Have you ever gone to buy multi-vitamins or probiotics and end up spending an absurd amount of time in the supplement section? On multiple occasions I’ve been sucked down the pill rabbit hole, intrigued by promises of longevity, greater cognitive functioning, and enhanced athletic performance. I often leave the rows of bottles a half-hour later without anything, not even the product I meant to find.
Some people swear by supplements. Others feel they are money-wasting empty promises.
Though confused by conflicting sentiments and research, I remain open to the ways supplements can improve the quality and lifespan of my outdoor pursuits. I know many athletes can relate, so I reached out to Shannon O’Grady for this month’s Worker’s Wo/manual.
On her interviews with The Training Beta and Power Company Climbing podcasts, Shannon comes across as a down-to-earth gal who likes to challenge herself with outdoor sports and martial arts. She has a PhD in nutritional physiology and works at Gnarly Nutrition, a small sports-nutrition company based in Utah.
Below Shannon offers her personal story alongside a condensed explanation of the role supplements can play as we explore our athletic potentials. Her interview offers a simplified approach to the often overly-complicated world of supplements; I know I can enter the supplement aisle better equipped now to find what I need and leave the rest to whole food.
Meet Shannon O'Grady, PhD
Sports Nutritionist and Well-Rounded Athlete
Kelsey: What is your occupation and why do you do it?
Shannon: I’m the Director of Product for Gnarly Nutrition. Gnarly is a fairly small company and we all wear a lot of hats, but I am primarily responsible for the development of new products, the manufacturing and quality assurance of our product line and all internal and external education.
As to the why, I’ve always been interested in how nutrition can impact health, performance and recovery and at Gnarly it’s my job to think about that for our customers and help our athletes find the nutritional strategy that works best for them - it’s a perfect fit for me and what I’m passionate about.
K: What sports do you enjoy?
S: Living in Utah, with such amazing access to the Wasatch, skiing and climbing are a big part of what I do with my family on a regular basis.
I used to say I had SADD - sports attention deficit disorder because my personal focus changed on the regular - triathlon, mountain biking, ultrarunning - but a couple of years ago I found jiu jitsu and it speaks to me like no sport ever has. I foresee jiu jitsu being a big part of the rest of my life.
K; How have your sports shaped your relationship to your career?
S: My interest in sports has shaped my career. Competing in endurance sports quickly taught me the importance of good nutrition; it can make or break you no matter what kind of shape you’re in or what your preparation may have looked like. These early experiences were the foundation for what I do at Gnarly now.
I’m constantly thinking about the crossroads between training and nutrition for insights on improving performance, reducing injury and increasing longevity. What’s even more fun now, is I get to do that for a wide range of sports, everything from endurance events to a pure power focus.
K: What role do supplements play in athletic performance?
S: Supplements are just that, supplemental. I am a firm believer in whole foods first, but often nutrition products are a convenient option when life gets in the way and there’s just not time to get what you need from whole foods. In cases like that, taking the right supplements at the right time can give your body the fuel it needs to perform and recover properly.
K: Are there any supplements no athlete should be without?
S: I am a huge believer in BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) and the impact they have on recovery for all kinds of athletes. We (Gnarly) often get a lot of flack from folks that believe that BCAAs are not necessary and that given the appropriate amount of dietary protein, they do nothing. But that is where I draw issue. Most athletes don’t consume protein in an “optimal fashion” in terms 1) quantity, 2) quality and/or 3) timing and this is where BCAAs are useful.
So yes, I agree proper protein intake should be a focus, but BCAAs can also play a substantial role in recovery and adaptation to training stimulus. I’ve heard way too many individual success stories, from both customers and athletes, not to whole-heartedly believe in their efficacy.
K: Which supplements should women in particular consider using?
S: I think women often shy away from higher levels of protein because they believe increasing dietary protein will make them “bulky,” but protein is critical for muscle synthesis and repair and it takes a lot more to bulk up than increased protein intake. Ideal intake for athletes (in terms of maximally stimulating muscle protein synthesis) looks like 20-30g of protein every 3-4 hours, irrespective of gender or size.
Women of menstruating age are also often low in iron, especially if they are vegetarians and participate in endurance sports, so I generally recommend getting iron levels checked and either consciously making an effort to include more foods rich in iron (meat, beans, dark leafy greens) in the diet or adding an iron/B12/folate supplement to your diet (taken with a good source of vitamin C to improve absorption).
K: What does beautiful mean to you?
S: Being comfortable in my own skin.
K; How have your sports and career shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?
S: Sports have always been a large part of who I am; I enjoy challenging myself and the mental clarity that comes when I exercise. Good nutrition is part of the equation because it enables me to meet those challenges and push myself regularly.
I need fuel to perform and I need fuel to recover. A positive body image has come as a byproduct of these realizations because I feel good about myself when I’m giving my body what it needs to do what I’m asking of it.
K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?
S: Figure out what sets you on fire and go for it, but also realize that, ideally, you want to be able to do that thing for the long term. Longevity requires a multi-pronged approach which includes proper nutrition, training and recovery.
Appreciate your body and what you’re asking it to do by taking the time to actively listen to what it needs. Sometimes that takes the form of better nutrition, a yoga class and/or a good night’s sleep and sometimes it means a whole week off. Either way, you’ll be better off for listening.