As an athlete, you’re always looking for ways to improve your performance. You train hard and do everything you can to make sure you’re performing at your peak and outpace your competition. But what if there was something else you could do to take your performance to the next level?
The Keto diet for athletes has been touted as a way to improve athletic performance, increase endurance, and aid weight loss. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?
In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of the ketogenic diet, its potential benefits for athletes, potential drawbacks, and what athletes need to know to make the most of it.
What is a Ketogenic Diet and How Does it Work?
A ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. Specifically, it calls for a macronutrient breakdown of 55-60% fat, 30-35% protein, and a mere 5-10% carbohydrates, with a daily carbohydrate limit of 20-50g in a 2000 kcal diet plan.
The general idea is to restrict carbohydrates and increase healthy fat intake. This forces the body to use fat for energy instead of carbs, which leads to the production of ketones in the body. Ketones are molecules that are produced when fat is broken down for energy and can be used as fuel for the body. This can lead to weight loss, improved fat burning, and improved athletic performance.
Athletic Performance and Keto Diet
As an athlete you’re always looking for ways to crush your personal bests. The Keto diet for athletes has been shown to have potential benefits, including improved blood sugar levels and improved recovery as it reduces oxidative stress. Additionally, the ketogenic diet can help to you lose weight.
The findings of a 2019 research indicate that endurance-trained athletes who underwent a 3-4-week adaptation to a ketogenic diet were able to maintain their moderate and vigorous endurance exercise capabilities. During the study, the results indicated that at intensities greater than 70% of their maximum oxygen consumption, there was increased fat oxidation, however, this was coupled with a decline in efficiency (increased oxygen consumption) and a heightened sense of exertion and heart rate for some participants.
It’s important to note, however, that the ketogenic diet is not a magic bullet. While it can have potential benefits, it’s important to the Keto diet may not be as effective for high-intensity exercise, such as sprinting or weight lifting. This is because you may feel fatigued for the first 3-4 days of starting Keto as the body undergoes adaptation of using fat as energy source. The Keto diet may also lead to decreased muscle glycogen stores and potential nutrient deficiencies. Make sure that you’re eating enough healthy fats and electrolytes. Additionally, it can be difficult to adhere to the diet long-term, and it can be hard on the body.
Benefits of a Keto Diet for Athletes
The ketogenic diet can provide several benefits for athletes, all of which can help you perform at your best both in the gym and on the field. They include:
Keto May Prevent Exercise-induced Fatigue and Muscle and Organ Damage
While ketogenic diets may enhance exercise capacity, they may also promote muscle health through their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties, which can help to reduce exercise-induced fatigue and tissue damage. This is supported by research studies conducted in 2009, 2018, and 2015.
You’ll have Enhanced Fat-burning
When following high-fat diets like Keto, the body becomes more efficient at using fat as fuel, which can be especially beneficial for endurance athletes.
A research conducted in 2018 revealed that adopting a ketogenic diet combined with exercise training led to an enhancement in the body’s ability to burn fat during physical activity in comparison to a high-carbohydrate control group.
Another study from the following year, particularly in male subjects, found that the ketogenic diet resulted in an elevated use of fat as a fuel source, particularly at moderate to high intensities of exercise as measured by VO2 max.
Keto May Improve Endurance But Some Studies Don’t Agree
Ketones are a more efficient fuel source than carbohydrates, meaning you can go longer and harder before tiring out. Keto also reduces oxidative stress, thus you’re able to workout for long without being fatigued.
A 2014 study on ultra-endurance runners who were adapted to a ketogenic diet, revealed that this adaptation resulted in a marked enhancement in peak fat-burning capacity (2.3 times higher than non-adapted athletes). This outcome has been credited to an augmented ability to oxidize fats.
In 2016, a further examination across 5 separate studies comprising 39 elite athletes, it was demonstrated that a ketogenic diet improves endurance performance by modifying the competition for fuel sources in the oxidative respiration process.
In 2019, a team of researchers studied the effects of a ketogenic diet on elite racewalkers by measuring their levels of the myokine, IL-6, after completing a standardized 19-25km race walk. They found that those who followed a low-carbohydrate high-fat diet had significantly higher levels of IL-6, indicating a potential improvement in endurance performance. However, the researchers also noted that higher levels of circulating IL-6 can also be harmful as it is an inflammatory cytokine and may produce negative side effects.
A 2018 study on mice over 8 weeks, demonstrated that a ketogenic diet that was low in carbohydrates and high in fats resulted in improved running endurance without worsening muscle injury. Analysis of blood biochemistry and correlations revealed that the likely mechanism behind this improvement is an increase in the ability to process and utilize fats through Keto-adaptation.
On the contrary, a 2017 pilot study conducted in New Zealand reached a different conclusion, it found that endurance athletes who adopted a ketogenic diet experienced improvements in body composition and overall well-being, yet failed to see any enhancement in endurance performance
You’ll have improved Blood sugar control
A low carbohydrate diet such as Keto can help to stabilize blood sugar levels, which can be beneficial for athletes who need to maintain stable energy levels during training and competition.
A research in 2017 demonstrated that individuals who adopted a ketogenic regimen observed a considerable decline in their insulin and oral medication intake, along with a decrease in their hemoglobin A1c levels, despite high adherence to the intervention for a period of 12 months.
Another research from 2013 observed that, when compared to a traditional low-fat diet, individuals who followed a strict very low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet (VLCKD) achieved greater weight loss outcomes in the long term. Thus, a VLCKD may be a viable option for overweight or obese patients who may be at risk of developing blood sugar imbalances.
You’ll have Improved Recovery
Some research suggests that the Keto diet may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can lead to faster recovery after exercise.
A case study conducted in 2017 evaluated the effects of a 10-week ketogenic dietary intervention on endurance athletes from New Zealand. The results showed that each participant reported a sense of overall well-being, which included improved recovery time, better skin health, and less inflammation. The study depicted a positive outcome of the ketogenic diet among endurance athletes.
You’ll have Improved Weight loss
A high-fat diet like Keto may help athletes to better control their body weight, as it can lead to reduced appetite and an increased feeling of fullness.
In 2018, researchers conducted a study involving 20 male endurance athletes who normally followed a carb-based diet. These athletes voluntarily divided themselves into two groups: one group consumed a high-carbohydrate diet, while the other group consumed a low-carbohydrate, high-fat ketogenic diet.
After 12 weeks of adapting to the ketogenic diet and undergoing exercise training, the group consuming the ketogenic diet experienced a noteworthy decrease in both their overall weight and the percentage of body fat.
How the Keto Diet Can Help Endurance Athletes
Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners and cyclists, often rely on carbohydrates to fuel their workouts and competitions. The ketogenic diet can be difficult to follow for these types of athletes, as they need to make sure they are getting enough carbs to fuel their performance.
The Keto diet helps to train the body to use fat as its primary fuel source, which can be especially helpful during endurance exercise when carbohydrate stores are depleted. By switching to fat as its primary fuel source, the body may be able to sustain endurance exercise for longer periods without experiencing fatigue.
Also Keto diet helps spare muscle mass. When carbohydrate intake is low, the body will typically turn to stored fat as its primary source of fuel. However, when the body begins to break down fat at a rapid rate, it also produces ketones, which can be used by the brain and other tissues as an energy source in place of glucose. This can help to spare muscle glycogen stores which can be beneficial for athletes or individuals who are trying to maintain muscle mass while losing weight or in a state of starvation.
Ketones can also act as a regulator for amino acid metabolism which can help to spare muscle mass. When glucose is low, the body shifts to the use of ketones as a fuel source which decreases the release of insulin, and allowing a better use of amino acids by muscle tissue. This effect will help to spare muscle mass.
Also, ketones require less oxygen to convert into energy than carbs do and can keep blood sugar levels more stable during workouts.
Additionally, a Keto diet can help reduce inflammation in the muscles and also help with recovery after long workouts, since it’s low in sugar and high in healthy fats that can reduce muscle soreness. Lastly, the diet could even boost performance by decreasing lactic acid buildup in muscles during exercise.
So if you’re an endurance athlete looking for an edge, you might want to consider exploring the benefits of the Keto diet!
Additionally, the Keto diet can be hard on the body and can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and other side effects.
Endurance athletes can follow a ketogenic diet, but it is important to remember that it is not a magic bullet. It is important to make sure that you are getting enough carbs and electrolytes to fuel your performance, as well as to make sure that you are not pushing your body too hard.
Potential Drawbacks of a Keto Diet for Athletes
While there are many potential benefits of the Keto diet, there are also some potential drawbacks.
You May Experience Nutrient Deficiencies in a Low Carb Diet
A common concern for those starting a low-carbohydrate diet is the potential for nutrient deficiencies, including a lack of fiber and certain vitamins and minerals. A 2019 research found that during a ketogenic diet, individuals often consumed less than the recommended amounts of essential nutrients such as magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and potassium.
This highlights the possibility that low-carbohydrate diets may result in inadequacies in essential nutrients.
It can be difficult to maintain the diet
It requires strict adherence to the diet and can be difficult to follow in the long term. You may find that when you return to eating carbs again, you may gain even more weight than the one you lost when on Keto.
You May Experience A Decrease In Exercise Economy
Exercise economy is a measure of the body’s ability to perform work at a given intensity with minimal oxygen consumption. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source during high-intensity exercise, so when they are not available in sufficient quantities, the body may need to work harder to produce energy, which can lead to an increase in oxygen consumption (decreased economy).
A research conducted in 2019 explored the effects of a ketogenic diet on athletes, and the results showed that endurance athletes who were trained on this type of diet and perform at an intensity greater than 70% of their VO2 max, experienced a decline in their exercise economy. This decrease in exercise economy could potentially offset performance in actual competition scenarios
You May Experience Decreased muscle glycogen stores on Keto
The Keto diet may lead to decreased muscle glycogen stores, which can be problematic for athletes who rely on glycogen for energy during exercise performance.
A recent study from 2021 discovered that the process of adapting to a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet may negatively impact the muscle’s ability to utilize glycogen for oxidative processes. This could mean that the muscle is not able to access a more efficient energy source when the oxygen supply is limited, which may impede the performance of high-intensity exercise, typically above 80% of the maximum aerobic capacity
What To Eat On a Keto Diet For Athletes
Athletes following a Keto diet should focus on consuming foods that are high in healthy fats, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates. Here is a list of foods that athletes may consider incorporating into their Keto diet:
Fatty cuts of meat: beef, pork, lamb, etc.
Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck, etc.
Fish and seafood: salmon, trout, shrimp, etc.
Eggs: whole eggs, egg whites, etc.
Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, etc.
Avocado: a great source of healthy monounsaturated fats.
Coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil: healthy sources of fat for cooking and seasoning.
Low-carb vegetables: broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, etc.
Full-fat dairy products: cheese, heavy cream, etc.
Dark chocolate: a small amount can be enjoyed as a treat on occasion
What To Avoid Eating On Keto Diet For Athletes
On a Keto diet, it is important for athletes to avoid certain types of foods that are high in carbohydrates. These types of foods can cause an increase in blood sugar levels, which can lead to decreased energy and performance. Some examples of foods that athletes should avoid on a Keto diet include:
Grains – Grains such as rice, wheat, and oats are high in carbohydrates and should be avoided on a ketogenic diet. These foods can quickly raise blood sugar levels and increase insulin production, which can impede ketosis.
High-sugar fruits – Fruits such as bananas, mangoes, and grapes are high in natural sugars and should be avoided on a ketogenic diet. These fruits can cause a spike in blood sugar levels and interfere with the body’s ability to enter and maintain ketosis.
Legumes – Legumes such as beans, lentils, and peanuts are high in carbohydrates and should be avoided on a ketogenic diet. These foods can quickly raise blood sugar levels and interfere with ketosis.
Starchy vegetables – Vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn are high in carbohydrates and should be avoided on a ketogenic diet. These vegetables can quickly raise blood sugar levels and interfere with ketosis
Processed snacks – Foods such as chips, crackers, and snack bars are often high in carbohydrates and should be avoided on a ketogenic diet. These snacks can quickly raise blood sugar levels and interfere with ketosis.
Alcohol – Alcohol is high in empty calories and can interfere with ketosis. It is best to avoid or limit alcohol consumption on a ketogenic diet.
Common Mistakes Athletes Make When Following a Keto Diet
When following a Keto diet, it is easy to make mistakes that can hinder your performance or cause health issues. Here are some of the most common mistakes athletes make when following a ketogenic diet:
Not considering individual needs
Every athlete is different and has unique nutritional needs. It is important for athletes to consider their individual needs and adjust their ketogenic diet accordingly to ensure they are properly fueling their bodies for their specific sport and training demands.
Not eating enough healthy fats
It is important to consume enough healthy fats on a Keto diet. The high fat diet helps to provide energy and support the body’s ability to enter and maintain ketosis.
Consuming too much protein
While protein is important for muscle building and repair, consuming too much can interfere with ketosis. It is important to find the right balance of protein on a ketogenic diet.
Not properly calculating carbohydrate intake
It is important to accurately track and limit carbohydrate intake on a Keto diet to ensure the body enters and stays in ketosis.
Not getting enough electrolytes
A Keto diet can lead to a decrease in electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, which are important for athletic performance. It is important for athletes to monitor their electrolyte intake and consider adding supplements or increasing their intake of electrolyte-rich foods.
Not properly fueling before and after workouts
A ketogenic diet can sometimes result in lower glycogen levels, which can impact athletic performance. It is important for athletes to properly fuel before and after workouts with carbohydrates or supplements to ensure they have enough energy for their training sessions.
Not properly monitoring ketone levels
It is important for athletes following a ketogenic diet to monitor their ketone levels to ensure they are in a state of ketosis. If ketone levels are too low, it may be necessary to adjust the diet or increase carbohydrate intake.
Not properly planning meals
Failing to plan meals and snacks can lead to poor food choices and difficulty sticking to a ketogenic diet. It is important to plan ahead and have Keto-friendly options available.
Not staying hydrated
Dehydration can be a common issue on a ketogenic diet, as the body loses fluids through increased urine production. It is important to make sure to drink enough water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Not getting enough sleep
Adequate sleep is essential for overall health and performance. Make sure to prioritize getting enough sleep each night to support Keto diet goals.
It is important to make sure that you are not pushing your body too hard when following a ketogenic diet. Make sure to listen to your body and take breaks when needed.
Incorporating exercise to boost Keto diet goals
Exercise can be an effective way to boost Keto diet goals by increasing the body’s demand for energy and helping to accelerate the process of ketosis. Some specific ways to incorporate exercise into a ketogenic diet include:
Cardio – Cardio activities, such as running, cycling, or swimming, can help increase the body’s energy expenditure and support weight loss on a ketogenic diet
Flexibility and mobility work – Incorporating flexibility and mobility work into a workout routine can help improve range of motion and prevent injuries, making it easier to stick with a consistent exercise program.
Resistance training – Resistance training, such as weight lifting or bodyweight exercises, can help build muscle mass and increase the body’s demand for energy. This can help support ketosis and improve overall body composition.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) – HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of rest. This type of exercise can be particularly effective at burning fat and increasing ketone production.
Essential Supplements To Take On Keto Diet For Athletes
While the Keto diet is effective, it can be difficult to stick to, and some athletes find that they need a bit of help to get the most out of it. That’s where Keto supplements come in.
Keto supplements are designed to help you get the most out of the ketogenic diet, by providing your body with the essential nutrients it needs. There are several different types of Keto supplements available, and each one has its benefits.
Beta-Hydroxybutyrate (BHB) is a ketone body that can be taken as a supplement to provide an immediate source of energy for the body. It may help to decrease muscle damage and improve endurance exercise performance, by providing an alternative energy source to carbohydrates.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of fat that is quickly metabolized by the body and can provide an immediate source of energy. MCT oil is a supplement that contains a concentrated form of MCTs and can be added to drinks or foods to increase fat intake and support ketosis, which can be an extra energy source.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of three essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) and they help to reduce fatigue, allowing you to work out for longer. They can also help to reduce muscle soreness, allowing you to recover more quickly after intense workouts.
They can be taken as a supplement to ensure adequate intake.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health and may also, be beneficial for muscle function. It can be difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of vitamin D through food alone, especially during the winter months when sunlight is limited. A vitamin D supplement may be beneficial for athletes following a ketogenic diet.
Sodium, Potassium, and Magnesium
These three minerals are essential for hydration, and since low-carb diets tend to lower electrolyte levels, especially sodium, supplementing with electrolytes can help in avoiding muscle cramps and fatigue, by ensuring a good balance in electrolyte levels.
Fish oil is another essential supplement for athletes on the ketogenic diet. It helps to reduce inflammation, allowing you to recover more quickly. It can also help to reduce muscle soreness, allowing you to get back to training sooner.
Creatine is an amino acid that is stored in muscle and used to produce energy. It is one of the most popular performance-enhancing supplements for athletes on the Keto diet. It helps to increase strength and power, which can be beneficial for athletes who need to perform explosive movements. It can also help to increase energy levels, allowing you to train for longer.
Beta-alanine is another popular supplement for athletes on the ketogenic diet. It helps to reduce muscle fatigue, as it acts as a buffer against lactic acid buildup. Additionally, it may have other benefits such as improving muscle recovery and increasing lean muscle mass, endurance, and power output.
Glutamine is an amino acid that plays a role in maintaining the health of the immune system and the gut. It also supports muscle metabolism and recovery and may aid in reducing muscle soreness and fatigue.
It has been suggested that glutamine supplementation may help to improve exercise performance and recovery, as well as support muscle growth, but research is still inconclusive, and more studies are needed to confirm its efficacy in this area.
Carnitine is an amino acid derivative that plays a role in the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria, where they can be used as fuel. Supplementation with carnitine may help to increase the utilization of fat as an energy source and may also help to improve exercise performance.
Choosing the Right Keto Supplements for You
Finding the right supplements on the Keto diet for athletes can help to maximize the performance-enhancing benefits of the ketogenic diet. Make sure to read the label carefully, and only take supplements that are approved by the FDA. It’s also important to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements, to make sure they’re safe for you.
What should I ask myself before starting a ketogenic diet?
- Have you consulted with a healthcare professional or certified nutritionist before starting a ketogenic diet?
It is important to speak with a healthcare professional or nutritionist before starting a ketogenic diet to ensure it is appropriate and safe for your individual needs and health status.
- Do you have a clear understanding of how a ketogenic diet works and the importance of proper macronutrient balance?
A ketogenic diet requires a significant shift in the way the body uses energy and it is important to have a clear understanding of how the diet works and the role of fat, protein, and carbohydrates in maintaining ketosis.
- Are you willing to commit to accurately tracking and monitoring your intake of carbohydrates, fat, and protein?
Proper tracking and monitoring of macros is essential for maintaining ketosis on a ketogenic diet. It is important to be willing to commit to this process in order to achieve optimal results
- Do you have a plan for incorporating exercise into your routine while on a ketogenic diet?
Exercise can be an effective way to boost Keto diet goals, but it is important to have a plan in place to ensure that workouts are consistent and effective.
- Are you prepared to make necessary adjustments to your diet if needed?
It is important to be open to making necessary adjustments to your ketogenic diet in order to ensure optimal results and to identify any potential issues that may arise.
My Best 5 Easy To Make and Keto-friendly Snacks for You
1 cup of unsweetened almond milk
1 scoop of vanilla or chocolate Keto-friendly protein powder
1/4 cup of spinach or kale
1/4 cup of frozen berries
1 tsp of Keto-friendly sweetener (optional)
Blend all ingredients until smooth and enjoy immediately.
Keto Yogurt Parfait
1 cup of Greek yogurt
1/4 cup of chopped nuts (your choice)
1/4 cup of berries (your choice)
1 tsp of Keto-friendly sweetener (optional)
Mix the yogurt, Keto-friendly sweetener, and berries in a bowl. Layer the yogurt mixture and the chopped nuts in a cup or jar. Enjoy cold.
Keto Cheese Crackers
2 cups of shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup of almond flour
1/4 cup of flaxseed meal
1/4 tsp of salt
1/4 tsp of garlic powder (optional)
Put the ingredients in a large bowl and mix. Form the dough into a ball and roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/8 inch thick. Use a cookie cutter or a knife to cut the dough into cracker shapes. Place on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.
Keto Energy Bites
1 cup of almond butter
1/2 cup of coconut flour
1/4 cup of honey (or a Keto-friendly sweetener)
1/4 cup of flaxseed meal
1/2 cup of chopped nuts (your choice)
1/4 cup of chocolate chips (optional)
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until well combined. Roll the mixture into small balls and store in the refrigerator.
Keto Trail Mix
1 cup of almonds
1 cup of macadamia nuts
1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup of sunflower seeds
1/2 cup of unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup of dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup of dried cranberries (optional)
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and store in an airtight container
In conclusion, the ketogenic diet has the potential to be a beneficial nutrition strategy for athletes looking to improve their performance. By drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing the proportion of fats in the diet, the body enters a state of ketosis in which it burns fat as its primary fuel source. This can lead to increased endurance, improved recovery, and better body composition. However, it is important to note that the ketogenic diet may not be suitable for all athletes, particularly those involved in high-intensity or glycogen-dependent sports.
Additionally, adhering to the diet can be challenging, and it may be difficult to meet all of the necessary nutrient requirements. It is crucial for athletes to work closely with a sports dietitian or other healthcare professional who are specialize in keto diet for athletes before making any significant changes to their diet. With the proper guidance and support, the ketogenic diet can be a powerful tool for athletes looking to take their performance to the next level.