Three Simple Exercises to Improve Backcountry Endurance

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Last June I was amid an obsession with my first compound bow and archery endeavor. I was quickly familiarizing myself with the equipment and experimenting with my form and different techniques. Releasing 300-400 arrows per week, my goal was to develop the consistency, accuracy, and confidence to be able to comfortably release an arrow at an elk at 40 yards in Colorado in September. I found it to be therapeutic. I was dialed at 20 yards…then 25 yards…then 30 yards. After a few weeks of almost daily practice, I was there, 40 yards, and feeling good about September.

Then one day, my right ear felt full, and I realized I couldn’t hear out of it. After a few weeks of doctor’s visits, my ornithologist diagnosed it as a cholesteatoma, which is essentially an expansive and erosive cyst on the inside of one’s eardrum, growing towards and consuming the middle/inner ear. While the thought of the cyst was ever-present for the next few weeks, archery and physical conditioning were a welcome distraction.

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After the surgery in late July to remove the cyst, place prosthetics, and rebuilt much of my middle ear with cartilage and skin grafts, I spent the next week unable to walk due to debilitating vertigo and balance difficulties. Your whole world is in your vestibular system. No matter how strong, tough, or driven you are, once you lose your balancing ability, you’re dead in the water. That is why Havana Syndrome and a US adversary’s ability to weaponize the disruption of the vestibular system is so concerning.

My ability to walk and perform basic tasks slowly returned and I began physical therapy three weeks after my surgery. I performed exercises and movements that may seem simple at first, but I soon realized an unexpected benefit. In addition to improving my ability to balance, I gained strength and endurance in the muscles, ligaments, and joints all throughout my feet, lower legs, and knees. As bodybuilders know, one is only as strong as their grip. I suppose in terms of backcountry hiking and endurance, one is only as strong as their legs’ ability to cope with the demands of the terrain.

I continued physical therapy for four weeks, all the while noticing the ancillary benefits to my lower body and made it a point to incorporate the three following exercises into my workout regimen. I’ll increase the frequency in preparation for a hunt as it draws near. While they are quite simple, I found them to be equally effective.

Single-Leg Stance – Clocks

  1. Stand with your feet together on a foam mat, such as this one. (You may need to start on a solid surface and work your way up.)
  2. Have targets, such as Red Solo Cups, placed at 12:00, 1:30, 3:00, 4:30 and 6:00 within reach of your leg outstretched while balancing on the other.
  3. Balance on one leg, and with the other, in a controlled motion, reach out with your foot and tap the 12:00 target and then return to center without placing the foot back on the ground.
  4. Repeat the motion for the 1:30 target and then the others, ending with the 6:00.
  5. Complete 5-10 reps. Control and balance are key. Start small and work your way up.
  6. Turn 180 degrees and repeat for the other leg.
  7. Repeat the exercise 3 times.

Bonus: For further balance development, complete the exercise with your eyes closed.

Toe Taps

  1. Stand with your feet together on the last stair of a bottom end of a staircase, facing the bottom.
  2. Balance on one leg and perform a single leg squat until the foot of the other leg lightly taps the floor in front of the stair.
  3. Return to the starting position, while continuing to balance on one leg. Do not touch the other foot to the ground.
  4. Complete 10 reps.
  5. Switch, and complete for the other leg.
  6. Repeat the exercise 3 times.

Bonus: For further balance development, complete the exercise with your eyes closed.

Step Ups

  1. Stand with your feet together at the bottom of a staircase, facing the top of staircase.
  2. Step up the staircase, skipping one (or two) step(s), in a lunge motion.
  3. Bring the other leg up to complete the motion, but balance it next to the leg on the step.
  4. In a backwards lunge, step back down to the bottom of the staircase.
  5. Complete 10 reps.
  6. Switch, and complete for the other leg.
  7. Repeat the exercise 3 times.

As for Colorado Elk in September…unfortunately, my recovery was still in-progress and prevented me from pursuing the guardians of the mountains with a bow this year. However, I was able to hunt Wyoming for antelope and cow elk with a rifle in October. What I noticed about my physical fitness during this hunt, was that my knees and feet were never sore or tired after a day of hiking and climbing mountains. Following the Theory of Constraints, I exposed the next weakness in my body, such as my hamstrings or lower back, which is a good indicator of where I need to strengthen next.

A.J. Fick

I was born and raised in northeast Pennsylvania, and currently live in the hill country of Texas. I consider myself a western hunter at heart, enjoying glassing vast landscapes and the thrill of the stalk. My motivations as an outdoorsman are rooted in the sustenance and physical aspects. In fact, my largest driving factor for physical fitness is preparing for upcoming hunts and ensuring I’m well prepared to climb mountains and cover ground with a heavy pack.

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