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Is the Ketogenic Diet Good for Athletes?

June 21, 2018 3 Comments

Is the Ketogenic Diet Good for Athletes?

The ketogenic diet is definitely the current popular fad diet, made famous by many celebrities who tout its benefits. Several athletes have also jumped on board the ketogenic diet train with the intention of improving their athletic performance, but is it a good diet to support athletic performance?

In case you don’t know, the ketogenic diet is based on achieving a metabolic state called ketosis, by lowering carbohydrate intake to less than 50 grams per day. This causes the body to use ketones (produced from burning fat), for energy instead of glucose. There is a larger store of fat in the body than carbohydrates, meaning that energy from burning fat rather than glucose will last much longer and, in turn, allow for prolonged activity. Athletes are looking to the ketogenic diet to prevent “burnout”, or a drop in energy supply often experienced when blood glucose is used up.

With this potential benefit, researchers are also interested in how a ketogenic diet impacts athletic performance. Strong opinions exist on both sides, so let’s take a closer look at some of the pros and cons that have been found.

On one hand, some research has found that ketogenic diets are beneficial for endurance athletes. A 2016 study found that ultra-endurance athletes on a long-term (average of 20 months) ketogenic diet burned up to 2.3 times more fat than the group on a high carbohydrate diet during a three hour run, in theory allowing them to have more energy for a longer period of time. Other studies have found that fats appear to provide more energy than carbohydrates during both low and high intensity exercise.

Low-carb, high fat diets during low to moderately intense aerobic exercise increase fat metabolism, support weight and fat loss, and help reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. High performance endurance athletes on a ketogenic diet burn over twice as much fat as high carbohydrate athletes during exercise. As a result, some athletes report being able to exercise longer, an effect that has also be demonstrated in studies using mice. In addition, ketogenic diets may be effective in preventing oxidative stress brought on by caloric restriction and exercise in weight category related athletics, such as wrestling.

On the other hand, some researchers conclude that athletes should avoid a ketogenic diet altogether as it may be more harmful than helpful, especially for muscle recovery. Performance and recovery from exercise may be impaired on a ketogenic diet, due to reduced muscle glycogen and low blood sugar from lack of carbohydrates. As for athletes who participate in shorter anaerobic activities, like weight lifting, ketogenic diets appear to cause poor performance because there is less muscle glycogen stores available for quick use. It may take several months of adaptation to a ketogenic diet for glycogen stores to return to normal. A recent, small study found that a low carbohydrate, high fat diet reduced anaerobic exercise tolerance in subjects who were used to exercising, suggesting that a ketogenic diet should be avoided by athletes, especially those performing shorter, high intensity events.

At this time the results are still mixed, there is not enough information to come to a definitive conclusion for athletes. The ketogenic diet will continue to be a hot topic as more athletes experiment with ways to enhance performance through nutrition, and research uncovers more details about the long term impacts. At this time, a ketogenic diet may be more appropriate for casual exercisers because they tend to focus more on weight loss and not as much for elite athletes, who have more intense nutrition needs. As of now, it is best to proceed with caution and evaluate any diet change based on the type of athletic activity and overall goals.

Do you follow the Keto diet? Let us know your thoughts below. 

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3 Responses

Vince A
Vince A

June 27, 2018

This article is great! It is not one sided and brings up good points. My wife and I have recently tried the Keto diet and it did Not necessarily work for me. I enjoyed everything about it, especially the food! The only aspect I could not overcome was that my strength started to decrease while my recovery time increased! I have been training for a powerlifting meet and these conditions are not ideal. But, my wife on the other hand, trains in higher volume than intensity and it works great for her!

Bruno Vetter
Bruno Vetter

June 27, 2018

I think the standard keto diet can make high intensity exercise difficult, but cyclical and targeted keto diets work well for me. Some extra carbs before ans after exercise do the trick (targeted) or a bunch of weekend carbs (cyclical) can work too.


June 27, 2018

I have to say I believe a high fat diet long term for athletes is much healthier and will allow for better performance long term. Carbs are for a quick burst of energy short term and will only give a spike in insulin and a major drop off which leads to hunger. I eat 5 times a day of keto friendly foods and my gym performance and strength have increased, I can train longer without the drop off in strength and power. I also have fuller muscles that don’t get flat due to excess water from carbs. I have a much clearer mind and can think much faster due to not being weighed down by carbs…. now everyone is different this has been my experience with a keto diet, some people may do okay with carbs and not so great with fats.

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