-up.
We do a daily dynamic warm-up before we get into the meat of our training. Yep, daily. We do it before all types of strength and power training and all types of conditioning.
It includes marching, skipping, backpedaling, high knees, and side shuffling. These movement skills give us rhythm and some of the other athletic qualities we need to function optimally as active humans. But the directional ground contacts are also great daily work for our feet, ankles, and calves.
Tendons need lots of ground contacts to build elasticity, but they also need lots of training volume and time under tension to build resiliency. Early in the training year, we do a lot of high-rep calf raises. We’re talking as many reps as possible during the course of one to three minutes, sometimes for multiple sets. This preps our lower legs for lots of rucking and hiking throughout the year. It also builds the tendon strength and thickness necessary to load the foot and calves with plyometric exercises.
I also do one set of calf raises to near failure after every run. This helps build tissue resiliency because the muscles and tendons are pre-fatigued.
Remember, it takes nine months to recover from an Achilles rupture. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Consistent, diligent prep can save you that trouble, while also creating a spring in your step that saves energy on the mountain. Do the things mentioned in this article and you’ll put yourself in a way better position to avoid injury while improving your backcountry performance.