Updated: Apr 8
Chris Froome has gone plant-based, Adam Hansen is vegan, but should you go one step further to the “keto” diet in search of gains?
The ketogenic diet has caused a storm too big to ignore, with endurance athletes around the world claiming it is the secret to their performance increases after taking the plunge.
Benefactors claim an ‘unlimited’ energy store is there to be unlocked, and that keto is the key.
With the standard modern diet overly reliant on carbohydrates, it is a radical switch for most athletes. Keto’s rapid rise and continued exploration has left some road-block questions too.
With help from our friends at HVMN, here is guide to get you up to speed on keto:
What is Ketosis?
When we think about using energy, we often think about the process of “burning” carbohydrates and fats to provide the necessary fuel for cells to do work. Glucose is one of the main sources of energy for humans and animals—it’s usually obtained through dietary intake of carbohydrates.
But, depending on fuel availability and the energy demands of the body, we are able to switch fuel sources from glucose to fat, and vice versa.
Ketosis is a state that occurs in the presence of low blood glucose. It’s a response to carbohydrate depletion; it’s completely physiological and an evolutionary advantage.
No glycogen, no problem. The body can break down and release fatty acids into the bloodstream.
If no carbohydrates are consumed and glycogen is not available, we need some sort of energy for organs which will otherwise become “starved” of energy. Luckily, evolution has found a workaround to this problem—ketosis.
In response to glycogen depletion, a slew of hormonal signals are initiated inside the body, such as insulin falling. These shifts are a signal for the body to burn fat and subsequently the production of ketone bodies, which occurs inside the liver.
Unlike fats, ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier and serve as a fuel source for our brain.
Long ago, when cave-people went long periods without an external source of energy, ketosis ensured they could not only survive periods of starvation, but allow for high-level body and brain function. Food needed to be hunted or gathered, and ketones provided the energy to do so.
What Role Does Ketosis Play Today?
For most of us, food availability today is nothing like that of prehistoric humans.
We can easily access high-energy, high-carbohydrate food sources. Our metabolic state is constantly on “fed.” On one hand, this is great—who doesn’t love a taco at 2am? But, our food-plenty lives come with a cost. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases of modernity have been attributed to increased consumption.
Many people are rarely exposed to a period of more than a few hours without food (other than sleep). We aren’t food-deprived, and therefore our bodies are never forced into a ketogenic state. This might be seen as a blessing of modern day.
But, are we missing out on some of the benefits ketosis can provide bodies? A little “stress” is sometimes a good thing.
Most research says yes, and this has paved the way for a rising interest in ketogenic diets—which are basically a form of a low-carbohydrate high-fat diet. The big difference between a “normal” diet and a very low carb diet (~20-50g carbs/day) is that on a keto diet, the severe carbohydrate restriction results in the production of ketones by the liver.
How do you achieve ketosis?
Being in ketosis means blood ketones levels are elevated—classically defined as a blood ketone reading of >0.5 millimolar (mM).
What does the diet look like?
The hallmark of a keogenic diet is rooted in an extremely low carb intake, which drastically minimises any outside supply of glucose. The keto diet also calls for a less drastic reduction in protein consumption, sometimes due to the (perhaps false) belief that high-protein will convert to glucose in a process known as gluconeogenesis (GNG).
On a strict keto diet, you’ll need to get about 60% - 80% of your total daily calories from fat, 15% - 20% from protein, and the minor remaining amount from carbohydrates (mostly non-starchy vegetables).
Exactly how many carbs can you eat? Traditionally, recommendations call for no more than 50g of carbs per day, with more severe restrictions limiting your intake to 20g - 30g. If you’re new to keto, the upper limit might be the best place to start before gradually weaning off carbs.
How does keto benefit me as an athlete?
Any training regimen requires proper nutrition and a recovery strategy.
What you put in your body is just as (if not more) important than the training you put it through. For athletes, most guidelines like the guidelines created by the American College of Sports Medicine still support the idea that carbohydrates are king when it comes to fuelling high-intensity performance.
However, a new interest is growing in the use of ketogenic diets for some aspects of sport performance, particularly those involving endurance exercise.
Why dismiss long-held nutritional dogma? Well, some sports requiring high endurance (think, ultra-marathons) make the athlete likely to run out of stored muscle glycogen. In this case, a more metabolically efficient athlete, one whose body is adapted to burning fat and using ketones for fuel will have virtually “unlimited” fuel stores to call upon.
In sports relying on body composition, such as martial arts, gymnastics, and competitive lifting, ketogenic diets might be a great way for some get lean. Others wishing to improve recovery or just eat healthier might also see substantial benefits and enjoyment from transitioning to a ketogenic diet.
As food and sports supplemental advice is constantly evolving and improving, we believe it is important to challenge what was once described as 'the way'. At Elevation Coaching, we are open to new ideas and exploring different methods which we can pass on to our athletes.
Ketones are by no means a new or maverick idea in cycling or endurance sport but they may just be a breakthrough in your plateauing development.
Worth a go? It's legal and claims good rewards... why not.
Go straight to our homepage www.elevationcoaching.cc to learn more