Physique and athletic performance have always been closely interlinked with nutrition and diet. It’s only to be expected that professional and amateur athletes experiment with different types of fuel (both food and drink) to get the best results.
From consuming meals high in carbohydrates to trying out predominantly vegetarian diets and embracing the entry of Gatorade on the scene back in 1965, a countless number of products and regimens have been touted to maximise athlete performance, including the most popular diet of our times: keto.
Let’s begin with a quick crash course about the trendiest diet prevailing in the world today, the ketogenic diet. Then we’ll examine how athletes should approach the low-carb lifestyle.
A short introduction to the keto diet for athletes
In typical dietary patterns, your body gets its energy by breaking down the carbohydrates you eat into glucose. This is then transported and stored as fuel to use for the functioning of the body.
Keto disrupts this mechanism by keeping the intake of carbohydrates very low. Since the body doesn’t have enough carbs to use for fuel, it switches into a metabolic state called ketosis, in which it breaks down fats and makes ketones and uses these as alternative sources of energy.
Ketogenic diets are low-carb, high fat, moderate protein diets that typically provide around 80% of calories from fat, 15% from proteins and just 5% from carbohydrates. The diet assumes that the glucose reserves of the body get depleted in five days, which stops the normal oxidation of fat and supply of glucose to the brain, thus leading to the formation of ketone bodies.
Since your body isn’t getting many carbs, it is forced to burn fat and produce the wonderous healing compounds known as ketones. Some people even ingest ketone drinks or supplements to propel their body in the state of ketosis.
Do you need carbs to build muscle?
Of the three types of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), protein is the most important for muscle growth. So, the ketogenic diet can be used effectively for bodybuilding, as long as you are getting enough protein for muscle recovery and eating enough calories to fuel your exercise routines.
To get the most benefits from keto, you may want to read the low-carb bodybuilding tips from PlanKetogenic. When it comes to building muscle, getting adequate protein is crucial, but many lifters have discovered the hard way that just a high protein intake will not necessarily lead to more muscle growth. In fact, eating wildly excessive amounts of protein can literally kick you out of the ketosis mode.
And remember, you can optimise results by eating the right foods at the right times, but you’ve also got to put in the work and lift weights or do the right types of targeted exercises. Diet is far from the whole story.
Keto and exercise – a bittersweet relationship
The impact of ketosis on the performance of both professional and amateur athletes has sparked much debate. Following a low-carb plan does claim to have myriad health benefits, but it can make certain workouts more challenging than others. So before you try out a ketogenic lifestyle, here are some facts you ought to know.
The health of every athlete, whether professional or amateur, depends on good nutrition in order to improve endurance performance and optimise training and subsequent recovery. As a result, the athletic community is constantly looking for innovative strategies to improve their performance through foods, drinks, and supplements.
Exercising and following a keto diet is a powerful combination for boosting overall health, burning fat, losing weight and improving the body’s metabolism. These are all positive effects athletes can benefit from when going low-carb, and they usually align with the goals of amateur athletes.
But overall health benefits are not always the top priority, especially professional competitors. They may be more concerned with immediate performance.
Keto diets for athletic performance
Long-term studies comparing the effects of a low-carb high-fat keto diet on athletic performance are few and far between. However, conclusions from short-term studies give a mixed response.
Research suggests that endurance athletes have the most to gain from ketosis. The keto diet has become extremely popular with endurance athletes as it enhances performance as a potential ergogenic aid by minimising the reliance of the body on carbohydrates.
Athletes taking part in sports like long distance cycling or marathons can benefit from a ketogenic diet more than those taking part in events which require short bursts of energy.
A high endurance cyclist showed that high fat contents, over a two-week period, were associated with greater lipolysis and fuel availability, lower plasma insulin concentration prior to exercise and about 2.5-3% increase in the rates of fat oxidation.
In contrast, elite marathon runners, who were on a keto diet for more than three weeks, effectively negated the improvement in the consumption of oxygen.
Recent studies have revealed that high-intensity, short-duration exercise can be negatively impacted by a keto diet, especially at anaerobic tasks (low carb dieters were affected by as much as 4-15% compared to the high carb group). These activities could include typical short bursts of speed as in soccer, basketball, triple jump or a 100-meter sprint.
Ultimately, studies show variability in the performance of athletes on a keto diet. Much depends on the individual’s former habits, what they eat during the diet, what sport they do, and how intensively they train. So, if you are considering trying keto, it’s important to talk to your coach and doctor about your specific situation before you make any changes.
How to start keto for amateur and professional athletes
Wondering what this type of plan would look like?
For an athlete, following a keto diet means:
- consuming high-fat foods (olive oil, avocado, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, cheese)
- eating high-quality proteins (whole cuts of meat and poultry, fish and seafood)
- eating lots of nutritious low-carb veggies (asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, bell peppers, leafy greens, mushrooms, zucchini)
- limiting fruits as they are higher in sugar content
- giving up high-carb foods (bread, pasta, potatoes)
- not eating sweets or sugary foods (cookies, cakes, candy)
- cutting down on highly processed foods (soft drinks, pre-packaged meals, sausages) and avoiding other toxins in the body
- drinking plenty of water
- exercising regularly
Generally speaking, most people on a ketogenic diet should eat under 50 grams of net carbohydrates per day in order to enter ketosis, the state when your body burns fat for fuel instead of carbs. However, there is no one-size-fits-all formula since your dietary needs depend on your unique personal profile, including your age, gender, weight, and how much you exercise, train, and compete.
The muscle mass and strength in an athlete peak upon reaching 20-30 years and then begins to decline between 40-50 years of age. As a result, professional athletes have different dietary requirements than amateur athletes for optimal performance, and moreover this is also influenced by gender.
It was observed that male athletes require a protein intake of 1.6-1.8gm per kilo of body weight, while women required as much as 25% less because of the less amino acid oxidation which is controlled by estrogen. But as women exit menopause, protein intake requirements are just the same as their male counterparts.
Further studies on athletes on a low-carb diet
The limited number of studies in this field strongly suggests that more research is needed, especially in mixed-sex performances. Such a study will expand the understanding of the effect of the diet in diverse athlete populations and further our knowledge in the field.
Some observations which need to be implemented should include:
- Age, gender and sport-type will be the main criteria to decide the athlete’s dietary needs.
- Introduce a shared discussion model to discuss the types of diets and macronutrient sources that will work best for supporting athletic performance and at the same time reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Some studies should be conducted over longer periods of time to determine the long-term effects.
Recommendations for athletes considering a keto diet
- It’s up to you to control how healthy your diet is, whether you go for keto or not. You should always make an effort to eat lots of vegetables, limit foods high in saturated food, and limit ultra-processed foods.
- Athletes should be in regular communication with a sports cardiologist to determine the type of keto diet that will support the energy demands without having to compromise on cardiovascular health.
- Keep in mind, a keto diet requires a lot of planning and willpower to maintain the right macronutrient balance.
- It is helpful to plan and prepare meals ahead of time so you are not tempted to stray from the plan or overeat.
- Be aware that the body goes through an adaption period when you start eating a diet low in carbohydrates. This usually lasts less than a week, but it can affect some people for as long as a month. Not only is it normal to feel tired and low on energy during this time, but you may also experience bad breath, constipation and trouble sleeping. This can also affect athletic performance, so it is important not to change your eating habits shortly before a competition.