Running On A Ketogenic Diet

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Runners try all sorts of things to enhance their training and improve their performance. And there are tons of different tricks and hacks out there. Generally, one of the most influential tweaks a runner or indeed any athlete can make is to adjust their nutrition. But, again, there are plenty of different diets, theories and opinions regarding the best approach.

Over the past several years, the ketogenic diet has rapidly gained popularity in athletic circles. But what should runners know about this particular diet? What, exactly, is the ketogenic diet? What are the risks and benefits associated with it?

Ketogenics 101

Originally used as a treatment for epilepsy, a ketogenic diet is extremely low in carbohydrates and high in fats. A typical ketogenic macronutrient profile looks like this:

  • 70-80% fat
  • 10-20% protein
  • 5-10% carbohydrates

At first, this might seem pretty counterintuitive. After all, carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel. Why would an athlete want to cut that off? More details on this process will follow later.

For now, the key is to understand to – when carbohydrate reserves are tapped out – the human body will switch to fat as a backup. This includes both dietary fats, those floating around in your blood ready to be used, and body fat which has been stored as adipose tissue for just such an occasion. During this process, substances called ketones are released and subsequently burned for fuel. Which is where the diet gets it official-sounding name.

What’s The Point?

But why would someone what to follow this restrictive diet and force their body into a ketogenic state? Primarily, most people who start a ketogenic diet are looking to lose weight. Which this diet is very good at. However, many ketogenic dieters are surprised by exactly how this process works.

As mentioned, ketogenic diets seek to remove all of the stored glycogen from your body. Each gram of glycogen, though, comes bundled with 4g of water. When that glycogen is burned up, the water is also removed. And since the average trained athlete can store a respectable amount of glycogen, this can translate to about 5lbs or more of water weight gone in short order.

And, in general, ketosis is seen as an effective weight loss strategy. In fact, many athletes who participate in weight-based events will use short-term ketogenic diets as a way to prepare for competition.

It’s important to point out, though, that the research regarding fat loss is pretty scant. There is clear evidence that athletes who are already operating in a ketogenic state are burning incredible amounts of fat but whether or not this translates to a meaning shift in body composition is up for debate.

Ketosis and Athletic Performance

Proponents of ketogenic diets also claim that cutting the carbs can make them more efficient athletes. At the same time, detractors insist that removing your primary fuel source will have the opposite effect. For runners, this is a pretty serious concern.

Of course, all athletes are going to be worried about their performance and properly fueling there efforts. But runners have long had a special relationship with carbohydrates. Since carbs are a fast, ready-to-use source of energy, they are quickly used up during short bouts of intense activity. Your training as a runner will actually increase your body’s ability to store and use glycogen more effectively.

Conversely, fat is typically relied on during long-duration, moderate-intensity activities. The pro-ketosis theory, then, is based on the idea that training your body to use fat more efficiently could actually enhance your endurance.

But, what does the science say? Does cutting your connection to carbs help or harm your performance? For the most part, it really seems like ketosis has no impact – for the good or bad. In studies involving both strength and endurance athletes, following a ketogenic diet made no noticeable difference.

It should be noted, however, that making the switch to ketosis can have some pretty short-tem negative effects – often referred to as the “low-carb flu.” While your body adapts to running on fat instead of carbs, you will likely experience low energy, headaches and even mood swings. Until this passes, your performance will probably take a slight hit. Typically, the flu takes about a week or two to run it’s course.

The Bottom Line

So, then, should you make the switch and follow and ketogenic diet? If you want to. These diets can be an effective way to lose weight very quickly. However, since they are extremely restrictive and you will experience some negative side effects at first, ketogenic diets aren’t exactly easy to put into practice.

But weight loss is really the only situation in which you’re likely to see some noticeable benefits from your efforts. Despite the claims of either side, a solid body of scientific evidence suggests that ketosis will have absolutely no impact on your athletic performance.

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