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Gnarly drives success with quality, natural and tasty products

If you are going to create, produce and provide pre-, during and post-workout nutrition for athletes, an athletic background is essential.

That’s among the reasons why I was drawn to Gnarly Nutrition, which was founded by Eli Kerr and other athletes from the endurance sports community. Not only do they understand what athletes require for optimal performance, they create products that are packed with healthy ingredients, serve as jet fuel and taste good.

It’s no wonder that their workout supplements are more effective, healthier and tastier than competitors, as I wrote in an earlier product review.

I had the honor to learn about how Gnarly was created, take a deeper dive into some of its products and explore more with co-founder Eli Kerr and Shannon O’Grady, who received her doctorate in biology from the University of Utah.

How it began

Kerr, among the three co-founders, said the idea for Gnarly sprang up because there had only been two markets in the sports nutrition world.

One was the mass sports nutrition market which created delicious products but they weren't made of natural ingredients. The other option were “natural, almost hippy-ish brands, that used good quality ingredients but their products typically didn't have as much of a good taste to them. It was almost the belief that if it was natural, then it must not taste good.”

The Gnarly team set out to merge the best of both worlds into one successful brand. And they succeeded.

“We focused on creating natural quality products that actually tasted delicious and were based on a transparent and authentic brand,” Kerr explains. “We originally took it to the mountain community because we felt like the mountain community, one, appreciated those aspects that we were trying to build, but two, that was part of my contribution to the founding of the brand. I really knew and understood the mountain community, as it was my kind of playground and where I spent my years growing up and professionally. Then, also, it felt like there was a gap there. There weren’t any sports nutrition brands that were taking products like ours specifically to the outdoor mountain community.”

He defines the mountain community as all athletes who play at elevation – climbers, skiers, runners, bikers, hikers, etc.

“Those are the primary athletes who we have traditionally focused on and obviously ultra running fits right in there,” he says. “We've focused on a lot of sports that are not your average or mass kind of sports. They're the extreme sports that are on the periphery for the majority of people.”

Three keys

With the concept in mind, the brand name followed quickly.

“It started off in almost kind of a joking manner, but then started to stick as we talked about the brand and wanting the brand to be very aspirational,” Kerr says. “We really tried to focus on creating a brand that's awe-inspiring, and that athletes look up to and are impressed by.”

In 2013, Kerr conceived and helped launch the company, determined to have products that met three guidelines: high quality, natural and tasty.

“We did start building a product that we really wanted for ourselves, and to be able to provide a whole suite of products that would help in pre-, during and post-athletic endeavors,” he explains. “It's primarily focused around training right now. Most of our products we came out with initially we designed for the training phase and not so much the game day. A lot of our products traditionally have not had carbohydrates or been heavy in carbohydrates. They're not really built around specifically fueling an athlete, so a lot more around helping you with performance, and strength-building, and then recovery.”

The Gnarly team created samples for about 100 athletes to test and provide feedback. They launched some but the addition of O’Grady five years ago helped propel Gnarly forward.

“Shannon works to help us really validate more of our processes and then the products as well,” Kerr says. “She has gone about building new products in a different way than what we did originally, relying more on the science and building products around the research and her knowledge base.”

O’Grady, who did her dissertation on nutritional physiology, analyzed the product line and saw where her nutrition philosophy meshed well with Gnarly. She prioritizes whole foods first and then uses sensical nutritional products, not something with outlandish claims.

“The Gnarly products were already in a pretty good place,” she says. “There was a lot of alignment between my own personal belief system as far as nutrition for sports goes and what Gnarly had made, so I was really interested in working with the group. I did some small things, tweaked amounts of ingredients. When I started with Gnarly they used proprietary blends and I got rid of those. Just really trying to make our label claims synonymous with what we stood for in terms of authenticity and transparency, and building science-based products.”

O'Grady examines sports and athletes to determine where nutrition could be helpful, how that translates to creating a product that would be helpful and then researching what the science says.

“It's not as simple as just reading scientific articles because often dosages used in research studies aren't something that you can include in product, or the dosage used in research studies might be something you can put in a product but it might make that product unpalatable. So also thinking through how the science translates to effective use of a supplement, whether or not it makes sense in a product someone would enjoy taking.”

The protein game

Gnarly’s athletes fit a wide variety of profiles, everyone from climbers who need upper body strength to ultra runners who focus more on endurance. O’Grady understand the unique needs of a range of athletes and how that correlates to nutrition.

“General food intake fits all of those athletes,” she says. “It's just potentially the amounts, and the type, and the timing of the food. I'd say less type and more the amounts and the timing. It's kind of similar with Gnarly products in that protein plays an important role for any athlete. I think it has been undervalued in endurance sports for a long time. Protein is one of these interesting things because it's the only macronutrient that your body doesn't readily use as fuel. You can use protein and amino acids as fuel but your body only uses it as fuel when there's not enough glycogen or fat around. That's usually when you're not in a good place.”

For example, O'Grady points to protein, the building block for our bodies. Research shows that for athletes who are trying to build strength and power, that is what protein turns into. That’s hypertrophy. But for endurance athletes, where the training is more cardio-based and aerobic, protein doesn't result in hypertrophy. Instead, there is an increase in mitochondria in muscles.

“The need for protein is there for both sports,” says O’Grady, who qualified for the Boston Marathon during her first 26.2-mile race. “It might be to a somewhat lesser quantity for endurance athletes.”

She recommends 1.5 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass for all athletes. “I've had a lot of people look at me and think that that is way too high for an endurance athlete, but the muscle breakdown is the same so the recovery process is the same. What the protein is going to do, that's what is going to be different.”

From running to jiu jitsu to climbing

O'Grady has participated in numerous endurance sports, ranging from marathons and ultras to skiing to jiu jitsu, which she discovered four years ago during a Gnarly team-building exercise.

“I fell in love with it right away,” she says. “It's this interesting mix of mobility and strength and power. It's almost like playing chess with your body. Each opponent presents a new challenge and it is both empowering and humbling. It's just constantly a new challenge every time I go. I am completely obsessed.”

Kerr refers to himself as “half-soccer player, half-punk,” explaining that he played soccer through early college, while also enjoying skateboarding. He got into more mountain sports, but a climbing accident mid-way through college quelled his activity for a few years.

“As I built up and could start running, I started actually running in the mountains directly on trails because I had a love for the mountains,” he says. “One of the things that made me actually start running again was I wanted to see more and experience more in the mountains. You can see so much more when you run rather than walk and hike. I was actually really fueled by getting to the top, summiting and seeing the beauties that you see along the trail.”

For Kerr, his athletic pursuits focus more on the adventure than the speed. He enjoys trail running and prefers shorter distances, eight to 10 miles, with huge elevation gains.

“One of my main motivations in keeping up with some of these sports, is because of what it does for my relationship with my children and the experience that it creates,” he says. “I spent a portion of my professional career as a recreation therapist and I used the extreme sports or mountain sports with clients to help challenge them and help build healthy coping mechanisms. I really have a strong belief in the power of recreation and what it does for us as individuals from a health perspective. Not just our physical health, but our mental health as well.

Next for Gnarly

As Gnarly has become more established, so has the sheer number of competitors in the market. Gnarly is focused on its niche to stand out from the clutter and noise.

“One of the things we're doing is less about our products and more about our company mission,” O’Grady points out. “One of our goals as a company is to educate people on the importance that nutrition plays in performance, and in recovery, and in longevity. That has a little bit to do with our products, but less than you would think. We don't focus on ‘how you use Gnarly protein,’ it's more about the science around protein, about when to take it, and here are some whole food choices. What we're really trying to be known for, more than just the products we make, is the education we give. That's one way that we're trying to differentiate from other brands out there; less about sales and just having a more meaningful impact.”

For Kerr, he sees a correlation between the success of consumers and that of the company.

“Ultimately, we want people to succeed,” he says. “We feel like our product is one component that can help fill an area of need. Our products are of a very high quality. But rather than going and trying to sing that song, we're trying to empower people. We are focused on educating people and helping them understand how to make choices, rather than just telling them to buy our product. It's a very different strategy than supplement companies out there. Most supplement companies are focused on telling you that you have to take their product and take it a lot in order to be successful. It's just not true.”

Beyond its taste and quality ingredients, one thing that turned me on to Gnarly was its authenticity.

“People love that and appreciate that, and they love the connection to our brand, which I think also is actually the antithesis of most sports nutrition brands out there,” Kerr says. “We'll always continue to work on differentiating our products and making them unique.”

Gnarly will be expanding its product line, keeping the focus on not only mountain athletes, but all athletes.

“We definitely put an emphasis on our roots, which is mountain athletes, but we want to continue to find additional products that can support athletes in all of their needs,” Kerr says. “We're going to continue to look for ways that we can support athletes through game day as well. When we say ‘game day’ we are referring to the day when you participate in an event, so that will be more fuel-based type products.”

Speed drill: Eli Kerr

Hometown: Orem, Utah

Number of years running: 10 years of specifically running for the sake of running.

How many miles a week do you typically run: 15 to 20 miles a week, typically a short run during the week and a long one on the weekend.

Point of pride: Climbing and skiing with my children.

Favorite race distance: 50K or a long day out in the mountains of seven-plus hours

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Gnarly PRE

Favorite piece of gear: Currently, Salomon Ultra Pros

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I like to listen to books or podcasts. Some recent favorites are Brene Brown's, "Dare to Lead'' and the "Beastie Boys Book."

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Adventure! - Walter Bonatti

Where can other runners connect or follow you: • Instagram: @gnarlyczar

Speed drill: Shannon O’Grady

Hometown: Burke, Va.

Number of years running: 28

How many miles a week do you typically run: Now, only 15ish. My main focus is now jiu jitsu

Point of pride: Qualifying for Boston at my first marathon.

Favorite race distance: 50K

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Gnarly Energy Bites

Favorite piece of gear: Ultimate Direction Jenny Collection Vesta running vest

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Wolf Like Me by TV on the Radio

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Instagram: @shaogrady

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