Faster, stronger longer on LCHF

Low Carb High Fat Diets and Sports Performance

When we were in school, learning about how the human body works, how it derives energy from food and how it uses that energy to power sports performance, carbohydrates were always mentioned as an integral part of this process. We are told that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is then used to fuel the muscles during exercise, especially endurance exercise and intensive training. The concepts of ‘carb loading’ before an event and glucose supplementation during an event is indicative of how central it is to hold the idea that carbs are necessary for sport.

If you are an athlete or even someone who just enjoys a regular strenuous workout, but you are also undertaking the low carbohydrate, high fat diet for autoimmune health reasons, you may be wondering how all this is going to work out. Many people on the LCHF are concerned that they won’t have enough energy to perform at their peak and stay competitive in their chosen sport. The good news is that there are a variety of athletes from many different sports and backgrounds who have found the LCHF can not only work for them, but can improve their health and boost performance as well. Here we take a closer look at how a low carb, high fat diet can help you with your autoimmune disease and your sports performance.

The Benefits

If you’re already on the low carb, high fat diet for autoimmune reasons, then you’ll already be enjoying some of the benefits of this diet on calming your symptoms and helping you to manage your condition. Additionally, many studies have shown that eating a low carb, high fat diet helps to promote and improve the indicators of general health, such as glucose, insulin, blood fats and cholesterol, as well as reducing the risks of long term, chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

But when it comes to sports performance, these may not be the benefits you’re most interested in. As a sports person, athlete or fitness enthusiast, you want to know – will the LCHF diet give me the energy I need to get through my workout? The answer is a resounding YES, and then some, although it does take time and commitment to the diet.

It all depends on your ability to become fat adapted. Most of us who are consuming a ‘Dietary Guidelines’ style diet, are dependent on and adapted to using carbohydrates for energy. This is why carb-adapted athletes are dependent on carb loading and regular glucose supplements during intense exercise, because the body has become accustomed to using carbohydrate as the prime source of energy. Our bodies store 2500 calories worth of energy in the form of carbohydrate, some of which is released and used during exercise.

But the body has an even greater, more concentrated source of energy it is carrying around all the time – about 50,000 calories worth of fat. The key is teaching the body to use it. This involves becoming ‘fat adapted’ by following a low carbohydrate, high fat diet, so the body learns to use fat for energy, rather than carbohydrate. This takes time, and in some cases performance may suffer during the adaptation stage. But the end result is improved endurance performance, less reliance on carbohydrates, and a smoother transition to the fat burning phase of activity, with a lower risk of ‘bonking’, otherwise known as ‘hitting the wall’.

What Are The Downsides?

As mentioned above, it takes some time for an athlete or sports person to adapt to a fat based diet. Initially performance will suffer, although this depends on the person, and in the case of some sports or individuals, performance may be unchanged. Once the process of keto-adaptation has occurred however, performance should return to normal. This is why it’s a good idea to wait until between seasons to start implementing this eating program, for minimal adverse effects.

It’s also important to do thorough research and seek advice from your doctor, nutritionist or coach on how this plan could work for you. Although endurance athletes such as cyclists, runners, swimmers, and players of team sports achieve excellent results with a LCHF diet, the jury is still out on the effect for those involved in high intensity, power based sports, like sprinting or HIIT. Research and experimentation has shown that varying the carbohydrate intake, taking from 0 up to 200 grams of carbohydrate a day, can help make the LCHF work for any athlete. The key is to be informed, be supported, and get professional guidance and advice.

How To Go Low Carb, High Fat and Perform Well

  • If you are performing daily activity, a minimum of 1.6 – 2 grams of protein per kg of lean body weight (total body weight minus the weight represented by body fat percentage) is recommended.
  • Aiming for between 0 – 150 grams of carbohydrate per day should be adequate, but up to 200 grams a day has been used by some athletes if intensive training is undertaken.
  • After a workout can be the best time to have carbs, as there is a natural deficiency of glucose in the body at this time.
  • Read up on the low carbohydrate, high fat diet in your sport and see how other people have found success with it, and what the dangers are that you need to look out for. Every approach and intervention has it’s risks, but knowledge and education helps to counteract them.
  • Measure your food intakes. Keep a food diary or use an app to track your food and nutrient intakes. It’s especially important to track sodium, potassium and magnesium as the LCHF diet has a naturally diuretic effect and these electrolytes can need supplementation in athletes who are working out and sweating a lot.

This is just an introduction to the Low Carb, High Fat diet for sports performance, but the incredible benefits of this diet, not just for health but performance and ability in sports as well, make it a great approach for you to try, whether you’re a fitness aspirant or professional sportsperson.