Let start off with listing a few athletes that use the keto diet and exercise to compete at the professional level: Lebron James, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, several argue that Tom Brady’s diet teeters in and out of ketosis. With the best advice money can buy, why are they using a keto diet and exercise?
ANSWER: Keto Diet And Exercise Provides A Distinct Advantage
Before I reveal that distinct advantage using the keto diet and exercise, let’s look closer at endurance athletes. Endurance athletes pay lots of attention to their deliverance of energy while they compete. If they run out of usable energy at the end of their race, bad things happen.
The next time your community is hosting a marathon, volunteer to hand out water or guard an intersection in the last mile of the race. Watch what happens to some of the ill-prepared athletes as they push themselves at the end of the race.
It is not uncommon to find athletes losing control of bowels and behaving strangely– as if their thinking is not quite right. I am not talking about the crazy notion of running 26.2 miles. I am referring to the way they can’t connect the right words or thoughts or actions to the current setting in front of them. This is called “bonking.”
‘Bonking’ is the term for running out of fuel during an endurance race. Specifically, the fuel for their brain is missing. Traditional athletes fuel their bodies with carbs. Their glucose fuel source must be replenished again and again throughout the race. They burn through their fast, carb-based energy like the “pine-needles” in a campfire. The burning rate of that energy becomes wickedly fast at the end of a long race.
All of their energy stored in the liver and muscles has been depleted. Glycogen storages are tapped. Empty. To finish the race, they must carefully calculate this delicate situation. They must throw the proper amount of ‘pine needles’ into their furnaces to keep racing. Too much glucose too fast and the gut will struggle to absorb it in this intense situation. This results in the squirts and the wrong time.
If they run out of glucose, they ‘bonk.’ Their brain shuts down. Without enough sugar, their brain starts taking functions “offline.” With a totally glucose-dependent body, the only fuel their cells know how to use is glucose. They are stuck.
Just imagine for a moment who we are talking about. These are very lean athletes. Many keep their body fat close to 15%. As a comparison, non-athletes are closer to 25%. If you are overweight that percent sores to over 30% body fat. How much energy could these skinny athletes possibly deliver if their body-chemistry had adapted to ketosis? In short: A LOT.
Even a lean athlete with under 15% body fat can carry more than 50,000 kilocalories in their fat. These calories are useless to them because their system is not adapted to burning fat for fuel. Their chemistry has been practicing and perfecting the use of carbs. Not fat.
The last mile of a 100-mile race is not the time to be asking your body to figure out ketosis. After several hours of intense exercise, an athlete running out of available glucose will describe their ‘bonk’ as, “a strange experience where a dramatic loss in performance, a profound sudden depression, and intense food cravings coincide.” Observers may notice the athlete shake and quiver with chills. They lose control of their bowels or bladder. They stumble as if drunk while their brain scrambles to find any morsel of glucose lingering around.
The bonking athlete is much like a diesel-powered truck that runs out of fuel while hauling a tank filled with gasoline. There is gasoline fuel in his tank, but diesel engines are not equipped to use gasoline.
On the other hand, fat-fueled athletes, have the advantage. They have a choice between fuel sources. The flexibility to choose between fat and glucose in the last 2 miles of the race only happens if they’ve properly prepared their mitochondria. If their mitochondria never saw more than a morsel of glucose over the past three months, their cells boast the perfect condition to flip between either fuel. Their body has “turned on” the mitochondria parts that burn fat. This burnable fat is called a ketone.
This gives them a distinct advantage. Their brain cells can use either fuel. So can their muscle cells. So can their heart cells. Their body adapted to efficiently use either fuel.
If their body gets low on fuel, they can add some glucose and use it. But if they run out of glucose, their keto-adapted cells quickly activate their furnaces to burn fat instead of carbs.
This transition happens in a flash if they are keto-adapted. They don’t poop their pants. They don’t ‘bonk.’
Becoming fat adapted through a life of ketosis does not erase your body’s ability to use glucose. You will always use the glucose in your blood before you use ketones.
Evolution has guaranteed that the glucose always gets used first. However, if your body only sees glucose as fuel and never sees ketones, the mechanism to burn a ketone all but disappears. To keep the parts of the cell actively ready to use ketones, your body must burn ketones for the better part of your life. I can’t skip over another teachable moment that I’ve learned from the athletes under my ketogenic-care. They universally remark about how much better they think. It takes only one glimpse at the research of endurance athletes by Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist from the Mid America Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital, to appreciate the multitude of health risks found in the population of endurance athletes.
Their bragging rights linked to the elite 26.2-club deserve respect. However, what we have known for some time that their bragging aught to stop after the first or second marathon. The list of ailments found in the hearts other body parts of endurance athletes in their second decade of a racing compares to patients pushing 80 in my medical clinic.
When I pair the striking improvement my keto-adapted athletes report in their sleep, tissue-repair time, and mental stamina, my mind jumps to the word INFLAMMATION.
The link between the vast problems that reverse on a ketogenic diet consistently point towards the near-removal of inflammation when in a ketogenic state. Maybe these endurance athletes will have fewer troubles linked to chronic inflammation if they spend most of their time in ketosis.
The jury is still out on that. Fat-fueled, low-carb endurance athletes aren’t just running races, they are winning at record-breaking times. Nothing grabs the attention of competitive endurance athletes, like titles.
These athletes are tossing out the carb-dense foods and chewing on fat for their fuel. Just think how much time gets shaved off a race if they don’t have to pause for a bathroom break ten times in the race’s last stretch.
But what does this all mean for the “normal” athlete that wants to try the keto diet and exercise?
Use carbs to fuel your body before a peak performance. ABSOLUTELY. You will feel the rush of carb energy surge into your system and kick you into high gear. However, give yourself the advantage by training in a ketogenic state.
Keep your mitochondria burning ketones outside of those peak performances. Ketosis promotes the fastest healing times, in part, due to its anti-inflammatory state.
From head injuries to torn muscles to micro-tears in a tendon – a bath of ketones coursing through your veins ensures the chemistry of lowest inflammation.
Finally, ketosis strengthens your mental performance. Any athletes wet behind the ears knows that games are won in your mind. Clear thinking, restful sleep, and protection for an irritable mood all lead to the best performance possible.
Watch this video for more on the ketogenic diet and the role in performance:
- Volek, Jeff, and Stephen D. Phinney. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: an Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable. Beyond Obesity, 2011
- Volek, Jeff S., et al. “Effects of Dietary Carbohydrate Restriction versus Low-Fat Diet on Flow-Mediated Dilation.” Metabolism, vol. 58, no. 12, 2009, pp. 1769–1777., doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2009.06.005.
- Volek, Jeff S, et al. “Low-Carbohydrate Diets Promote a More Favorable Body Composition Than Low-Fat Diets.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 32, no. 1, 2010, pp. 42–47., doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e3181c16c41