By: Kyle Kamp, RDN, LD of Valley to Peak Nutrition
I live in Idaho and absolutely adore spending my free time in the mountains with friends, family, and the newest addition to my wife and I’s life- our newborn son. As such, I’ve focused a lot of my attention on athletes and backcountry hunters who spend their time competing and recreating in the same regional location I call home.
It wasn’t until recently I realized that I’d completely neglected the nutrition needs of my roots in the Midwest and the folks who spend their mornings before work in a stand and their time before turning in for the night checking trail cams in pursuit of freezer meat.
In fact, in my research, everyone has neglected you guys and never really put thought to answering questions you’ve got burning in your mind. Questions like, “is there anything a hunter can do by way of nutrition to improve their focus and reaction time while hunting in a manner that’s not in the mountains of the west?”
Your time has come. Let’s take a look at what changes in your nutrition might mean for performance in the field.
Big Dogs with No Bite
It seems like every time I turn around some “nutrition expert” is overly complicating the world of nutrition with fancy terms. It wasn’t long after I entered dietetics school that I learned most of these terms have very basic definitions and offer very little to make a real difference in an athlete’s performance.
Take the word nootropics for example. It’s used to describe supplements that “improve cognition and reaction times…” blah, blah, blah, buzz-word, buzz-word, buzz-word, and “brain health”. It’s easy to see where reading this word would make a guy feel like they’re in the local tanning shop trying to find a bottle of bronzer before a summer trip to Belize rather than improve their reaction time in the bow stand.
Our focus below is intentionally focused on things that work and demystifying some of the nutrition beliefs floating around.
I’m the first guy to raise my hand when asked in a crowd “who here has a sweet tooth?!” There’s certainly nothing wrong with high-carb snacks when you’re hiking your tail off chasing critters, but it’s another thing altogether when you’re less active.
Carbohydrates, when eaten without protein or fat, can cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar. This feeling is much of why we feel a big “crash” after binging on an entire bag of sour candies shaped like small kids as opposed to feeling alive, alert, and ready to go. While delicious, it’s hardly going to be what helps you sit on the stand longer in nasty weather waiting out that big buck.
Combination Foods: a Better Balance.
You don’t need to avoid carb-based snacks while hunting, but you do need to rethink them. We’ve long known that including foods with protein, fat, and fiber slow that rapid rise and fall of your blood sugar mentioned above. This means more alertness for you, helping you feel fuller longer, and have sustained energy and focus while waiting out a critter. You’ll find a couple of examples listed below, but let’s first consider a scenario.
Raisins seem like a decent snack, and they are- high in iron, decent fiber content, and a good carb source for energy. As great as this highlight reel sounds, it’s likely you’ll experience the rapid rise and fall of blood sugars mentioned above with this carb-only snack. The addition of a few tablespoons of peanuts and high-protein dried and salted edamame instantly transforms the snack into one that’s going to keep you in the woods until you’re able to get an opportunity at flinging an arrow.
Quality. Does it Matter?
Something else to consider is the quality of the food you’re eating. While carbohydrate, proteins, and fats are all created equal regardless of the source, you’ll arguably feel better opting for good sources of nutrition rather than a cargo pocket full of gas station snacks. Again, check the end of the article for a host of different examples.
When “alertness” is mentioned in performance nutrition, it’s almost inevitable that someone suggests caffeine as a protentional solution. While there’s been research to support the fact that caffeine can increase both alertness and performance, its usually only seen in endurance-type activities (i.e. not sitting on a tree stand, blind, or patrolling the edge of your hunting plot on foot).
The piece that’s usually not talked about is over-consumption of caffeine (effective doses are usually very high amounts) make people so overly wired that their focus goes down in shooting sports like hunting. We see their anxiety and anxiousness go up and their heart rate increase; all a combination that hardly screams focus when you need it most.
Caffeine and the Remedy:
Have a cup. A cup. A single cup. One. Not the bubba keg they run a special on at the four-way stop just before you bounce of town. It’s likely a cup is going to give you enough caffeine to keep you awake and alert without suffering the ill effects of having too much. Energy drinks, 5-hour shots, and supplements with large doses of caffeine are not yielding the benefits we’ve seen with athletes in other sports, so no need to think “if some is good, more is better!”.
What about the others?
There has been a handful of supplements that have shown some promise with improved cognition; supplements like omega-3’s, flavonoids, lutein, and beta-carotene for instance. However, we’re talking long-term brain health and protection when we think of these supplements (think prevention of Alzheimer’s and dementia), not flinging an arrow at that big buck you’ve been watching on your trail camera all summer.
Even the studies surrounding these supplements and brain health aren’t solid and haven’t given us the confidence we need to suggest they truly work.
As a bowhunter myself, I know it’s very easy to get wrapped up in trying to find ways we can improve our chances of success in the woods. The most obvious place to look beyond your gear or bow set-up is at things that might yield some sort of advantage; places like supplements and your nutrition.
While there’s no single food that’s going to drastically improve your alertness and reaction time; no magic pill, you may notice some difference by focusing on quality sources of nutrition, combining foods to avoid the dreaded blood sugar-induced naps, and dosing caffeine right. A few simple tweaks can drastically increase your ability to focus on shot placement when it matters most.
Five Examples to Balance your Nutrition and Improve Chances of Better Focus
Kyle Kamp is a registered dietitian, principal consultant, and president of Valley to Peak Nutrition. His predominant focus is aimed at helping everyone from competetitive athletes to average Joes compete and perform well in the mountains. All services at Valley to Peak are provided by registered dietitians and offer coaching, accountability, and custom nutrition plans built to help you accomplish your goals. Their work is based in science, research, and has been proven to enhance the performance of everyone from mountain-based athletes to weekend warriors.