We explore what the ketogenic diet involves and how some runners are experimenting with it. We found that it has implications for performance, depending on the speed and distance of your preferred runs.
What is the ketogenic diet?
Most runners use carbohydrates as their main fuel source. Carbs are stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, and that is easily accessible as a source of fuel. There is a maximum capacity of glycogen that the body can hold and draw on in a race (hence the need for frequent refuelling strategies over long distances).
The body can also burn fat as a fuel source, but only under certain conditions. Primarily, the diet must be altered to include a much higher level of fat and a much-reduced carbohydrate intake. This dietary shift from carbs to fat is the basic of the ketogenic diet.
Why are runners experimenting with the ketogenic diet?
There are a few reasons. It encourages the body to burn its own fat as a fuel source, which is a plus for runners who are looking to lean down. It also provides a steadier release of energy over time, which is a plus for marathon runners. The ‘bonk’ you feel when your glycogen stores are depleted simply does not exist if the body is adapted to burning fat.
Is it for everyone?
Certainly not. As mentioned, ketogenic diets can support endurance style runs, which is to say, long, slow, steady runs. Any runner looking for explosive, short time performance will see a decline in performance.
Glycogen is a superior fuel source for fast, intense performance. It’s worth discussing with your primary care doctor before trying it, because there are reports of changes to blood cholesterol levels of so-called ‘keto’ enthusiasts. If you doctor gives you the go-ahead and you’re interested, plan to stick with the diet for 3 months at least to allow your body to adapt to the new fuel source completely.
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