Saturday, 13 August 2016

Post 19: Ketogenic Workouts

Hi Guys,

What does conventional wisdom say about exercise? That it needs to be fueled by carbohydrates? That you will be weak without them? That to maintain a high level of performance for long periods you’ll require careful glycogen strategies and intra-workout (mid-workout) designer gels?

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know that I recently started ketogenic dieting (less than 25g of carbs a day), which I’ve documented in a post on my general experience (link) and a meal plan (link). This post will continue on that theme and address three topics: 1) the benefits of ketogenic workouts, 2) how you can expect a ketogenic diet to affect your performance, and 3) how it affected my own workouts.

The three types of workouts we are going to address are cardio sessions (endurance) and HIIT and strength sessions (explosive workouts).

I want to stress that there are good and bad parts (although these are few in number) to ketogenic workouts. As always, there is no free lunch.

General advantages and endurance workouts

First we need to introduce a definition. We should define responsible, effective endurance training as long periods of low intensity aerobic exercise. What is aerobic exercise? Aerobic exercise occurs when your heart rate is in the aerobic heart rate zone, which can be ascertained using the Maffetone 180 formula. Essentially, if your heart rate is under 180- your age, plus or minus 10 to account for health and circumstance, you are performing at an aerobic capacity. Check out Dr. Maffetone’s website here where he fully describes his rationale for the formula. The 180 rule is a simple and effective way to check your activity level.

Above this level is anaerobic activity - a state where we burn stored carbohydrates (muscle and liver glycogen) to induce maximal output (think life or death moments). Being in an anaerobic state is an acute stressor to the body, i.e. acute as in it should not happen often and there should be sufficient rest in between. This is opposed to chronic stress, which occurs consistently and is debilitating. Therefore, the anaerobic zone should only be entered sporadically.

The first advantage of training in a ketogenic state is the fat burning. When training at aerobic levels your body will increasingly utilise fat stores for energy. There’s no need for intra-workout fuel as it can be found all over your body! Also, and importantly, as you train more in ketosis, your body will start to use fat as a fuel in greater proportions. When you begin to exercise you use a higher proportion of glucose for energy. As the workout progresses, given you stay in that aerobic state, this proportion will decrease and be replaced with stored fat as a fuel source. So as your workout continues, you burn fat over glucose for energy. Now, what’s cool about ketogenic workouts is that as you perform them more often your body will make this transition quicker. Hence, the carbs that you do eat are “spared” (called glycogen sparing i.e. stored carbohydrate sparing), and saved for later anaerobic sessions.

On top of that, as you train more in the aerobic range you’ll be able to complete more strenuous workouts at the same heart rate. This is called improving your fitness! You will also become more energy efficient. This in turn pushes the level where you reach anaerobic activity a little higher, hence improving your explosive workouts too. Part of what’s spurred me to start looking into ketogenic workouts more is Mark Sisson’s work on fat fueled workouts (read his daily blog here or pick up his book here). Mark knows his stuff, and heartily recommends having a strong aerobic base, which after digging around myself I have found to be true. Therefore, these long, low intensity workouts should be beneficial to you even if you are a powerlifter who’s only focus is strength, explosive power, and anaerobic activity!

The next benefit is that fat burns cleaner than glucose. Energy (adenosine triphosphate - ATP) is produced inside the mitochondria of every cell. Mitochondria are often described as little energy factories, and the unfortunate truth is that creating ATP via glucose burning leads to undesirable byproducts such as free radicals. These lead to inflammation and aging as oxygen travels around your body and oxidises other molecules (think about how iron rusts…). Burning fat in the mitochondria is more efficient, leading to a greater creation of ATP from each gram of carbon, and less of those undesirable byproducts. Altogether, burning fats for your endurance workouts is much more supportive of your overall health and goals.

Like I said earlier, this isn’t a free lunch, but it is close...

By training in the aerobic range using fats as an ever increasing proportion of your fuel, you’ll be getting more bang for your buck. So if you really want to scrape the barrel for negatives, it would be the psychology of going easy on yourself!

You’ve been programmed for years that “no pain no gain” is real. It is, you need to stress your body to induce a positive adaptation, but you don’t have to kill yourself in the process.

The negative might be that you slow down your endurance training and think that you aren’t putting enough work in, or that others will judge you. The truth is that you’re actually laying the groundwork for great  success in the future. Life really is an inside job…

But it truthfully could be tough for you to adapt, especially type-A personalities who want to lay it all on the line. Slowing down in one area is going to let you speed up elsewhere.

So overall, ketogenic endurance training gets a glowing report. It is suitable for those who want to stay fit and improve their fitness. It is great for those who want to burn fat. And it’s great for people who want to (indirectly) improve their explosive workouts. A+.

HIIT and strength training

When it comes to explosive workouts, the story becomes a little muddled. It actually makes more sense to start with the disadvantages here.

To begin with you will feel a little weaker, which should be expected. You’re not filling up your glycogen stores to the max every day (and you’re also not consuming a high amount of inflammatory carbs which contribute to fat gain either but whatever…) and therefore there will be less backing that anaerobic workout.

However, this puts us at an impasse: a fork in the road where you need to make a choice between two paths. 1) eat more carbs hence increasing your glycogen stores and maintain the same level of your workouts, but at the same time knock yourself out of ketosis. Or 2) eat in the ketogenic manner, take a hit to your workouts for now, and then allow improvements in your aerobic base to channel their way to your anaerobic activity.

Of course by now, you should know the path that I would (that I did) take. I much prefer the overall benefits of ketosis compared to those that could be gained from glycogen stocking. In my opinion, those benefits are marginal when compared to the ones I am enjoying now. Like I said earlier, when we operate in a ketogenic state at low levels of activity, we are actually doing the groundwork to push ourselves in the future. Over time, maximal output will increase and so will strength and muscle gains.

My experience

One of the reasons that I transitioned to a ketogenic diet was because I was going into the last weeks of a cut (fat loss period). This has also pushed me to introduce some cardio to eek out the last few gains. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not going into the black hole of chronic cardio. What is the black hole? The black hole is a mixture of long endurance workouts at an anaerobic heart rate. They’re not good for fat burning like aerobic endurance workouts, and they’re equally bad at building muscle, strength and explosive power. Participating in chronic cardio and the black hole is like buying a one-way ticket to snap city, with stop-offs at lean mass breakdown, stress, and food cravings.

So what did I actually do? Over the past two weeks I’ve competed four endurance sessions (inclined walking) of roughly 20 minutes in length, monitoring my heart rate using the 180 rule (my average was around 130 bpm). At this early stage, I haven’t invested yet in a proper heart rate monitor so I just had to use the detection handles of the machines at the gym, but it will do for now. I also completed a HIIT session on the stationary bike, doing 30 seconds of sprinting followed by one and a half minutes of slow cycling for four rounds. On top of that I was completing my usual strength training.

As expected, I did feel a little weaker in my strength training, although I did still complete all of my sets (just!). What I found interesting, was that I felt stronger when I was working out fasted i.e. before eating any protein or super low carb veg. This is something I would like to investigate a little more, since it really does fly in the face of CW. When I worked out fasted my last meal would have been 14-15 hours previous. Compare that to when I worked out later in the day when the closest meal was only five hours beforehand. Perhaps this says something about running off of ketones and your own fat stores.

Bodyfat %

It might also point towards my desk job (i.e. sedentary), and that therefore I would have been seated for longer periods pre-workout. In addition, I drink caffeine via my fatty coffee in the morning, which would be closer to the workout, but I would be reluctant to test this out using caffeinated coffee before a later workout due to the effects on sleep, so this will require me to get some decaf. The whole coffee artifact, however, leads to to the same conclusion as the preceding paragraph. The coffee itself would be helping my body to mobilise fat stores for fuel, hence making stored fat fueled workouts yield better returns.

Alternatively, it could be the additional fats consumed in the morning in the form of butter and coconut oil which were helping out. This could be the case, but then again it would be in the wrong form to be aiding anaerobic activity.

With regards to my endurance and HIIT sessions, I am only just starting these so it will require more data for me to say anything concrete (especially with HIIT).

One immediate benefit I have seen from the whole thing, is smoothness in daily weigh-ins. This sounds like an odd benefit to enjoy, and truthfully it is only psychological. By avoiding up-downs in water weight you can often watch your weight slowly reduce, so you get a more consistent idea of how much fat you’re losing. Here’s a graph of my weight over the past two weeks. Barring the cheat day I had on day 7 (where I went way, way over the top at an unlimited asian tapas meal…), there was a nice smoothness in the numbers which you can see properly in the graphical representation. Compare this to way back in May when I wrote about bulletproof intermittent fasting and you see how the numbers were swinging around a heck of a lot more. Now, I know that the below doesn’t blow you out of the water with results, but that’s because I’m at a different level of dieting now where gains are harder to come by. Overall psychologically, though, I much prefer this pattern as I can enjoy each daily weigh-in rather than just appreciate the big weekly one.


Before I go I need to remind you all of one important fact: that this is just an N=1, so you can’t make solid conclusions from the data, but it at least shows that it is possible. Peter Attia writes an amazing blog all about health and fitness at Eating Academy, and has written many equally amazing articles on the interplay of ketosis and exercise here and here. It’s not for the faint hearted but it’s worth the read. He also draws attention to a particular analogy: that if you spot a black sheep, you can only know that at least one black sheep exists at that point in time on one side. It’s not conclusive evidence, but it’s sure possible! Don’t disregard any experience just as an N=1, instead understand that you should test on yourself and come to your own conclusions!

Given our whirlwind tour of ketogenic workouts, here’s this week’s takeaways:
  1. Build a strong aerobic base using the 180 rule
  2. Stick with the strength workouts, and look forward to long term strength gains
  3. Pay attention to your own N=1, question what you know about glycogen and workouts, and take note of how you feel and perform

That’s your lot! Go out into the world and apply this knowledge!

Until next time,

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