MSRP: $39.95 (for 30 servings)
Dietary supplements: show me information that supports this or that being the key to unlocking athletic performance, and I will show you information that argues the opposite. Not only that, there can be health risks involved for any supplement that isn’t used properly. This old pattern appears to hold true for Gnarly Nutrition BCAAs, which have become fairly popular among some pro climbers, judging by their Instagram feeds and sponsorships.
That said, I feel I’ve had some success using the Gnarly BCAA (branched chain amino acid) and Pre-workout supplements. I’ve been experimenting with the stuff for about a year, in which time I’ve had one of the best climbing seasons of my life, flashing 5.13a for the first time and doubling the number of 5.13 routes that I typically complete in a season. Today’s young guns may not be impressed by those numbers, but that’s pretty good for a 38-year-old who came of age in the ’90s and struggled to imagine he would ever achieve the benchmark.
There are always plenty of variables to explain increased athletic performance, to be sure. Proper sleep and a balanced diet of sufficient real food–stuff like oatmeal, quinoa, lentils, kale, rice, beans, yogurt, eggs, poultry and fish (if you eat meat at all), etc., etc.–are always the main ingredients to health and fitness. Improving sleep and eating habits, and cutting back on the beer certainly made the biggest difference for me. I wouldn’t say Gnarly gave me an extra edge, but it’s possible that it has sharpened my edge. Since I figured out how to incorporate the Pre and BCAA supplements into my routine, my workouts have generally been longer, at a higher intensity, and my recovery time has improved. Of course, a sample size of one isn’t a scientific study, and it’s possible, however, that this change is merely a perceived correlation with the products, as I can’t isolate the variables well enough to tell for certain.
In addition to reading some independent articles and scientific studies on the matter, I also interviewed Gnarly Nutrition’s CPO/COO, Shannon O’Grady, PhD., on the phone and via email. From what she told me, it sounds like I’m not the prime target consumer for the supplement because I regularly eat animal protein and I’m still in my thirties. O’Grady explained in an email:
Gnarly BCAAs are especially helpful for people who face challenges when it comes to getting enough high-quality protein that is rich in all nine essential amino acids, which are important for muscle building and recovery. (I recommend 1.6 to 2.2g of protein per kilogram of body mass per day.) Examples include vegans, alpinists and aging athletes.
In the case of alpinists, they are often living at higher altitude or in remote locations with limited resources for days, weeks and months at a time–they face a high energetic output with low caloric input–so it’s logical that they would be more challenged in getting enough protein. The bodies of older climbers, meanwhile, might not absorb nutrients as efficiently as their younger counterparts. Thus, I can understand how these groups stand to gain the most from a BCAA supplement.
“The elderly and alpinists are two examples of groups that experience high levels of muscle protein breakdown,” O’Grady said. “Research has shown that BCAA supplementation can make up for inadequate protein intake in these groups.”
She pointed me toward an article she wrote for Gym Climber titled “The No-Bull Guide to Protein,” which states:
While you should look for proteins that are easily digestible and high in essential amino acids, you should also choose proteins with a high Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) content. BCAAs comprise three of the nine essential amino acids. Unlike other essential amino acids, which are broken down in the liver, BCAAs skip the liver and go straight to the muscles, where they play a critical role in preventing muscle breakdown and repairing muscles damaged from exercise. Whey protein and dairy products like milk and yogurt are the best options, but vegan and vegetarian athletes should look to quinoa, lentils and soy for high levels of BCAAs.
Gnarly indicates that the BCAAs can be “consumed any time of day” but recommends “prior to training and following up with some protein.” O’Grady emphasized the importance of eating real foods after a workout. “We don’t recommend replacing protein with BCAAs,” she said.
This ties into an important caution, as former professional climber Delaney Miller summarized in a 2020 article for Gym Climber–if you don’t maintain a well-balanced diet while using the supplement, it is possible that the body will break down more muscle to compensate for the lacking nutrients, which defeats the entire goal of training, or worse. There are also risks of disrupted sleep from reduced serotonin levels, which can negatively affect mood (i.e. exacerbate depression). A direct link to the scientific article from 2017 can be found here.
In my case, O’Grady said that the BCAA supplement would “not be necessary” if I’d consumed a complete protein three to four hours before a workout, which I commonly do. After talking to her, I suspect that the times when I’ve had the greatest difference using the BCAAs have occurred during long days of climbing, when it’s challenging to eat enough food while exerting high energy for hours on end.
On a long climbing day where I’ll be out for eight hours or longer, I’ll start with a big serving of oatmeal, then have a granola bar or two while hiking and getting warmed up. If I’m feeling particularly hungry I might have a few bites of a turkey sandwich. To avoid a gassy, upset stomach, I taper off solid food about 20 minutes before I start sipping one serving of BCAAs mixed with 16 ounces of water. This is usually toward the middle to end of the day, after my warmups and a little before attempting my maximum effort while tired–such as my second or third redpoint attempt on a project. I sip the BCAAs over the course of 30 minutes to an hour instead of drinking them all at once. By the end of the session, however, I’m very hungry for real food and I’ll gobble the rest of my sandwich and trail mix to sustain me until I get home for dinner.
While the benefits of faster recovery won’t be immediately noticed during, say, a 60-minute workout, O’Grady agreed that the BCAAs may be helping with my recovery enough to give me a little more kick in performance at the end of my long climbing days.
Critics will say that at best we’re wasting our money on powder that isn’t absorbed as readily as we’ve been lead to believe. Perhaps. I have not had lab tests done to verify if Gnarly has given me anything more than a placebo effect. Prior to this, I have used Coke, Red Bull and other sources of caffeine and sugar to overcome sluggishness at the end of a long day. It’s sometimes hard to discern if it’s my brain or body that needs to wake up. A drawback to this strategy is that I can end up feeling jittery if I overdo the dosage, and this applies to the Gnarly stuff as well.
As mentioned earlier, I used the Pre supplement in addition to the BCAAs. The Pre mix that I use is heavier on the caffeine–180mg compared to 35mg; there are also caffeine-free versions of both supplements. As the label suggests, the Pre solution is designed to be used before a workout. The Pre solution certainly gets me ramped up and helps me push the intensity of exercise. Drinking the Pre and following up with the BCAA often feels like too much for me, however, so it’s usually just one or the other.
Other drawbacks to the liquid supplements for me is that I tend to have runny stools more often during regular usage, similar to drinking too much coffee. O’Grady said this is not a common complaint, but that I may be sensitive to erythritol, a fruit-based sugar alcohol that Gnarly BCAAs used to contain but that has now been removed. Whatever the case, when I was considering a multiday attempt to free climb El Capitan this spring, I nixed the idea of packing the Gnarly supplements in part to avoid the messy hassle that might result.
If you’re a competitive athlete, one risk you won’t have with Gnarly products is turning in a positive test for banned performance-enhancing substances. Gnarly prides itself with an “NSF Certified for Sport” label and is a partner of USA Climbing. Say what you will about supplements, Gnarly certainly puts some effort into being very clear about their ingredients and in supplying a range of information on their website, including a “Dear Shannon” blog in which anyone can submit questions to O’Grady.
Bottom line, am I going to continue using the Gnarly products? I’m not sure. Maybe. I’ve come off them and gone back to a diet that is fully au naturale; then I recently started back up to see if I noticed a difference. It might just be the caffeine. What I do know, is that my fitness has been on an upward roll lately, and Gnarly has been one of many ingredients along the way, so I can’t discount it.
Every body has its own nutritional needs and some people may be more at risk for side effects than others. What works for one person might not for another. You’ll have to decide what’s best for you.
Alpinist Digital Editor Derek Franz wishes he’d had more opportunities to learn how to train and build gymnastic strength for climbing as a teenager, but he’d never trade an outdoor adventure for a day in the gym.
NSF Certified for Sport (rigorous testing process to ensure they’re free of over 270 banned substances)
Designed to boost workout intensity and duration (Pre mix) while shortening recovery time and reducing muscle soreness (BCAAs)
Studies have shown BCAA supplements can result in weakened muscles if not used properly with a balanced diet
Can disrupt sleep and affect mood if not used properly