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As I sit here drinking a cup of coffee and planning for my first archery hunt of the year, I find myself reading up on a topic that might be quite unexpected when making a list and checking it twice for an upcoming hunt. Now, most of you are probably very familiar with caffeine and the usual thoughts that accompany it such as that early morning convenience store “cup of Joe” before work or that thing in most sodas that you don’t let your children have before bed. You might even have a slightly negative view of caffeine and have formerly vowed never to let it enter the temple you refer to as your body. Although I’m not here to win you over or change your overall decision making in regards to whether or not you choose to drink caffeine, I am here to entertain a new train of thought for those backcountry hunters, athletes and outdoorsman who have already chosen to use caffeine or are unopposed to adding it to their diet or supplementation. That new train of thought is this - Using Caffeine for improved backcountry success and overall performance.
At Built4TheHunt, it is no secret that we are advocates for using supplementation to increase performance when it makes sense and using caffeine as more than just a wake-me-up on a backcountry hunt might be one of those times that make sense. Here’s why -
Trimethylxanthine or “caffeine” is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world and is found in coffee beans, tea, guarana, yerba mate and several other plants. Don’t be alarmed, psychoactive at its root just means that a substance has the ability to alter brain functions like standard mood, behavior and perception. Caffeine after consumption however, is quickly removed from the brain. Its effects are short-term and it has been shown not to negatively affect overall concentration or higher brain functions. But continued consumption of caffeine does lead to developing a tolerance to it (which we will get into soon). Caffeine ultimately works by methods of blocking adenosine receptors in the body preventing them from binding, which would normally cause drowsiness and reduced/slowed cellular function. When caffeine is ingested it makes its way to the liver where it is metabolized and then absorbed into the bloodstream via the small intestine. Once caffeine hits the bloodstream it eventually stimulates the central nervous system, the heart and lungs and the systems that control our blood pressure.
Now you might be asking, “Why does this matter to me?”. Well ask the nearest ultra-marathon athlete, trail runner or olympic endurance athlete about caffeine's performance enhancing effects. What you might not know is that caffeine is one of the most common and effective ergogenic aids in all of exercise performance in terms of supplementation. Ergogenic means: “intended to enhance physical performance, stamina, or recovery”. In short, caffeine can help you work harder, for longer. Historically, the effects of caffeine were shown to work so well in athletic performance that from 1984 up until 2004 it was banned in the Olympics and although it is now legal it is still closely monitored by the World Anti Doping Agency. If that doesn’t hint to the potential performance enhancing effects of caffeine I’m not sure what does. Both endurance athletes and weightlifters may see benefits from caffeine. Caffeine has actually been shown to be the most effective supplement ingredient at increasing one rep max in strength training with gains of up to 15% in overall weight. The ability of caffeine to increase power in training is due to its stimulant effect. In endurance athletes such as cyclists and long distance trail runners caffeine use has been shown to increase completion times and peak performance metrics 1-2% all the way up to 12%. The School of Sport Exercise and Nutrition at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand conducted a meta-analysis with data from 46 different studies and found that an overall 3.03 - 3.07% improvement in mean power output of the athletes and a positive 2.22 - 2.59% improvement in time trial completion times. This may seem like minimal difference but as we all know in sports, just as in hunting - it can all come down to the smallest of factors that differentiate between outcomes of failure and success.
What has also been commonly demonstrated in regards to caffeine in athletic performance is the way in which it decreases an athlete's overall “perceived rate of exertion”. Meaning an athlete working very hard during training or competition may feel like they aren't working nearly as hard as they actually are. Giving them the feeling that they have a little extra in the tank or an overall mental edge, per say. At this point, you might be thinking “well, that’s great for trail runners or cyclists but how does this help me?”... (I’m getting there).
What isn’t quite as clear is how much caffeine can yield these types of increases in performance. We do have a general idea though. If you're not used to caffeine its effects can feel quite different than those who are used to frequent consumption and have built up a tolerance to the severity of its stimulating effects. Generally a 3-6mg per kg of body weight is an accepted effective dose. Which equates to (0.45-1.4 grams per lb). For a 68 kg (150 pound) athlete, that equates to a range of about 70 to 210 mg of caffeine and for a 200 lb athlete this figures out to be about 90 to 280 mg. To give you a better idea, the average cup of coffee contains about 80-100mg of caffeine. Ultimately doses of 3-6mg per kg of body weight are considered moderate and optimal for athletic performance yet doses that exceed 9mg seem to have a diminishing effect and the increased dosages beyond this point aren’t increasingly performance enhancing. In essence, you're hitting a ceiling well above your sweet spot beyond 9mg per Kg of body weight mark and not seeing much return for the higher doses.
Obviously, each of you are different and your body will react differently to various substances including caffeine from one person to the next. Your recent use of caffeine and your tolerance will also come into play. It’s best to start with small doses when introducing anything into your diet and slowly increasing from there to see how it will affect you. I suggest treating caffeine no differently. If you are someone who has regular difficulty sleeping or is normally very anxious/nervous, maybe caffeine isn’t right for you. Chances are you already know if that is the case. See how your body feels or reacts and take notes or mental notes at least for future consumption plans or alterations.
Alright, you’ve had enough. You're not interested in earning a PhD in caffeine related studies. I get it. So here is where I’m getting with all of this. As you can see caffeine can be an incredible tool for trail runners, time trial competitors, cyclists and really just about any endurance athlete on the planet looking for an edge. Well, guess what? Most of us are just that - endurance athletes. Think about it. We put our minds and bodies through some extremely unfavorable conditions and some serious miles in rugged, exhausting terrain on any given backcountry hunt. Typically 5, 6, 7 days or much longer! We wake up early, go to sleep late trying to replenish our bodies with enough calories to get us through a hunt without bogging us down either. If we are lucky we hike only several miles (usually more) per day and at the end of a hunt we get an adrenaline dump after putting the perfect stalk on a big mature animal just like the winning drive of hard fought football game or the last mile of an ultra marathon. Any way you look at it, we are athletes. And in the backcountry we can most likely find many similarities in our performance needs to that of an endurance athlete. So why not take advantage of similar supplements like caffeine that are at our disposal?
I plan on taking full advantage of caffeine on my first hunt of the year in the high country of Utah. Typically we do 5-7 miles a day hiking up and down elevation (that I’d hate to even calculate) depending on how familiar we are with the unit or how well we are locating mature bucks. The hunt usually lasts 7-10 days and one things is almost always guaranteed - it’s not going to be easy! So having any extra physical or mental edge we can have is paramount. It all adds up.
About two weeks before a hunt like this I’m going to reduce my overall caffeine consumption considering I’m typically drinking coffee throughout an average work week almost everyday. So I have built up a bit of a tolerance for it at this point. Which is why I cut back consumption prior to the hunt - to reduce my overall tolerance. I feel like two weeks is the perfect amount of time to give my body the proper time it needs to wean off the normal caffeine tolerance I have personally, but I encourage you to experiment with this in the months leading up to your important hunt. To be frank, I’m guessing this is enough time and I think it’ll work just fine but I won’t know until it’s time to hunt.
When the first day of the hunt arrives I’ll have somewhat of a clean slate when it comes to my caffeine tolerance and should feel the full effects of a proper dose while on my hunt. Typically the effects of caffeine peak at about 30 minutes following consumption. For me this means I want to take caffeine the minute I wake up in the morning considering we usually have right at about 30 minutes until we are dressed, packed up and ready to hit the trail or the adjacent ridge on foot in search of some mature deer.
Other times that I plan to utilize caffeine are through some more physically strenuous times in the hunt. For instance, before those more difficult hikes up significant elevation gain, assuming I can predict those a few minutes ahead of time to give me time to consume caffeine and feels its benefits. As well as any moments when I’m helping pack a lot of weight such as a pack full of freshly harvested meat at the bottom of a basin that needs to get back to camp, whether it's mine or a friend’s. Or a heavy load to pack in a spike camp somewhere new. This is when that minimized “perceived rate of exertion” will hopefully come into play as well. God knows sometimes we just need a little extra physical/mental boost!
Some moments I would suggest avoiding caffeine on a hunt like this might be before you know you're about to go on a stalk for an animal or late in the evenings before bed. Most of us are already going to be at a heightened state of awareness/nervousness in moments like a stalk and the last thing we want is to make things worse or make a tough shot tougher by being jittery or extra nervous. Lastly we certainly don’t want to take our already minimal sleep and reduce it further.
I won’t know how well my caffeine consumption plan works out until the hunt is over and I’ve gained the experience to confirm or alter my plan. However, I encourage you to formulate your own plan for utilizing caffeine for overall improvement in your performance on backcountry hunts or any physically demanding hunts you partake in, which we know is almost all of them!
Below are just a few of many options containing caffeine available at Built4TheHunt.com:
Mtn Ops Ignite
Wildness Nutrition - Expedition Energy Tablets
Tru Wild - Motion
Outdoor Supplements - Ascend
Legion - Pulse
Bucked Up - Pre Workout
Dark Mountain - Kodiak
Written by: Mike Attebery, @add_a_berry