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Should Endurance Athletes Go Keto? Ketosis and Ketogenic Diets for Endurance Athletes
When it comes to weight loss and endurance performance, dietary ketosis is the strategy everyone is asking about this year. On the surface, ketosis or a ketogenic diet offers everything an endurance athlete could dream of: endless energy, freedom from bonking, and an efficient pathway to weight loss. The diet has been all over mainstream magazines, it’s the subject of several new books, and the supplement companies have already jumped in with new products and a ton of marketing dollars. So, is it time for cyclists, triathletes, and runners to go Keto?
First, a refresher course on what a ketogenic diet is. To achieve dietary or nutritional ketosis you need to severely restrict carbohydrate intake (fewer than 50 grams of CHO/day) so the body transitions to using ketones for fueling muscles and the brain. Ketones are produced from fat, which is why nutritional ketosis is so appealing to sedentary people as a weight loss solution. It’s appealing to athletes because we have a virtually unlimited reserve of fat calories to pull from but can only store 1600-2000 calories worth of carbohydrate in muscles, blood, and the liver. An athlete fueled by ketones would be theoretically “bonk-proof”, since bonking is the result of running low on blood glucose.
Dietary ketosis for athletes is one of the most hotly contested subjects right now. Proponents point to the metabolic advantage of relying on fat instead of carbohydrate, and critics point out the physiological limitations of eliminating carbohydrate as a fuel for performance. You’ll find bias in both groups, either because scientists and coaches (including me) have been in the high-carbohydrate camp for many years, or because there’s a lot of money to be made by creating a market for new media and supplements around a new high-fat dietary strategy. I recognize my historical bias toward carbohydrate, but have tried to look at the science objectively. Here’s the short conclusion I’ve come to:
Exogenous ketones may have promise as an additional fuel source for endurance athletes, but dietary ketosis has limitations that make it difficult to recommend to most athletes. Athletes are better served by periodizing carbohydrate availability in order to maximize training quality and performance outcomes.
And here’s how I arrived at that statement:
Ketosis doesn’t IMPROVE endurance performance
If you do everything right, you may be able to achieve similar performance levels during steady state endurance exercise following a high-carb (50-65%CHO) diet or a high-fat, low-carb (HFLC) diet (70-80% Fat,
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I completely disagree. I am an indoor cycling instructor and avid half marathon runner who has seen my level of performance/speed/endurance increase substantially on my 6 months of modified keto diet. I am currently training for a 200 mile bike race in August, and my only concern is what types of food I can carry that are keto friendly that will sustain me.
‘As soon as you see “keto-cookies”, it’s over. ‘
Today was the day – I saw the keto-cookies.
Many articles such as this are well informed but also seem to bash ketosis because it is not perfect. But for every point made about the problems of ketosis, using the same attitude can be said about the problems of eating a high carb diet.
There is no greater glut of products out there than high carb junk.
Ketosis can be targeted and definitely a banana or a carb meal can be used around training time
Ketosis does not have to be 24 hrs a day in order to reap the benefits. It is training the body to run on fat most of the time and have better access to the fat we all carry.
Once an adaptive phase is complete, it is absolutely reasonable to train other systems as well.
If we took the same attitude with high carb diets, in particular the negative side effects of food, health in
the general population , likely that article would have to be longer
Keto Ultra Diet That state of mind is the fast track to weight pick up. On the off chance that you will likely effectively get in shape what would you be able to do? Here are 5 basic advances when nothing appears to work.
I rewrote your article from my perspective…
Why Every Endurance Athlete Should Go Keto
When it comes to weight loss and endurance performance, dietary ketosis is the strategy everyone is asking about this year. On the surface, ketosis or a ketogenic diet offers everything an endurance athlete could dream of: endless energy, freedom from bonking, and an efficient pathway to weight loss. The diet has been all over mainstream magazines, it’s the subject of several new books. So, is it time for cyclists, triathletes, and runners to go Keto?
First, a refresher course on what a ketogenic diet is. It is a diet where your body produces ketones. The actual number of carbohydrates depends on the person. Some people make ketones with 200 grams of carbohydrates per day, some are required to limit their carbohydrates to less than 20 grams per day. Your fasting insulin and glucagon levels determine the point where the body makes ketones.
It’s appealing to athletes because we have a virtually unlimited reserve of fat calories to pull from but can only store 1600-2000 calories worth of carbohydrate in muscles, blood, and the liver. An athlete fueled by ketones would be theoretically “bonk-proof”, since bonking is the result of running low on blood glucose.
Dietary ketosis for athletes is one of the most hotly contested subjects right now. Proponents point to the metabolic advantage of relying on fat instead of carbohydrate, and critics point out the physiological limitations of eliminating carbohydrate as a fuel for performance. You’ll find bias in both groups, either because scientists and coaches have been in the high-carbohydrate camp for many years. I followed the high-carbohydrate recommendations when I started endurance sports. It nearly ruined my health. May are still on the high-carbohydrate bandwagon, mostly because there’s a lot of money to be made by supplements companies that would lose quite a bit of money if cheap carbohydrates were not used so extensively in endurance sports.
Here’s what I have learned:
The body’s ability to make and use ketones is a decided advantage for the health and performance of any athlete. Athletes are best served by training the body to use fat as its primary source of fuel and to add in carbohydrates only as a supplement to boost performance.
Athletes are better served by prioritizing insulin sensitivity in order to maximize fat oxidation rates to improve health and performance outcomes.
And here’s why….
Increased Fat Oxidation Rates IMPROVE endurance performance.
The study Ken Hetleid highlights the benefits of increase fat oxidation. The study highlights the performance differences between high performing and recreationally trained athletes. The differentiator is their rate of fat oxidation rates. In order for the body to perform well at oxidizing fats it needs to be efficient at burning fat as a primary fuel source. Despite similar rates of perceived exertion (RPE), blood lactate and carbohydrate oxidation rates, the better performance by the well trained group was explained by their nearly threefold higher rates of fat oxidation at high intensity.
What is Ketosis?
What is ketosis anyway? In human beings and most other mammals, acetyl-CoA formed in the liver during oxidation of fatty acids may enter the citric acid cycle or it may be converted to the “ketone bodies” acetoacetate, D-β-hydroxybutyrate, and acetone for export to other tissues. Acetone, produced in smaller quantities than the other ketone bodies, is exhaled. Acetoacetate and D-β-hydroxybutyrate are transported by the blood to the extrahepatic tissues, where they are oxidized via the citric acid cycle to provide much of the energy required by tissues such as skeletal and heart muscle and the renal cortex. The brain uses acetoacetate or D-β-hydroxybutyrate.
It is a pretty handy process. Even the very leanest athlete has about 20 times the amount of energy stored in the form of fat than it does as a glucose dependant athlete. The most efficient athletes can store 2,000 calories of glycogen that needs to replenished frequently, especially if they are not well adapted at tapping into their fat stores.
The process of using ketones seems great, why do we use the carbs? One reason carbohydrates are emphasised is that there is a process of adaptation to using fat as the primary source of fuel. During this process, a typical athlete’s performance will suffer for 4-12 weeks before it comes back to baseline performance. Most endurance athletes are addicted to carbohydrates and the idea of giving them up seems terrifying.
Another reason for the resistance is the idea that carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for high intensity exercise. But is that true? In the findings in the above mentioned study show that we don’t actually stop burning fat once we hit lactate threshold. Their bodies produce lactate at certain thresholds.The higher lactic acid induced production of CO2 [through HCO3- buffering] has a large influence on the calculation of carbohydrate and fat oxidation. It creates an overestimation of the carb burning amount and an underestimation of the fat burning. The estimation of fat use with these equations goes so low in fact that it often becomes zero, and then negative. Of course you can’t have a negative negative for fat oxidation, so scientists typically misrepresent present their data because they don’t understand the limitations of the test.
Ketosis prevents gastric distress
Athletes in ketosis can perform well at a steady endurance pace, and can do so for many hours while consuming far fewer calories than carbohydrate-dependent competitors. As a result, ketosis may be a good solution for athletes who consistently struggle with gastric distress during ultra-distance events. During exercise lasting 9-24+ hours, changes in blood volume, heat stress, and hydration status can slow or halt gut motility. This is a problem when you are consuming large amounts of energy and fluid because food that stays in the gut too long creates the gas, bloating, and nausea that make athletes drop out of races. In fact, GI problems are the leading cause of DNFs in ultramaraton events, so the prevention of gastric distress could potentially make dietary ketosis a reasonable solution for some ultra-distance athletes. This is a key benefit of keto-adaptation. Ultra-endurance athletes are able to compete at a higher rate without shutting down their stomachs is a key benefit of keto-adaptation.
Ketosis is not disruptive to training
If you have trained your body to use fat as its go-to fuel for muscles and the brain the absence of carbohydrates is not a problem. This is evolutionary biology. Sugar from plants was not readily available for most of our ancestors for millennium. You don’t see cave paintings of farmers.
If you spend a couple of months during the off season to adapt to using fat as your primary source of fuel you can add in carbohydrates during training and racing occasionally and remain keto-adapted. The key is to keep glycogen stores partially empty. Doing a weekly fasted workout, warming-up fasted and reverting to a ketogenic diet after workouts. This will ensure that your body will continue to produce ketones. During this period, your performance will continue to improve, your health and lifestyle with increase, and your power outputs will continue to rise. Since ketones are a clean burning fuel you will generate less reactive oxygen species. Your recovery will be dramatically improved.
Once you are adapted to fueling yourself primarily on ketones for day-to-day living, you will find out how easy it is to to maintain a high level of fat oxidation and ketone production.
Weight loss from dietary ketosis is primarily from fat and lean mass is preserved
Exercise studies of athletes who have adapted to ketosis show they burn more fat at a given exercise intensity than when they were carbohydrate-fueled, but not that they can produce more work (go faster) (Zajac, 2014). When athletes get faster after adapting to ketosis, or even after a period of ketosis followed by a return to an “all fuels” strategy, improved fat oxidation and weight loss is often the biggest contributing factor to the increase in speed. Even though dietary changes are necessary to maintain keto-adaptation most athletes find the improved performance worth the adjustment.
From a performance standpoint weight loss increases VO2 max (milliliters/kilogram/minute), improves power-to-weight ratio, and lowers the energy cost of locomotion. Typically, athletes who increase their fat oxidation will also see increases in VO2 max. Power typically improves as well. This is a nice combination if you want to go faster and be more economical.
Compliance is not a major barrier to sustaining ketosis
As discussed earlier, using carbohydrates strategically ensures an athlete stays in dietary ketosis. Depending on the period of training the athlete is in it is easy to manage a low carbohydrate/ketogenic diet while training. From a health perspective, studies show that decreased triglycerides, increased insulin sensitivity and reduced symptoms of Type II diabetes, lower blood pressure, slower growth in cancerous tumors, improved cognitive function, and are some of the many benefits of becoming keto-adapted.
Dietary ketosis does not require a complete abstinence from carbohydrates. It is a matter of figuring out your personal limits. Learning how to train to deplete your glycogen stores will help ensure that you are never kicked out of ketosis. The way an athlete trains to maintain ketones ensures that they will not destroy their program is they indulge in a slice of their kid’s birthday cake, a beer at the ballgame, or a banana in an aid station. Learning how your body responds is the way to maintain the health and performance benefits of keto-adaptation. For the vast majority of athletes and sedentary people, the good results of being keto-adaptation is worth the effort.
Ketosis is a Competitive Advantage
Athletes who have taking the time to become keto-adapted have seen huge increases in their fat oxidation rates. This has led to stellar performances in ultra-runners like Zach Bitter, Cyclist like Roman Bardet, and triathletes like Terenzo Bozzone have seen stellar performances by increasing their fat oxidation rates.
Exogenous Ketone Supplementation
One of the best benefits of being keto-adapted is the lack of external fuel sources. A typical keto-adapted athlete consumes less fuel of all forms during training, including water. Some athletes choose to use exogenous ketones. Although this might have some benefit in the form of providing extra electrolytes to the athlete, exogenous ketones are 100% not necessary.
Manipulating Carbohydrate Availability
Matching carbohydrate availability to training goals is a strategy that has been used successfully by amateur and professional athletes for a long time. There are various protocols for it but the basic idea is to follow Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) heart rate protocols until well keto-adapted. During endurance or general fitness training, exercising with low carbohydrate availability can enhance weight loss and improve the body’s ability to metabolize fat for energy.
CEO/Head Coach of KetoEndurance