Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Expert Advice to Morph from “Whitetail Shape” to “Wow”

Elite endurance coach Will Kirousis shares his advice as a bowhunter to be more physically capable in the field.

By Derek Benoit July 28th, 2021

ALWAYS consult your physician, specialist, or appropriate exercise professional before beginning ANY exercise or treatment plan. This content is for INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE MEDICAL ADVICE. By accessing this content, you agree to hold harmless the-outdoor-phoenix-community.com and Benoit Outdoor Media LLC for any injury, death, or damage to private property that results from performing any exercise, therapeutic exercise, or in receiving medical treatment.

Even if you’ve never run a full mile, you can improve your cardio to boost enjoyment while hunting (and fishing, too!) Credit Shutterstock

For more information on Will Kirousis and the breadth of his coaching services, please visit his site at:


1.) You’re a bowhunter as well as a successful endurance coach. What got you into coaching?

I was constantly asking my parents to take me places to fish as a kid.  Around middle school my parents got me a mountain bike so I could ride to more places to fish… I got into riding (as did a good friend with similar interests) and started riding just for the fun – as well as to go fishing.  That morphed into racing several cycling disciplines (road, mountain and cyclocross (basically riding a road like bike off road and having to carry it over knee high hurdles or up steep hills)).  I always got really curious about my pursuits, and my parents – both educators – believed in letting us explore our interests, as doing so forms a great window into learning and finding what excites us as people. 

Well, I was ok as an athlete and wanted to do better.  So I started reading anything I could about training theory, sport science, performance psychology etc.  This is in high school.  My parents bought me a sport science text book at Umass to read and I loved it.  At first I applied the ideas I was learning to me, and I was getting more into that aspect than racing itself.  People knew I was really into it and stated asking for help, so I helped, and found that was even more exciting than racing myself.  As that was evolving I’d done my undergrad work in sports science.  Once done with college, I tried to spend a year racing and just was not good enough to make that work, but was building up the coaching at the same time (mid 90’s roughly).  I had a minor detour working clinical research for a couple years to end the 90s when I was getting married and figured a “real” job was in order, but was back to coaching from 99 on and have been doing it since.  Though I did earn my masters degree in coaching in 2016.  I always felt to much of sports performance oriented coaching was about physiology and not enough about how to teach – which is why I opted to do my masters in coaching directly vs sports science. 

I’m pretty low key now compared to in the past – self employed, family, wife has a busy schedule… etc – all the same challenges many others face.  So, I focus on simple strength training a few times a week and consistent aerobic training – frequent of road and mountain bike riding which morphs to hiking, trail running, snow shoeing, xc skiing, fat biking as well during colder months.  Trying to be active daily helps you with the simple things, like getting into and out of a tree stand, hiking in and out of the woods with gear and for sure getting game out of the woods if you are fortunate to bring food home for your family.  An area which is less thought about though, is planning.  Even with my simpler needs now, I plan things out so I know at X point in the year I want to be working on Y aspect of my fitness, and progress through the year.  That long range planning plays into hunting as well – when do you scout, place cams (if using them), hunt certain areas etc.  So there are a surprising number of crossovers between fitness and hunting – just scratching the surface here.

2.) What about your own fitness routine helps you perform better in the woods?

3.) You work with some very elite athletes, with near-perfect preparation. What are the major mistakes we mortals make when committing to conditioning?

I should have you do marketing for me ha ha ha!  Thank you, I’m fortunate to have been/be on the performance team for some amazing athletes over the years.  I also work with folks just looking to use sport as a vehicle to a healthy lifestyle overall or who are age group athletes that are looking to improve but understand it’s a part of a healthy life – not all of it.   On to mistakes. 

Over the last 20-25 years, the end point of this answer may have slightly changed… but the general concept has been the same.  The biggest mistake people make in fitness or sports prep is training to hard to often.  The mindset that every wrkout has to be better than the last and that always working harder is the key has destroyed more athletes than probably any other approach.  For example, it’s well understood at this point that pending time of year and athlete, 70-95% of training time ought to be relatively light – like a 4-6 out of 10 effort.  Yet how many folks hit the gym or home device and slam every workout with intense intervals or circuits?  Lots of them.  Some people say well “athletes” should train differently then every day folks.  To a point, sure.  But given their much higher fitness, athletes are more capable of recovering from and dealing with high intensity work – and STILL only do a small % of their total training time at those high intensities. 

If there is ONE thing most folks could do to improve more, it’s to do no more than 3 workouts per week that feel “intense” with the rest lower intensity and varied durations.


4) What advice can you give someone beginning a cardio conditioning routine from scratch? How about someone who’s more active, say currently getting 45 minutes of cardio 3 or 4 times a week?

Go slow, progress things gradually, don’t marry a specific style of training (bike, hike, run, ski, etc), start easier than you think you should and finish workouts wanting to do more.  For example, just starting out, if you do 10’ a day for 6 days a week, then 15’, then alternate 10 and 20’ etc you are creating habit, and preparing your body to do that sort of work for the long haul – creating durability.  Some adaptations are fast – like those generated from strength training initially which are largely based on learning to do the movement… Or high intensity training.  But creating aerobic fitness and the physical structure to support it over the long haul takes time.  It’s a slow process.  So give yourself time and ease along with it.

For the person doing some “cardio” 3-4X week for 45’, the key would be, what does that look like?  If it’s a bunch of high intensity interval workouts, I’d consider dropping one of those, and seeing if they can do 1-2 additional days of lower intensity steady work, ideally including a longer low intensity day – 60’+ (progressing to those longer durations).

There is no magic soup here, no secret.  It’s about gradual progression and NOT overworking with constant challenging/hard/intense workouts.

5.) What is the RPE scale, and how can the average Jane or Joe use it for endurance? Is there a golden rule for a starting point from “whitetail shape?”

RPE is Rating of Perceived Exertion.  This is an extremely well researched training intensity and load assessment tool which is looking at how hard a person feels what they are doing is.  Originally the scale was based on 6-20, and that’s often still used in research, but most folks are used to the modified version based on a 1-10 scale which has been extensively assessed and expanded on by Carl Foster for anyone reading this who wants to hit google scholar to learn more.  The simplest way one could use this to build endurance, is to realize that 70-95% of your training should be at a 4-6 on the 1-10 RPE scale.  So, for someone doing 5 workouts per week, that means you are looking at about 1 with intensity most weeks, maybe 2.  More than that and you are likely training harder than needed and probably setting yourself up to plateau early and increasing injury odds.

When you do train hard, for the vast majority of folks who may read this, the workout should be based around a lower intensity (4-5 RPE) and include blocks of work between 7-9 RPE – the longer the block of work, the lower the intensity and vice versa.

This could be a formal workout where you do specifically timed blocks of work and rest – this is what’s broadly called interval training and includes things many folks have likely read about like HIT, HIIT, Tabata etc.  Another option though that works just great is fartlek – which is an old Sweedish term for “speed play”.  This is spontaneously varied intensity based on terrain and situations encountered while doing a workout.  Say you are hiking or riding a mountain or road bike that day for your workout, maybe you choose to work the hills hard and keep the rest light – that’s a hilly fartlek.  Certainly other ways to do this as well.  But, for a hunter, this could be blended into scouting well.  You go hike an area and on the ups you work hard and the rest you go slower.  Or perhaps you hike fast on a trail between areas you want to walk through slower.  Now you just blended your more intense workout into something you wanted to and love to do anyway – win win as they say.

6.) How does the average Jane or Joe use the RPE to get faster? How does one of “us” structure a cardio session to get faster?

I should have read ahead, a fair bit of this is answered in the above answer.  But lets tough on “getting faster”.  From an endurance perspective, one can do a bunch of intensity out of the gate and feel like super man, but those adaptation tend to plateau pretty quickly – like 6-8 weeks.  Conversely the slower to accrue adaptations thanks to lower intensity, they can go on for years and years.  Lots of people have experienced “getting fit fast from high intensity work”… So the innate bias is go hard a lot and Ill be faster.  That really doesn’t work – which is why zero elite endurance athletes train that way.  I’m not one for absolutes, this is a rare exception. 

World level athletes have learned (and have good coaches) who know that all intensity all the time is not the solution, so they don’t do it.  They take the long view.  If one wants the best adaptation and long term progress, they understand that they cant rush it and that they need a LONG time with a lot of lower intensity work to establish the foundation from which higher intensity work can play out best and their speed improves most.  Here is an example of this, people often think: “Going up hill I feel lots of lactic acid burning, so I need to work harder more to push that point out…”  The challenge is that it’s improved aerobic (lower intensity developed) fitness that helps clear that acid and improve your body’s ability to use lactate as fuel.  Aerobically developing yourself via an emphasis on low intensity work is like building a giant lactate sucking vacuum… this is partly why you can do big performances with relatively little high intensity work. 

Additionally, if one is always pushing it trying to go faster, they have trouble recovering, so fatigue lingers which means workouts that could have been done at higher intensity (power/pace) are done at lower power/pace – while feeling harder due to fatigue.  That becomes a vicious cycle.

So, it takes time, but low intensity work being the focus of ones training, stretching durations/volume over time, and including periods of lower intensity and duration to foster recovery are the keys over the long haul to going longer and faster for the majority of endurance athletes – be they back country hunters or ultra runners. 

7.) What is the 10% rule, and is it a guide for everyone?

This is a rough guideline about exercise prescription – suggesting folks don’t increase duration/volume more than 10% per week over time.  I’d say this is reasonably good – though some folks may need higher or lower rates of progression at certain times and all folks need weeks – every 3-6 weeks generally – where they cut back on duration/volume by 40-60%.  Those weeks cut back on the energy output to do work, allowing more energy to go into recovery and adaptation to the work you have been doing.

8.) How would you create a program for someone interested in high-elevation backcountry trips?

This is hard to answer, given it’s really individual.  Someone with more or less experience both in the backcountry AND with different training modes would have a very different plan.  Broadly though, you look at the individual and their history and readiness… Then couple that with the needs of the activity.  Is it a sand hills trip, self guided and camping on public, something in the mountains or a heavily guided trip with lots of support?  Broadly, the aim would be trying to build up to doing sessions fairly similar to what would be expected on the trip about 2 weeks prior to the trip.  After that, cut back on duration of training progressively, about 40% week 1 and 60% the week before going.  This will ensure lots of energy and full manifestation of your efforts to build fitness while on the trip.

9.) What types of cardio activities mesh best with hunting and fishing, especially in the back country?

Strength training, hiking and trail running are awesome.  Cycling or similar “lower impact” options are great at building the endurance you need, but backcountry, especially hilly / mountainous trips, leads to lots of down hills, often steep ones.  And if you are mostly cycling, all that braking force will lead to a LOT of delayed onset muscle soreness that really frustrates you while on the trip.  Strength training can help with this – given “lowering” the weight creates the same sort of braking or “eccentric” muscle action.  So if you have issues with doing lots of hiking or running – say an injury history – then try to hike say 1X week, strength train 2X and fill in the rest with cycling, or other low impact workouts that you enjoy.

In the end though, if you corner me, hiking and trail running are fantastic endurance building tools for the backcountry hunter or angler.

10.) What else can you bring from your coaching background to the outdoor enthusiast?

I think it’s super important to consider mindset and learning.  Being open to learning is huge.  Seeking better information from high quality sources is huge.  For example, because an influencer on IG does or says X, does not mean it’s really true. 

Mindset is looking at how to tackle challenges and perform.  A strategy I’ve found really helpful for folks, is mindfulness, applied in a simple strategy.  Acknowledge whats going on – give it no grade; get curious, what approaches or ideas may help you through this situation best; try one, see how it goes; repeat.  This is a simple strategy but can be applied any time:

“I don’t think I can make it up this hill to get to that ambush spot… (acknowledge) Ok, maybe it’s a challenge… (get curious) what if I just keep my effort like this, and get to that rock over there and re-assess? (try it) Hey, I got there… (repeat) I’m doing it, it’s a challenge, but I’m doing it… Lets get to that big pine and see where things are at… “

It’s a simple tool and can really make a huge difference with hard points on a workout or trip afield.  Even for a white tail hunter in a stand – how many times to do guys bail out due to cold or boredom or talking themselves out of hope?  Strategies like that can help them too.

For more of Will Kirousis’ thoughts on mindfulness for hunting and fishing, please follow the below link:

Hopefully there are some helpful ideas in there Derek.  Covered a lot of ground, but each area could be a deep dive in it’s own right… Hopefully there is enough here to help folks modify or improve what they are doing and have a great season this year… and longer term, the next few seasons!

Keep well and thanks for the opportunity.


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