I consider myself to be a relatively fit and healthy 27-year-old, but while walking the hills of the west coast of Scotland, as my legs began to ache, and my heart pounded, I wondered why I was struggling to keep up with a stalker 25 years my elder. Normally I pride myself on never holding anyone up, and being able to take a shot when required without breathing so hard my lungs are coming out my mouth. What was the problem?
To answer this, I must look back at my preparation for this hunt, in terms of fitness and nutrition. These people up on the hill taking clients out six days a week easily walk over 10km per day on steep and boggy terrain. Sadly, it is not possible for everyone to train in this environment, let alone do it six days a week. But I do believe that if you train smart, at least you’ll have a fighting chance. I would never claim to be an expert in diet and fitness, but I have had years of experience in both departments. Through completing a gruelling, year-long training and selection process to become a Royal Navy clearance diver, I really saw what worked and what didn’t.
First things first, big-muscled guys are the first to fall. I saw it time and time again. The same goes for those who rely on large numbers of supplements instead of just having a well-balanced diet. As we came up to our first selection week, many of the guys were spending four hours a day in the gym pumping iron and taking every supplement you can think of. I do agree that adding extra protein for muscle recovery, growth and strength when doing large amounts of training does help, but save your money on the rest. In contrast, my daily training consisted of an hour’s swim, a 30-minute run, and a short body weight circuit for core strength. Zero supplements of any kind. I had a good base fitness level, but it was still considerably less training than most other men there.
We started with 38 guys and went down to ten by the end of the first week of selection. By the end of the course, only four remained, and I was one of them. As you can see by the pictures, none of us four were huge guys or gym junkies, but we trained smart. Beyond the physical components of training, mental resilience was key to my success. You can only get this by pushing yourself harder in uncomfortable situations while remaining positive – even when you are soaked to the bone, your legs are like two lead weights dragging you down, and you still have three hours of walking to go. Now, back to my training regime for this hunt. Unfortunately, I had fallen into the trap of just going to the gym and doing the same routine time and time again, not training in any of the gear I would be using on the hill. If I had changed my routine for even just one day to walk in my boots, carrying my rucksack, this would have made a difference.
My second problem area was diet. My downfall came in liquid form – having a casual drink at the pub with friends during the week and a few more ciders at the weekend did not help. I have now cut out drinking during the week and some weekends, and feel all the better for it. Hollywood-star-cum-wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is a big believer in ‘cheat days’ as food and drink are one of life’s great joys.
Another thing I think is important is having a level of fitness you know you should be at. For me this is easy. My whole life I have basically had to always achieve 9 minutes 30 seconds for a mile-and-a-half run on fitness tests. My fastest time was 8 minutes 50 seconds, and I was not even that fast compared to other guys. I should add this was after a warm-up of a mile and a half under 15 minutes, but I tend to leave that out now I am a civilian. That is the baseline measurement for me.
The week after my hunt, I tested myself over the distance and found I was a whole minute slower than the baseline. I knew something had to change. If you want to find out where you are by military standards, which are a good basis to judge fitness, most of the requirements can be found online. If this all sounds too much for you, then simply try cutting back on that extra drink or pudding, and go swimming once a week for 30 minutes to an hour. After a few weeks you will notice a difference. I can not overstate how good swimming can be for your general fitness.
There are many reasons why more people should pay attention to fitness for hunting apart from being able to keep up with your guide. An important one is ability to cope with the final moments of the stalk. This can often consist of large sections of crawling, moving fast between peat hags and boggy ground, draining your energy and stressing your lungs. This was perfectly demonstrated on the stalk I referred to earlier. For nearly a mile and a half we crawled, my brother alongside me the whole time, and at the end of it I needed to take a swift shot. Making the best shot possible with labouring breath is a challenge of concentration as well as of physical ability.
Importantly, if you have to follow a wounded animal up you may have to do so after considerable pursuit. Landing accurate shots under such circumstances is much easier with a decent fitness level.
Unsurprisingly, the military deliberately train in a manner that forces individuals to acclimatise to the feeling of performing accurate and consistent shooting under pressure and physical exertion. This is something that we should practise for in the civilian world, combined with the reality of uncomfortable and unconventional shooting positions. It is our responsibility to be as fit as possible to maximise our ability to take clean, ethical and accurate shots on our quarry.