Take a look at the general fitness world.  The athletes participating in these activities (whether they are crossfit, weightlifting, or endurance sports) all use dietary supplements to help increase their performance and speed up their recovery process.  Climbers, on the other hand, don’t seem to be nearly as interested in taking any kind of supplements even though we are often obsessed with our diets.

However, as athletes who are always looking for a way to increase our climbing performance, we should probably pay a bit more attention to how using supplements in the right ways can really help our training and performance on rock.

To help make sense of the nutritional supplement world, here’s an article by Dr. Shannon O’Grady, Director of Products for Gnarly Nutrition, that outlines for you what BCAAs are, the science behind why athletes should be supplementing with them, and why they are perfect for climbers training hard to push their limits.

Give her article a read and then head over to the Gnarly Nutrition website where you can use the code “Trainingbeta” for a 20% discount on all their awesome products!

Enter Dr. Shannon O’Grady…

Branched Chain Amino Acids are popping up in the bags of some of the most successful climbers today, but what are they, what do they do and how do you use them?  In this article we’ll discuss the basics of BCAA supplementation and science that supports  their use.

What Are BCAAs?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.  Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are essential, meaning they cannot be synthesized (produced or created) by the body and must come from our  diet.  Of these essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are known as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).  

Unlike other essential amino acids, which are broken down in the liver, BCAAs are oxidized, or used for energy, primarily in the skeletal muscle.  BCAA oxidation in skeletal muscle increases 2-3 fold during exercise (Tarnopolsky, 2004; Shimomura et al., 2006) .  

In addition to being a source of fuel for working muscles, BCAAs are critical to muscle recovery and synthesis (reviewed in Shimomura et al., 2006; Blomstrand et al., 2006).  This fact is important for athletes because supplementation  with BCAAs has been shown to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS (Greer et al., 2007; Shimomura et al., 2010).  Leucine, isoleucine and valine, the three BCAAs, work together to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and reduce the rate of muscle catabolism, or breakdown.

Leucine, in particular, promotes protein synthesis and inhibits protein degradation via mechanisms involving a gene called Mammalian Target of Rapamycin or mTOR (Bolster et al., 2004; Blomstrand et al., 2006; Garlick, 2005).  In fact, most BCAA supplements are in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine: isoleucine: valine, with double the amount of leucine relative to the other two BCAAs.  Increased leucine intake has been demonstrated to increase protein synthesis rates and can even compensate for less than perfect protein intake (Paddon-Jones and Rasmussen, 2009).  

So why not just take leucine?  Research out of Baylor University demonstrated that the combination of all three branched chain amino acids, in a 2:1:1 ratio, increased protein synthesis following exercise better than leucine alone or a placebo (LaBounty et al., 2008).  This effect may be due to the additive impact that leucine, isoleucine and valine all have on protein synthesis, or due to the independent effects of isoleucine and valine have on glucose metabolism.

Interestingly, BCAA supplementation has also been proposed to decrease central fatigue, or general exhaustion during prolonged exercise (Blomstrand, 2006; Newsholme and Blomstrand, 2006).  The Central Fatigue Hypothesis predicts that during exercise, as plasma levels of tryptophan, another amino acid, increase so does the transport of tryptophan across the blood brain barrier.  Once in the brain, tryptophan is converted into serotonin, a neurotransmitter which plays a role in the onset of sleep and may contribute to central fatigue during endurance exercise.  This is generally the reason people give for the feeling of sleepiness after a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving (turkey is high in tryptophan).  

So, where do BCAAs come in?  BCAAs compete with tryptophan for transport into the brain and therefore by supplementing with BCAAs and increasing the concentration of BCAAs in your blood, the transport of tryptophan into the brain is reduced thereby reducing central fatigue.  

Why Climbers Should Supplement with BCAAs

The take home message is that supplementing with BCAAs will fuel working muscles, improve recovery, increase muscle synthesis and may help reduce feelings of fatigue on long days.  Additionally, BCAAs will be of benefit whether you primarily train indoors, boulder, or are focused on your next multi-pitch trad route.  

Is it possible to get a good dose of BCAAs by eating a good source of protein after training?  The answer is yes and no. Although protein contains BCAAs, complete proteins have to be fully digested in order to access free form amino acids and this process takes time and is not efficient.  

Because free form amino acids don’t require digestion and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream as is, they are a much quicker and more efficient way to increase BCAA concentration in the body.  Research has shown that BCAA concentration in the blood elevates within 15 minutes and peaks 30 minutes after ingestion (Matsumoto et al., 2014).  As a result, supplementing with BCAAs starting about 15 minutes before training and then following your training session up with a good source of protein is the best way to leverage this scientific knowledge for increased climbing performance and recovery.

Why Gnarly Nutrition?

(Gnarly BCAAs fitting into the traveling climber lifestyle | Photo: Savannah Cummins)

Gnarly Branched Chain Amino Acids are a clean and natural alternative to many of the artificially flavored and colored BCAA products on the market.  With 5g of vegan branched chain amino acids (most BCAAs are sourced from duck feathers) in a 2:1:1 ratio, Gnarly BCAAs deliver the free form aminos you need for recovery without a lot of excess ingredients.

A modest amount of caffeine from green tea has been included to provide an energy boost and increase endurance, but for those looking to take BCAAs at night and avoid the caffeine, Gnarly now has their Berry Lemonade flavor in both caffeinated and uncaffeinated versions. Since its infancy, Gnarly Nutrition has worked with climbers to develop products that would both support their training and help them get closer to their goals. 

About The Author:

(Photo: Lisa Boshard)

Shannon O’Grady is the Director of Product for Gnarly Nutrition.   She has  her doctorate in Biology from the University of Utah and through research in nutritional physiology and her own obsession with sports nutrition, ended up at Gnarly Nutrition.   As the Director of Product, Shannon heads up all new product development, manages product manufacturing and makes sure that everything Gnarly sells meets up with the highest quality standards. Whether it’s trail running, climbing, or jiu jitsu, She is continuously looking at the crossroads between training and nutrition for insights on improving performance, reducing injury and increasing longevity.


Blomstrand, E. (2006). A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. The Journal of nutrition, 136(2), 544S-547S.

Blomstrand, E., Eliasson, J., Karlsson, H. K., & Köhnke, R. (2006). Branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise. The Journal of nutrition, 136(1), 269S-273S.

Bolster, D. R., Vary, T. C., Kimball, S. R., & Jefferson, L. S. (2004). Leucine regulates translation initiation in rat skeletal muscle via enhanced eIF4G phosphorylation. The Journal of nutrition, 134(7), 1704-1710.

Garlick, P. J. (2005). The role of leucine in the regulation of protein metabolism. The Journal of nutrition, 135(6), 1553S-1556S.

Greer, B. K., Woodard, J. L., White, J. P., Arguello, E. M., & Haymes, E. M. (2007). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and indicators of muscle damage after endurance exercise. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 17(6), 595-607.

La Bounty, P., Campbell, B., Oetken, A., & Willoughby, D. (2008). The effects of oral BCAAs and leucine supplementation combined with an acute lower-body resistance exercise on mTOR and 4E-BP1 activation in humans: preliminary findings. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5(S1), P21.

Matsumoto, T., Nakamura, K., Matsumoto, H., Sakai, R., Kuwahara, T., Kadota, Y., … & Shimomura, Y. (2014). Bolus ingestion of individual branched-chain amino acids alters plasma amino acid profiles in young healthy men. SpringerPlus, 3(1), 35.

Newsholme, E. A., & Blomstrand, E. (2006). Branched-chain amino acids and central fatigue. The Journal of nutrition, 136(1), 274S-276S.

Paddon-Jones, D., & Rasmussen, B. B. (2009). Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia: Protein, amino acid metabolism and therapy. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 12(1), 86.

Shimomura, Y., Yamamoto, Y., Bajotto, G., Sato, J., Murakami, T., Shimomura, N., … & Mawatari, K. (2006). Nutraceutical effects of branched-chain amino acids on skeletal muscle. The Journal of nutrition, 136(2), 529S-532S.

Shimomura, Y., Inaguma, A., Watanabe, S., Yamamoto, Y., Muramatsu, Y., Bajotto, G., … & Mawatari, K. (2010). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 20(3), 236-244.

Tarnopolsky, M. (2004). Protein requirements for endurance athletes. Nutrition, 20(7), 662-668.

TrainingBeta is a site dedicated to training for rock climbing. We provide resources and information about training for routes, bouldering, finger strength, mental training, nutrition for climbers, and everything in between. We offer climbing training programs, a blog, interviews on the TrainingBeta Podcast, personal training for climbing, and nutrition for climbers.

  Click here to subscribe