Like most runners, I’m fascinated with the performance side of the sport. For me, though, that’s less about getting faster and setting new PBs than it is about learning how my body works and how to make it work better. Sure, that often translates into getting quicker, but, more importantly, it’s about running longer, stronger, and more easily. (It also informs the mental and psychological side of running, but that’s a topic for another post.) The result is that I always find myself engaged in an ongoing experiment to see what changes I can make in what I do and how I do it.
Currently, that means looking at how I can incorporate a ketogenic diet into my training. It’s a journey that’s already paid huge benefits, even though I’ve only been at it a short time. It’s a complex topic too, so there’s still much to learn, both about the nutritional science behind it and about how I can apply the learnings to my training.
A ketogenic diet, simply put, is a high-fat, adequate-protein, very low-carb diet. (You can find a lengthy article about it on Wikipedia.) A typical ketogenic meal includes a small amount of protein, a source of natural fats, and some green leafy vegetables. It’s a “good health” diet for anyone. For runners and other athletes, though, there’s a very big plus – reducing carbs and increasing fat and protein switches your body into fat burning mode. Burning fat rather than glucose results in more energy, greater endurance, and fewer (or no) bonks. As if that weren’t enough, keto means better overall health, effective weight loss and management, and building a muscular, healthy body. Hey, what’s not to like?
These guys follow a ketogenic diet. (I’m not quite there yet, by the way…)
Eating ketogenic means keeping to a ratio of fat, protein, and carbs that looks like this:
It also, as a matter of course, means avoiding sugar. Sugar means insulin spikes, which initiate cravings for carbs. Insulin spikes also mean that fat isn’t used as fuel, but stored in the body. Include sugar in your diet, and you’re automatically putting on weight, however much exercise you get. Eliminate sugar from your diet, and you lose weight. It’s that simple.
Here’s what that looks like on a graph (taken from Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint):
For runners, it’s also a matter of how your body fuels. Sugar means glycogens, and using glycogen as fuel means you’re on a constant energy roller-coaster. You get an energy spike, it drops, you do some more glycogen (a gel or a sports drink), it spikes again, it drops again, and so on and so on. If you start your run fasting, as I now do, you go quickly into using fat as fuel. It’s a more even-burning fuel, it lasts longer, and it doesn’t spike. Translation: I can run farther and more easily when I run on fat than when I run on glycogen. As a refinement of all this, I no longer use any sweeteners at all – not sugar, not honey, not even stevia. The only sugars I consume come from fruits, such as an occasional orange, apple, or banana – and I eat far fewer of those than I used to.
None of this means, though, that I’m depriving myself. (Trust me, I don’t do that.) I’m eating better than I ever have before. We now buy all our meat, chicken, and eggs from a small butcher shop called Marbled Meats in Oakville, Ontario. Tom Stasiuk, the shop’s owner, offers fresh product that is 100% natural, free range, and locally sourced from Ontario family farms. We buy some of our vegetables and fruit from a local farmer’s market, and the rest from a supermarket. We eat whole-fat butter, yogurt, cheese, and milk (goat milk for me, as I don’t like the taste of cow’s milk.) We eat no processed food at all. Consequently, our meals – all of them – are tasty, nutritious, and freshly-cooked.
The ketogenic diet isn’t new. Far from it, in fact. Our ancestors ate a ketogenic diet, or one very like it. The fellows in the photo above certainly do, and our grandparents probably did too. Dr. Robert Atkins first wrote about a low-carb diet in 1958. More recently, Dr. Tim Noakes, the famed author of Lore of Running, has converted to a ketogenic diet, and has espoused its effectiveness. Mike Morton, Ultra Running magazine’s Ultra Runner of the year, a 24-Hour World Champion, winner of the 2012 Badwater 135 miler, and the winner of the Western States 100 miler in 1997, is a ketogenic runner.
And there’s growing evidence of the benefits of a ketogenic diet for overall health, ranging from prevention/slowing of Alheimer’s to effectiveness in dealing with cancer to weight loss/management. For more info on these topics, see the very informative Ketogenic Diet Resource site. For more about a ketogenic approach to general health, check out Mark Sisson’s Daily Apple or The Harcombe Diet. (The latter is ketogenic in all but name. It offers the added twist of advising that – for weight loss, anyway – not to mix fat meals and carb meals. Trust me, it’s good advice!) And for something keto that relates specifically to running, have a look at RunKeto, which chronicles the ketogenic training of four ultra runners. It’s all good, believe me. Very, very good indeed.
I’ll post more about my ketogenic training program, as I continue to train for my 2013 goal race, the Vulture Bait 50K Trail Race. For now, I’ll continue to run fasted, eat ketogenic, and build up my distances. Stay tuned!