This past season, I struggled with a nagging bout of tendonitis in my left elbow. I believe two things brought this on: old age and senility. Well maybe, but just as likely it was due to being overzealous in the gym trying to get in shape for the coming season. Regardless of the cause, the issue made it very painful to draw my bow. Every shot I took was an exercise in pain tolerance. As a result, I wasn't able to shoot much — just a few arrows per day.
My reduced capacity got me thinking about the fact that many bowhunters likely struggle with limited practice time, for a number of reasons. This is a subject worth addressing. Here are some thoughts to help you make the most of a tight schedule:
Strength is critical in archery, and one of the things that is hardest to attain with a limited practice schedule. To hold your bow steady, you must master the draw weight at all points in the draw cycle, but especially at full draw. With this in mind, it is a very good idea to develop strength throughout the year — not just in the late summer. You can go any of three routes here, depending on where you are exercising.
At Home: The best way to build the specific muscles you use to draw and hold your bow is to use your bow! When my joints aren't messed up, I do this many times during the two months leading up to hunting season. Just leave the bow in a convenient place in your home, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, grab it and draw it 10 times, holding at full draw for at least 30 seconds each time.
To eliminate any risk of a dry-fire, pick up one of the release aids on the market that are designed not to fire. Tru-Fire makes one called the Draw Check Tool that costs less than $20. I own one; it works great. The Draw Check Tool is a very good investment that will protect your valuable bow (and yourself) from the risk of dry fire.
At the Office: Unless you have a very lenient work environment, you probably aren't going to take your bow into the office. However, you likely have breaks during the day when you can strengthen your archery muscles. The least conspicuous way to do that is to use stretchable resistance bands (such as Thera Bands). You can knot them to create the correct "draw length," and you can vary the number you pull or the thickness of the bands to create the necessary "draw weight."
There are also devices on the market that use rubber bands to simulate drawing a bow. An example is the Bowfit Archery Exerciser. These are also very inconspicuous devices you can use just about anywhere.
At the Gym: Two typical gym exercises will strengthen the archery muscles, at least on the drawing side. Inverted (or bent over) rows — where you lift dumbbells from the floor to shoulder height — are very good. You can increase the weight easily as you get stronger. You can also set up most cable machines so you are pulling the handle toward your face. Again, it is very easy to adjust the weight.
Try to find ways to brace with the off-hand against the machine (in the case of the cable machine) and against a bench (in the case of the inverted rows) to strengthen the bow arm. And like with any exercise, be sure to do it on both sides of your body to prevent imbalances that can lead to injuries.
I have a good friend who once lived in downtown New York City. He had to ride in a taxi for more than an hour just to get to a place where he could shoot his bow. Obviously, Frank didn't shoot very often! While this may be the extreme, we all face time crunches that keep us from practicing as often as we would like.
A Goal and a Plan: Making the most of every minute and every shot is critical. For this reason, you need a plan. Don't just go to the range and start flinging arrows. Work on your weaknesses. Know what you are trying to accomplish and then take a few steps to achieve that goal. For example, you may feel you are good at 20 yards but shaky at 30. Don't just stand there working on your strengths.
Spend a few minutes ahead of time trying to determine your limiting factor and then focus on that. Maybe your aim is just too loose and your arrows wander — the group is not consistently to one side, just too large. Focus all your effort on selecting a small aiming point and relaxing through the shot until the arrow hits. Maybe it will be some other limiting factor or some other cues, but the main thing is to have a goal and a plan for each practice session.
Intense Focus: One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Randy Ulmer. Randy told me he often would go to the backyard range and shoot just one arrow, pull that arrow and then go back to whatever else he was doing. If you have the luxury of being able to shoot in your yard, that is great advice.
This simple approach forces you to make the most of limited time. With only one shot, you will more naturally devote all your energy to making it as good as possible. Also, this is very realistic practice for hunting, where you won't get a warm-up shot.
No doubt, you have (or had) a buddy who is always telling you about the 200 arrows he shoots every day. I had friends like that when I was younger — when we all seemed to have nothing but time. Nowadays, my shooting time has to come out of whatever is left after I've met obligations to family, work and community organizations.
A realistic day now includes shooting 15-30 arrows, mostly from 50 or 60 yards. I like to practice longer shots because it is the quickest way to improve my shooting on shots of 40 yards and under — the shots I will take when hunting. I can get through my shooting session in about 15-20 minutes while taking my time to make each shot as good as possible. If I can do this three or four times per week, I am ready to go.
Life comes at us faster now than it ever did in the past. As a result, we have to find ways to make the most of every minute. Hopefully these tips will help you maintain (or even improve) your archery and bowhunting skills with the time you have at hand.