Keto diet is a hot topic these days. Everywhere I see loads of posts from people trying Keto diet for various reasons. A lot of people are pretty bullish about keto for endurance athletes and sometimes are trying to influence others taking this on. But is it the “magic” solution for athletes? Well I’m not so sure about that.
Let’s first talk about what a ‘Ketogenic’ diet (often termed as Keto Diet) is all about
Basically, a Ketogenic diet follows a zero to a low carbohydrate, high-fat diet that forces the body into a state of ketosis. During ketosis, a molecule named Ketones is released in the bloodstream and helps to break the stored fats in the body to use as energy.
The groundwork of all happiness is health. – Leigh Hunt
The composition of the Keto diet is usually around 10% of Carbs, 20% of Protein, and 70% of Fat, which is completely the opposite of a regular diet where the carbohydrate plays a dominant part in the total diet. So, the daily carbohydrate limit is around 20-50 grams per day, which is pretty low. The rationale behind this is to make the body very efficient at burning fat as fuel.
After reading the basic biology lesson, the first thing that should pop-up in your mind is “Weight loss”. That’s right, it’s becoming a very common diet trend to lose weight quickly. But there is also a group of people suggesting keto for endurance athletes to improve performance.
So, is it? Is keto good for endurance athletes? Frankly, I don’t believe so. Endurance athletes have a very demanding daily routine, especially age group athletes. There are a few reasons why I don’t suggest keto for endurance athletes. Some of these points are also valid for those who are adopting a keto diet for weight loss.
Firstly, Ketosis doesn’t improve performance
The biggest logic behind endurance athletes taking up the Keto diet is to improve the efficiency of the energy system to burn more fat. Our body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate as glycogen, which is the primary fuel for performance. On the other hand, even for a lean person, there is plenty of fat to burn and use as energy.
But various researchers have found that the keto diet doesn’t really enhance performance. In fact, if you want to do high-intensity sessions, it will become a barrier for you to perform the training in an optimal way. Without stored carbohydrates, you won’t be able to perform anaerobic efforts. Also, lactate buildup gets hampered during hard effort as lactate is created by breaking carbohydrates in the system.
Even ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons – long considered to be low-intensity, long-duration events – feature periods of intensity above the lactate threshold. Hence, keto for endurance athletes are suggested during very easy, base training at the early phase of a season but it’s best to avoid it in the build phase or race season.
Keto diet can be very limiting for age group athletes
Let’s be honest, most of us have 9-5 jobs. When you pile up work, family, and other responsibilities with training, it can be really hard to get through the day with only very limited carbohydrates. There will be mood swings, dizziness, lack of energy, etc. and so on. Also, we don’t get to sleep as much as we would which also jeopardizes training and regular life.
So keto diet can hamper your daily lifestyle especially if you have a hectic one. Make sure you can cope up and maintain your daily goals without falling apart before starting a keto cycle.
Recovery can be difficult in keto
When we workout, muscular damage happens and recovery becomes critical to repair the damage. There’s a saying that we only become faster when we recover. Now there’s a magic nutrition ratio for the body to recover after a workout. It’s 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. For example, if you consume 100 grams of food post-workout, 80 grams should be carbohydrate and the remaining 20 grams from protein.
Now the problem is you aren’t allowed to eat more than 10% or 50 grams of carbohydrate every day in the keto diet. That means if you follow the keto plan strictly, it can become difficult to attain the proper recovery.
To add to that, an endurance athlete typically needs to eat more protein than a regular person daily. Protein is the main building block of muscle. Athletes are prone to muscle loss and lack of recovery if they don’t meet the necessary protein requirement. Hence keto for endurance athletes can be limiting in terms of recovery due to the protein ceiling.
Food choices are very limited in keto
Fatty and low carb foods such as eggs, nuts, seeds, cheese, fatty fish, etc. are preferred in keto. Since the food options are very limited, other nutrients such as fiber, minerals, vitamins, etc. can be lacking. Hence, our internal metabolism and functions can suffer if the diet isn’t properly balanced.
On top of that, some people have allergies with nuts and seeds. Some also can’t eat eggs or fatty foods too much. Hence, keto for endurance athletes can become a real headache for such a situation and can compromise the overall diet as well as the physical progression through training.
Maintaining keto can be difficult especially for a longer period
When you’re out running or cycling, you may start to feel weak and tired after a while. The problem is you can’t have energy gels or energy bars with high carbohydrates at that moment if you are on a keto diet. Overconsumption of carbs will kick you out of ketosis. Also, there will be times when you have to eat a slice of cake on your child’s birthday or will enjoy a little biriyani.
We also live in an age where processed and packaged foods are consumed a lot. Any packaged food contains various levels of sugar and other ingredients. Most often these ingredient details are missing in the package labels. Unknowingly caloric intake increases, positive results disappear and people regain weight once they return to their normal eating behavior. So, compliance and corruption are major barriers to sustaining keto.
The bottom line: does keto work?
Yes, it can work depending on the person and their goals but it takes proper planning, knowledge, and understanding of the situation. If you’re doing long slow training in the base phase, want to lose some weight, or want to improve the efficiency of your fat-burning system then it’s feasible only if you can lead your normal life and can improve your performance at the same time.
But don’t start following keto because people are suggesting this or because of the hype. If you do, please consult with a proper nutritionist before. In my opinion, keto is overrated especially for athletes and there’s a better solution, which is intermittent fasting. I love intermittent fasting and it certainly works for me.