DIARY: My Keto Experiment

One of the interesting side-effects of being a coach is that you have to try every potential new technique or approach that may benefit your athletes on yourself first to see what happens. As Al Pacino put it in “Any given Sunday”: “The inches we need are everywhere around us,” and the less talent you have, the more of those inches you need. For that reason I’ve always been looking for them because I didn’t have the luxury of talent.

Enter “keto-adaptation”

So this morning I began a two week experiment on a new (or rather, old way of eating)* that has gained momentum in the last decade – it is essentially the “low-carb, high fat diet” which creates “keto-adapted” athletes rather than “carb-adapted” (the majority) or “merely” fat-adapted (those using proper endurance running techniques and healthy diets such as the Paleo Diet).

* This type of diet was common among hunter-gatherers even into modern times. Particularly the Inuit, the Bison People and the Masai

Since a low-carb diet will sound both like athletic and cardiovascular suicide to those educated by proponents of the traditional food pyramid and the cholesterol dogma of cardiovascular health that has permeated society for 40 odd years, let me explain why I would even contemplate this but first a quick description of what it is:

Keto-adaptation at a glance

When your body’s intake of carbohydrates drops to a very low level (less than 50mg per day), the body instead turns to it’s natural fat stores. Normally the process of mobilising your fat stores takes too long to be useful for exercise. But after a period of about two weeks of consuming less than 50mg of carbohydrates per day, something interesting happens. An old metabolic process restarts itself and your liver again becomes very adept at converting your fat stores into what is called “ketones”.

This gives you access to a deposit of over 40,000 kcal of energy, compared to the measly ~2000 kcal of glycogen you carry on-board – that tiny resources that all marathoners and ultra-marathoners struggle to find ways to top up – often balancing on a fine edge with stomach upsets.

Unfortunately, this practical process is sabotaged very easily – be the presence of insulin – and since sugar is all around us and high glycaemic carbohydrates are in almost all our favourite “modern foods”, the majority of us have never used this metabolic process. Rather it is chronically suppressed by consistently elevated levels of insulin. Every time you take in carbs, a response ensues.

Benefits of keto-adaptation

I don’t want to go further into the science today except to say that the benefits of keto-adaptation have been suggested, or demonstrated, to be the following:

  • Less or no need to refuel during prolonged exercise
  • Less hydration requirements during exercise
  • Improved recovery time after exercise
  • Less metabolic stress, tissue damage, immune system suppression, inflammation, gastro-intestinal distress and soreness
  • Improved performance in endurance events
  • Improvement in health especially cardiovascular health
  • Better body-weight composition (lower weight, better muscle to fat ratio)
  • No bonking and “hitting the wall”

This is quite a tantalising list, and the evidence is solid, so as a coach and athlete I would be a fool not to at least try to expose myself to this experience. It’s also my job: if I don’t try to find any possible advantage for my athletes, I being derelict in my duties.

How I got started

Before I cover my protocol, let me add that if you’re already contemplating this you need to read these books:

Without this information, or a coach who can guide you, don’t even consider replicating what I am doing – I read these cover to cover.  You need to know both the scientific reasons, the pitfalls and the exact protocol or you will fail and then potentially conclude “it’s impossible”.

What I am providing here are some highlights and my own personal journey, it will provide a roadmap on how to do it yourself but without the books it will be superficial. (of course you can always hire me to take you through it but until I’ve been through it myself the answer will be “no”! I do not believe it is right to teach techniques you have not experienced yourself first. This is called “arm-chair” coaching – a rant for another day).

First blood test results

A key part of “getting the process right” is to see that your blood ketone levels rise into the spectrum between 2 mMol/L and 5 mMol/L. Only when they reach this level has real keto-adaptation taken place. To monitor this at first it is recommended to do blood testing so you don’t accidentally run yourself down by taking in too many carbohydrates. Life without few carbs is fine – but in the absence of ketones it’ll be hell – because your brain needs either glucose or ketones. Give it either and you’ll have a tired brain!

I took my first tests at 22:00 at night yesterday and these were the readings:

  • Blood glucose: 4.5 mMol/l or 81mg/100ml (normal range: 80-120)
  • Blood ketones: 0.2 mMol/l (target: 2-5 mmol)
  • Body statistics:
    • Weight: 67.8 kg
    • Body-fat: 8.5% (5.76 kg)
    • Muscle: 45.7% (30.98 kg)

My lean muscle mass has been on the up since May and it’s a critical part of this experiment not to lose any of this precious tissue. An insufficient intake of fat  in my diet, for instance, would mean my body needs to cannibalise my muscle protein through a process called gluconeogenesis. So this type of eating is not about downing more protein but rather consuming more fat while keeping protein levels moderate and carbs minimal.

May I add I really enjoyed conducting this test and regret that I don’t have a the equipment to conduct any test I want in the house. Something to work on.

Where to get the test kit

I got the testing equipment in a pharmacy in Sandyford. The machine (Optium FreeStyle) was complimentary but the testing strips are expensive – coming in at around €44 for 10 ketone strips (I got 10 glucose strips free with the initial box). I have managed to find the remaining strips I need for €23.50 on Amazon but they don’t post to Ireland so the search will continue.

A quick piece of advice from the books listed earlier: do not use urine strips as the urine ketone levels has shown to often be a poor match with actual concentration in your blood. So I had to use the lancet that came with the package to prick holes in my fingers similar to what you get done in a lactate test.

In tomorrow’s instalment I will cover my food intake, general response to the first day of eating less than 50g of carbs and results of my blood samples at the end of Day 1.