Running On Fat: Can A Ketogenic Diet Improve Endurance?
I don’t believe that there is an optimal diet that works everyone. We all have different genetics, insulin sensitivities, and microbiomes that cause individualized food reactions. While I investigate how food fuels my athleticism, I’ve been known to do dietary backflips as a way to play with my own athletic performance. This is how I went from eating high-carb vegan to high-fat keto.
My reason behind this shift was based on a desire to reboot my system. Eating high-carb vegan kept me light as a feather for years— stuffed with all the sweet potatoes and dates I could stomach— but then I hit a wall. I had inflammation from running injuries and a deficiency-induced low thyroid. When I looked into treatments for inflammation and sluggishness, I began my experiment with becoming fully fat-adapted.
A ketogenic diet is not for everyone. It involves a ton of calculating, measuring, and testing one’s body. In the first few weeks I was diligent about tracking ketone production, HRV, REM cycles, and blood glucose; this itself is a full-time job. But as an athlete looking to perform at my best, the adventure into the land of ketogenic living was worth it for the possibility of a competitive edge.
Being fat-adapted means your body shifts from using glucose as fuel to using fat, or ketones. This happens when you replace almost all the carbs in your intake with fat. This is not to be confused with a high-protein diet at all. In fact, a boneless skinless chicken breast is the last thing you want when adapting since it will cause something called gluconeogenesis— or spiking insulin without eating sugar.
Math and Macros
There’s definitely some advanced math involved, at least in the beginning, as you are trying to get a feel for what eating keto actually looks like. The macros break down to about 200g of fat, 50g of protein, and 25g of net carbs. Net carbs are the grams of carbohydrate in a food when the amount of fiber is subtracted from total carbohydrates. For me, a day of eating keto (as a runner) comes to about 2150 – 2400 calories a day.
The path to keto is paved with these items: grass-fed butter, avocados, coconut oil and clean animal fat. Egg yolks, uncured bacon, and grass-fed meats are all on the grocery list. All of these foods are paired with epic portions of leafy greens like spinach, chard, asparagus and all the members of the brassica bunch: broccoli, brussel sprouts and kale. Some nuts and seeds are also included. There’s no processed food, and especially no fake sugar. One of the most important things to note is the intense focus on the quality of fat. You can’t keto adapt on poor quality fats like canola, soy, or peanut since these kinds of fats can throw off your omega ratios. The fat you eat has to be rich in the right amount of poly-to-monounsaturated fats.
There’s a reason a keto diet is prescribed by doctors to those with epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and early onset dementia. It’s been shown to promote healthy brain function. As someone using it more superficially, I felt the mental effect of burning mad amounts of ketones in the first few days. As my body underwent a huge shift in its biochemistry, I was on fire creatively as well as physically ready to tackle some miles. Without the roller coaster ride on my insulin, I began to run with razor-sharp clarity.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep this keto thing up, but the more fat I’ve eaten, the more fascinated I’ve become. I can see the muscle definition and feel the sustained endurance— which goes a long way for motivation to continue to push through my base training. I’m not trying to “butter up” anyone on my newfound approach, but I do think there’s something there. Ketogenic diets don’t necessarily make people better athletes. But for me the results have been pretty clear: A lot of fat has been making me go fast.
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(ph: Drew Reynolds)