So, you’ve transitioned to the ketogenic diet. You’re wondering if you can still compete athletically at a high level? Maybe you’ve experienced feelings of weakness since adopting the diet… Now, you are second guessing how you are going to keep this up in the gym? To make things more difficult, a lot of the talk in the community lately seems suggest that keto is no good for athletes. So, where do you go from here? Well, let me just begin by saying that keto athletes can be VERY competitive in 2018. Today, I’ll be walking through the five reasons why keto can REALLY work for those of us who are active.
Yes, it is definitely true that you can lose strength and fitness capacity while doing keto, but there are five crucial things to take into account here. These 5 things will not only ensure that you do not lose fitness capacity, but that you athletically thrive on the diet.
- Combining Resistance Training with Keto is Incredibly Important
- Consuming Adequate Protein is Crucial for Muscle Growth
- The Right Vitamins and Minerals Will Prevent Deficiencies
- Six Weeks on Keto Can Lead to Great Results
- Distance Athletes Have Had Amazing Success
Last but not least, there are a number of professional athletes that have adopted low carb lifestyles and have done very well on them. As the scientific community continues to show positive benefits, I would expect this number to increase!
1. Resistance Training with Keto is Incredibly Important for Performance
As you probably already know, muscle wasting has been a common concern around the ketogenic diet, especially for those of us that have goals to maintain muscle weight and bulk up. I will be frank – muscle wasting is very likely to happen for many of us who are following the diet. But, it’s actually easily preventable. Multiple studies have shown that there are ways to completely prevent this from happening. The key is to stay physically active. One of the best things you can do is to combine resistance training with the diet. Resistance training aids in maintaining a leaner physique, and ensures muscle growth.
A 2010 study by Jeff Volek found that combining resistance training with keto, resulted in a 5.3% reduction in percent body fat over 12 weeks. This was 2% higher than those participants doing Keto that DID NOT do resistance training (only 3.4% reduction). Another interesting thing about this study was that all participants showed increases in total strength. They lost body fat, gained lean muscle mass, and ultimately became stronger. Pretty awesome, right!? What these findings tell us is that combining resistance training with keto actually maximizes fat loss while preserving muscle mass. 
Another study in 2009 analyzed the effects of combining the ketogenic diet and resistance training in obese women between the ages of 20 and 40. On average the 16 participants lost 5.6 kg of total body weight during the study. This weight loss was entirely attributed to fat loss and not muscle. 
There is an important consideration here. The time to be concerned about muscle loss would be during your adaptation phase. After that point, your body is a lot less likely to try and pull sugar from your muscles. I get more into this below in point number 4. Adaptation may take longer than you think.
So, what about muscle recovery?
Keto assists with muscle repair by stimulating autophagy in the body – especially when combined with intermittent fasting. Autophagy is the repair process that your body will go through while fasting. During autophagy, Growth Hormone is released to assist in muscle repair and muscle development. This hormone pushes your body to burn fat and preserve lean muscle mass. GH is normally released overnight during sleep but it is ALSO released in the absence of sugar. So, you can probably see why keto naturally helps with promoting this anti-aging hormone and muscle recovery in general.
2. Consuming Adequate Protein is Critical for Muscle Growth
While too much of it can knock you out of ketosis, getting enough protein is important for maintaining and building muscle tissue. Finding that healthy balance here is huge. Among 87 studies that compared body composition in low carb dieters, it was concluded that the diets providing more than the bare minimum level of protein resulted in a better preservation of lean body mass. These findings were independent of calorie intake and the amount of exercise. 
Stephen Phinney did a study with highly trained cyclists where he asked them to continue (but not increase) their current training regimens. There is an interesting take away from this study. By providing their bodies with adequate nutrients and protein, the participants did not lose muscle but instead gained one pound of lean muscle mass. They were provided with 5g of sodium per day and 1.75 g/kg (body weight) of protein. 
3. Four Specific Vitamins and Minerals are Needed for Keto Athletes to Thrive
Several performance studies have emphasized supplementing with electrolytes such as salt. Salt was supplemented in 2-3g amounts factoring in that the subjects were getting an additional 2g from their diet. The other important electrolytes that have been supplemented are potassium (1g), calcium, as well as magnesium. Multivitamins have also been provided.
If you are going to compete, at least ensure that you have appropriate levels of these electrolytes in your system.
4. Six Weeks on Keto Will Maximize Athletic Performance
Duration on the diet is everything when it comes to performance. Allow 6 weeks for the body to completely metabolically adapt. After 6 weeks the body is able physically perform at near capacity once again. Before this time, your muscles will be weaker and will not be able to efficiently utilize fat.
For example, a 2017 study compared the effects of this diet on athletes during the adaptation phase, and as expected, there were declines in performance.  This is just something to keep in mind. If you see studies out there that are examining the effects of the diet, make sure they are long enough before you give them significant credibility. The participants should at least be out of the adaptation phase.
If you are going to plan on competing after switching to Keto, give yourself time on the diet. As your metabolic adaption progresses, you’ll be able to pull a greater percentage of energy from body fat vs glycogen.
A 2016 study compared low carb and high carb ultra-endurance athletes as they ran at 64% capacity (calculated as %VO2) for 3 hours. An interesting outcome of the study was that it outlined how much fat was being burned up by each group. The low carb group burned about 2.3 times as much fat as the high carb group. They also continued utilizing fat well into 70% capacity. 
I want to outline here that these kind of results take time to obtain. Even after initial adaptation, you could experience weakness because your metabolic adaption has not completed (which takes 6 weeks). All low carb athletes in this study were on the diet for at least 9 months. It’s clear that at this point their bodies were efficiently able to use fat.
5. Distance Athletes Have Had Amazing Success
For years, our dependence on glycogen in distance athletics has been overly hyped. The original comparisons between keto and high carb didn’t take into account keto adaptation (as we often see). Interestingly, keto has had perhaps some of the best successes among endurance athletes. As I point out below with successful professional athletes, Paula Newby-Fraser has lived her entire life on a low carb diet. She has won won 8 Iron Man Competitions. One of the major benefits with endurance exercise and keto is that you no longer hit “The Wall” when glycogen stores run out. Your body becomes a fat adapted powerhouse and you are able press through the end of the race.
Low carb calorie restriction can actually increase endurance performance. A study was performed among obese subjects that greatly reduced their total caloric intake down to 700 calories per day. At this point, their bodies had no choice but to burn fat. The participants were asked to walk on an inclined treadmill until they reached exhaustion. Results were recorded at 3 different periods – before the study started, one week into the study, and 6 weeks into the study. The results were pretty incredible. By the end of the study, they had nearly DOUBLED the total time that they were able to stay on the treadmill.
Treadmill Total Time
- Prior to the study – 168 min
- After 1 Week Into the Study – 130 min
- After 6 Weeks into the Study – 269 min
A key thing to note – the participants were provided with appropriate levels of Sodium, potassium, as well as a multivitamin to rule out deficiencies being an issue.  The results of this study again highlight the importance of allowing enough time for adaption to take place. Performance results will come in time.
Regarding Stephen Phinney’s study with trained cyclists, he actually adhered them to a diet of less than 10g of carbs per day. Even while consuming such a small amount of carbs they managed to build lean body mass by continuing to train on their previous programs. So, they left the study with better body composition. 
Pro Athletes have Proven that Keto Can Work
Perhaps the best way to describe the athletic potential of the ketogenic diet is to show that there are high level athletes out there finding success with it. Below you will find a list of a few notable athletes that have adopted keto.
Paul Jordan, a professional rugby player from South Africa, is a big advocate of the Ketogenic diet. He trains and competes on the diet year round for several reasons. The nature of rugby can be hard on the body. He finds that keto speeds up his recovery time and reduces total inflammation in the body after repetitive collisions with other players. He’s also found that the diet helps with cognition and that sleep has been significantly better. He has also noted that his measured run times during games were just as good on the ketogenic diet as they were previously. [The Ketogenic Athlete, Episode 84]
Lebron James, renowned NBA athlete, lost 25 pounds recently on a low carb diet. It was reported that Lebron’s goals with the diet were to slim down and become a more agile player. He also may have been trying to preserve himself for a longer career. We know that a heavier frame is harder on the joints – particularly in the hips and knees as we age. It appears that going low carb was able to put him where he wanted to be.
Paula Newby-Fraser, 8 time Iron Man Champion (A record by the way), is noted for her patronage to high fat diets. Among many other awards, The United States Sports Academy named her as one of the top 5 female athletes in the last 25 years (1972-1977). Early on she was heavily influenced by Sports Medicine researcher and professor at the University of Capetown Tim Noakes. She was born and raised on a high fat diet though. “I preceded the low fat wave that took over the dietary world”.
Adrian Ballinger, a 6 time Mount Everest Summiter, made it to the peak in 2017 without oxygen. This came after a failed attempt in 2016. Wondering what the difference was the second time around? He switched to keto! A year earlier, Ballinger was forced to turn around only 2 hours before reaching the summit – tantalizingly close! His hand and wrist had turned completely white. He had also lost all feeling. The decision was to either turn around or risk his life and continue on to the summit. He decided to turn around.
After safely returning home, he realized that his body had essentially stopped digesting foods at that elevation. The digestive system had shut down. The result, as you could imagine, was that he had run out of muscle glycogen and had no way of replenishing it by eating carbs. So, his solution that next year was to turn his body into a fat burning machine and tap into the massive fat burning reserves we have available to us. He went keto ended up making it all the way in 2017. 
Tim Tebow, former Heisman Trophy winner, has been doing the ketogenic diet for the last 5 years. “I’m on a diet called the Ketogenic diet, and I’m so hooked on it, I love it.” Tebow reported to Men’s Fitness. His father has Parkinson’s and he believes that the diet has really helped him. While no longer in the NFL, Tebow is still maintaining a professional career in baseball. 
Interested in further reading on this topic? Check out our post on how keto can influence Growth Hormone levels (GH). This key muscle building hormone is crucial for athletes looking for a competitive edge.