Can Carbs Give Us Superpowers On A Ketogenic Diet?
I’ve always been interested in peak athletic performance. And while physical health certainly includes reclaiming core foundational health, it goes far beyond that. Peak performance also includes optimizing energy levels and the physique.
It’s incredibly beneficial to have consistent strength throughout the day and a body that looks good and increases your confidence levels.
In my pursuit of peak performance, I’ve spent the past few years trying to optimize my diet. Because I didn’t know any better, I grew up eating a good old fashioned American diet, which included lots of carbohydrates.
My energy levels used to be all over the place. I would totally crash after meals, feeling extremely mentally drained and very lethargic. I assumed that falling energy levels were just a natural part of eating. After all, the body needs to digest food and that requires energy.
As I began implementing the Keto diet, and then the Carnivore diet, I started to see drastic changes. My energy levels actually began increasing after meals. Eating large portions of meat would lead to a tremendous surge in energy!
But after eating a strict Carnivore Keto for around 24 months, I began to notice a few things that gave me pause. Around the holidays, I would eat “cheat” foods that had more carbs in them. These foods would provide me with a distinct energy boost during heavy lifting days or when I was playing soccer with my brothers.
I started doing research to figure out what role, if any, carbs should play in my diet. In the ketogenic community, there’s definitely a stigma around eating carbs. And, to be fair, carbs have become a primary macronutrient in the American diet, which has caused all kinds of health problems for people. But when used very specifically and strategically, carbs can provide some key benefits.
Carbs For High Performance
The keto diet is extremely effective for a number of key things. It can be really helpful in reversing metabolic dysfunction. It’s also a very effective way of reducing body fat. If you have excess body fat (15-20% for men and 20-25% for women), adopting a keto diet can help you slim down.
The keto diet also provides steady, stable, clear energy that supports low-to-medium physical activities and intense cognitive tasks.
But what about those times when you need higher energy levels so that you can perform more demanding activities? What about those times when you’re engaging in intense workouts for the purpose of building your physique? When you’re not just targeting a body fat percentage or weight but are actively seeking physical growth? What should you do then?
It turns out that you can still remain in ketosis while adding targeted carbs to your diet. In fact, adding these carbs can actually help you achieve your overall health goals. Once you’re metabolically healthy, training intensity is the name of the game when it comes to getting tangible results from your workouts. Carbs can help you reach the necessary intensity levels.
Specifically, carbs can help you build more muscle and even burn fat without compromising your overall metabolic health.
In order to understand exactly how this works, you need to understand the energy delivery systems of your body.
Energy Delivery Systems
Now, this is going to get a bit technical but stick with me. Essentially, your body has three energy systems that it uses to supply you with energy.
First, there is the ATP-CP system, which is sometimes called the “immediate energy system”. It accesses glycogen that is stored locally in your muscles whenever you initiate any muscle movement. It uses creatine phosphate to resynthesize ATP and only functions for a very short period of time (the first 10-15 seconds of movement).
Next, there is the glycolytic system. This system kicks in during short-duration, high-intensity exercises, like when you’re lifting heavy weights for a few minutes. It utilizes the short term supply of glucose that you have stored in your body and transforms it into energy. Even if you’re in keto, your body still makes glucose and stores it in your liver and muscles. It does this through a process called gluconeogenesis.
Finally, there is the oxidative system, which provides energy to your body indefinitely. The oxidative system is what allows you to perform endurance activities like running for long periods of time. It converts fat reserves into energy and then parcels out that energy to your body.
Carbs and Energy
Now, what do your energy delivery systems have to do with achieving peak performance? If you’re going to be doing high-intensity workouts longer than around 20 minutes, it can be very beneficial to consume some carbs so that your glycolytic system has more glucose available, which it can quickly transform into energy. Giving your body this extra “fuel” can help you workout more effectively and achieve better physical results.
So, for example, I weigh about 160 pounds. On workout days, I’ll typically consume around 20 grams of carbs about 30 minutes before the workout (a tablespoon of honey). Then, right before the workout, I’ll consume another 20-25 more grams of carbs. This keeps my blood sugar from crashing and provides me with the energy I need to work out intensely for an hour or so.
Will I be in ketosis during the workout? Probably not. But because I don’t consume carbs in large amounts after the workout, I’ll be back in it pretty quickly.
Now, you may be wondering if adding in targeted carbs before workouts will affect your ability to lose fat. In fact, the opposite is true. In his book The New Rules of Keto, Dr. Jordan Joy writes:
In our work, the strict keto group and the targeted keto group (group eating carbs, but maintaining ketosis – monitored by blood BHB concentrations) lost about the same amount of weight. In fact, adding the 20g of carbs pre-exercise helped them lose about 1.2% more fat mass for a total loss of 3.0 kilograms of pure fat vs. just 2.7 kilograms in the strict keto group. For reference, the carbohydrate diet control groups (one supplementing 20g carbs pre-exercise as well, one not) lost an average of just 1.5 kilograms of fat. Clearly, eating the right amount of carbs, at the right time, in the correct form, and otherwise maintaining a low-carb or keto lifestyle is helping, not hurting, fat loss!
The bottom line? If you want to achieve peak performance, consider adding in targeted carbs just prior to your workouts. You’ll get better results both during and after.
Want to dive even deeper into this subject? Check out this video I made on using carbs to improve performance.
If you want to further explore the science of the relationship between carbs and keto, I highly recommend Dr. Jordan Joy’s free ebook The New Rules of Keto.