Keto for athletes – an introduction
Keto is one of the most popular diets around. For fast, relatively easy weight loss, it’s tough to beat. Contrary to what a lot of people think, keto is not a new diet. In fact, it’s been around for well over a century. It was originally designed for treating epilepsy in kids.
Fast forward to the 1970s and keto experienced a resurgence in popularity, all thanks to Dr. Robert Atkins and his now-famous Atkins Diet.
Today, keto is more popular and ever, and a lot of people use this diet to help them lose weight and keep it off.
But is the keto diet suitable for athletes, even those who don’t need to lose weight? Let’s investigate!
The ketogenic diet, or keto for short, is a very low carb, moderate protein, high-fat diet. When you cut carbs from your diet, your body has to use fat for fuel. However, your body can’t use fat for all of its metabolic processes.
This forces your body to convert fat into a type of fuel it can use – ketones. Ketones are used in place of carbs and glucose for energy. Once your body starts using ketones for fuel, you are said to be in ketosis.
In straightforward terms, keto encourages your body to preferentially burn fat for fuel. By cutting carbs from your diet, you eliminate any possible competition for fuel. If you eat carbs, your body wants to use those carbs for energy, limiting fat utilization. But, with no carbohydrate available, fat becomes your primary source of fuel.
Getting into ketosis can take anywhere between a few days to a couple of weeks. It all depends on how much carbohydrate you have stored in your muscles and liver, how active you are, and how strictly you follow the ketogenic diet. Ideally, your carb intake should be 50 grams or less per day.
Getting into ketosis can be accompanied by several side effects and symptoms. Ketogenic dieters often call this “keto flu.” Keto flu is not a real disease, and it’s definitely not contagious. Still, it may mean you don’t feel 100% until your body makes the shift to using ketones for energy.
The main symptoms of keto flu are:
- Muscle cramps
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Brain fog
The good news is that the symptoms of keto flu are usually mild, only last a few days, and can often be avoided by using supplements such as exogenous ketones and medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs for short. Once the symptoms of keto flu have passed, you will quickly bounce back and feel great.
Exercising in ketosis
Right now, as you sit and read this article, your body is mainly using fat for energy. Fat is your body’s preferred source of fuel during low-intensity activities and easy exercise. In contrast, when you start to increase the intensity level, your body gradually transitions to using less fat and more carbs for energy. In very high-intensity workouts, such as interval training, your body predominately uses carbs for energy.
Unfortunately, your body can only store a finite amount of carbohydrate in your liver and muscles – a substance called glycogen. Glycogen is glucose bound to water. It’s a big, bulky molecule, so your body simply doesn’t have room to accommodate a lot of it.
Because of this, when you are carb-dependent, you need to eat a lot of carbs on a regular basis. That’s why many athletes follow a very high carb diet. Some may even top up their carb intake with things like sports drinks and energy gels during training and competition.
Despite this, some still run out of energy and experience big dips in performance. Cyclists call this bonking, while runners talk about hitting the wall. Despite wanting to continue, your limbs feel heavy, your heart starts to race, and your speed will drop. And it’s not just competitive athletes who experience these problems; recreational exercisers do too.
On keto, your body uses ketones and fat for energy. Ketones can be manufactured from dietary fats as well as stored body fat. Even the leanest athlete has several pounds of fat on their body, so there is very little chance that you’ll run out of energy during a keto-fueled workout or competition.
In short, carb-fueled athletes need to keep topping up their carb levels to keep their muscles continually supplied with glucose. In contrast, keto athletes have an abundance of energy “on tap.” They are much less likely to experience performance peaks and troughs because they’ll never run out of fat and, therefore, never run out of ketones either.
Exercise performance on keto
Some athletes experience a drop in performance during the initial stages of keto. This is to be expected. Making the transition from carb-fueled machine to keto burner takes time. This is especially true if, like a lot of athletes, you are a high-carb junkie and have been force-feeding your body carbs for many years. Genetics also plays a part; some people adapt quicker and more easily to the ketogenic diet than others.
That said, once you have made the transition to using ketones for fuel, you should find that your exercise performance not only returns to normal but surpasses your previous best. Your performance will also be less affected by what you eat before your workout. You may even find that you can work out both hard and long on an empty stomach because your body is better able to break down body fat to make ketones on demand.
Keto is also a very effective weight loss diet, usually leading to accelerated fat loss. Losing fat can have a significant impact on performance. With less “dead weight” to carry around, your muscles, heart, and lungs won’t have to work as hard. This means you’ll be able to go further and faster, using less energy.
Because of the potential for a short-term dip in performance when first adopting a keto diet, athletes should only start this diet during the off-season. Preferably during a phase of low-intensity training. That way, any drop off in performance won’t be too problematic. Do not try keto shortly before competition or during a period of intense training.
Keto and inflammation – more good news!
A lot of athletes rely very heavily on sugar for energy. Sports drinks, energy bars, and energy gels are all loaded with sugar. While sugar is a fast-acting source of energy, too much is not good for your health. As well as being bad for your teeth, a high-sugar diet can trigger inflammation throughout your body, including your muscles and joints.
Intense workouts cause more than enough inflammation in your body; you don’t need your diet to make things worse. Inflammation usually leads to pain. Keto is free from inflammation-triggering sugar and also high in anti-inflammatory healthy fats. Less inflammation means fewer aches and pains – something every hard-training athlete will appreciate.
Summary and conclusion
A lot of athletes and exercisers believe that to perform at their best, they need to eat lots of carbs. While high carbs diet can work, they are not your only choice. The keto can work too – and not just for weight loss.
If you are fed up with fluctuating energy levels, having to time your workouts around you’re your meals, or force-feeding yourself sugar and refined carbs, why not take the keto diet for a spin?
Yes, your performance may take a hit initially but, after your body becomes accustomed to using ketones for energy, you’ll soon bounce back. You’ll be rewarded with higher, more sustainable levels of energy than ever before.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to know more about being an athlete on keto, or maybe you’re having a hard time figuring out a good meal plan to start out with then you should check out my brand new book “Keto Strong – A Beginners Guide to High Performance Keto” on exclusively on Amazon. Inside I discuss the history and the basics of the Ketogenic diet, as well as what it might mean for you as an athlete. I also include a 30 day meal plan and a full 90 recipes to help get you started on your keto journey!