Rowing and the “keto” diet


Quote from Andrew Hamilton via Christopher George.  This is about the Ketogenic (keto) Diet for endurance athletes.

“One longer-term low-carbohydrate approach that appears to be becoming more popular with athletes trying to increase fat burning is the use of a very low-carbohydrate, high fat diet – also known as the “keto diet”. The keto diet turns the conventional wisdom of a high-carbohdrate diet for athletes completely on its head. Instead of a typical 55% carb, 25% fat, 20% protein ratio in a high-carbohydrate diet, a keto diet supplies 75% of its calories from fat, with around 20% from protein and just 5% from carbohydrate!

But do keto diets really work for endurance athletes and if so, how can they be used without harming performance? And are there better, less extrpe approaches that can achieve the same objective? These are all questions answered in the forthcoming issue of Peak Performance, which looks at what the latest science really says about keto diets, and their benefits or otherwise for endurance athletes.

As I’ve explained in the article, media hype is all well and good, but because keto diets are pretty hard to follow, you need to be confident that a) they’ll help your performance and b) you know how to use thp correctly. There’s no denying that optimising body composition while consuming the correct diet to support racing and training is a hard nut to crack. But take it from someone who’s recently spent numerous hours lugging stones uphill – it could be well worth it!”

Sooner or later the rowing world will “get” this and wake up to the benefits of endurance training on fats… I just hope I am still alive!

Rowers discuss keto

I found this Reddit thread on ketogenic diet while rowing  there is intense discussion.  Here are a few quotes

A US rower who was on the national team

Erin Cafaro I think is the name you’re thinking of. Bow seat of the women’s 8 in 2012. Don’t know if she runs a blog but definitely did use the diet through the Olympic cycle.

Erin was a paleo adopter. Her husband, Brian Mackenzie talks about how he took her pretty far keto. Becoming “kept adapted” is the real challenge and the super unpleasant part. There’s been a lot of recent study and some good performances from keto athletes in triathlon, marathon and especially ultras. I don’t think it works well for rowing because the energy depands for a meaningful sprint can’t come from anything as well as they can from glycogen.

And from another contributor

To clarify on a few points here.

  1. Glycogen levels are not significantly lower on a day-to-day basis on a low-carb/high-fat diet when compared to a high carb diet. The physiological reason for this is that unlike glycogen in the liver (which is used up relatively quickly after the first few days of low carb), once glucose enters a muscle cell, it is phosphorylated and cannot leave (muscles lack the enzyme responsible for rpoving the phosphate group).
  2. Glycogen is less of a crucial fuel source when you are fat-adapted. The endocrine and enzymatic response to a high carb meal shuts limits the activity of the enzymes responsible for the breakdown of fatty acids in muscle cells. As you adapt to a high fat diet (producing ketone bodies, muscle epigenetics change to favor the production of enzymes that metabolize fat), you will be able to metabolize fat faster. Thus utilizing more fat at higher intensities.
  3. Fat is more accessible. Again, the endocrine response to increases in blood glucose levels is to pump out insulin, which tells fat cells to “store” rather than “release”. If fat cells are always ready to “release” their stored lipids, you will have better availability of fat in the bloodstream for muscles to pick up.
  4. If you are training on a well-polarized plan, you will use more fat (since more is available and more can be used) at all but the most intense levels of exercise. Thus, less need to recover glycogen on a day-to-day basis. If you drive your car at the same speed, but add a ton of weight, you use more fuel. Fat adapting enables you to maintain that speed, but leave more fuel (glycogen) in the tank.
  5. Diet is individual for everyone. Keto may or may not be the best diet for you. I enjoy it. I am certainly not performing at an elite level, but honestly how many of us are? My scores have been acceptable for a lightweight, and I’m happy with the balance between eating in a way that helps me keep my weight down, while being able to perform and compete.

And from someone who seps to be a coach
Anecdotally one of my faster kids on my team has been on Keto for years(independent of my pro-keto attitude), he used to be a swimmer and he used it successfully in that sport and now he is very quick fitness wise and does not feel like shit… although getting on the diet is hard because the transition can hit you hard, and that transition may take anywhere from 1-8 weeks.

But independent of my opinions I think there needs to be more studies because the distance of rowing hasn’t been studied very much, because keto was developed for ultra marathons and such and not 5:30-7:30 minutes of work.

Have any readers tried the Keto diet for Rowing?

Please share your experiences and where you got the information on what to eat and how to balance your exercise  / nutrition needs in the comments below.


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Christopher George

    There are the following major factors for rowers. Firstly, since about 80% of the 2k is aerobic and 20 anaerobic, the key engine to improve is the aerobic one. That is improved by eating correctly such as to improve the use of fats (all as described so aptly above) and, secondly, working for long distances USING fats i.e. at ridiculously low intensities (for the mindset of an oarsman/woman). For example, in 2013 one my favoured sessions was 90 mins “UT3” rates 10 to 13 (Yes that is not a misprint) at low intensity and working on the phasing. This fits in with the Dr Mafetone formula for 180 less age as a MAX heart rate intensity. This builds up aerobic endurance so that you are able to go more distance per stroke at that maximum heart rate which for a 30 year old athlete would be limited to 150 bmp. I have been able to maintain weight at under or about my international LW weigh in target for the Worlds in 1977 without any effort at all and was able to train for and compete in the Worlds in Hawaii in Kona last year with minimal injury (despite having a lung infection which went undiagnosed during the preparation!). That is why I confidently predict rowers will come round to it in the end as its secondary advantage is continuity of training and health which does not happen on a high GI diet – just look at the incidence of overtraining in rowers and the BR squads over the last 4 decades

  2. jen

    I went to a keto diet about a month before returning to my team–I’m a masters rower, and I’d stepped away to have my second child. I was off the water for about a year and a half, during which a few health issues drove me to try out something entirely different. (Eating like a pregnant rower was fun, but when you’re off the water and the baby is a year old, it’s time to shift gears.) Keto was fine until I went back to the boathouse; it shifted my perspective on dietary fats–it’s hard to shake a lifetime of low- and non-fat cultural programming–and I suspect that it helped to heal some gut issues I’d dealt with for a long time.

    Once my training volume began to increase, I switched from straight keto to carb cycling–still on a fat-first diet, but testing how timing certain foods affected how I felt on the water and during recovery. When I added those limited carbs back in, performance improved. Dramatically, at first.

    I transitioned back to our competitive crew and training volume doubled. My weight loss stalled and I had to deal with another issue requiring surgery this winter. BUT. In the middle of the fall season, I shifted to a 40/30/30 protein-first diet (piggybacking on the success of my favorite pair partner) and have seen significant results (PRs, weight loss, etc.). For me, at least, this is the breakdown that works…for now. 🙂 It’s also tied to cross-training–instead of running, I’m lifting, so higher protein is a better fit.

    I think there’s value in trying keto to see how your body and training respond to it, especially if you’re used to avoiding fat in food. As an athlete, I leaned heavily on carbs and relied on my training to burn them off, and I was “fast enough” at the time, but expectations have changed. I don’t carb-load anymore, protein shakes are my “snacks,” and I’m faster and fitter than I’ve ever been.

    I’m not a junior or an elite rower, though. I’m a 41yo mom who trains hard but still has to feed a family and fuel a workday. I also think there’s the science of how certain diets are supposed to work, and then there’s the unique chemistry of an individual body (I lack a thyroid, for example, which makes me extra careful). I found the same reddit thread/s and reacted much as I did when I went looking for “rowing and pregnancy”–no one studies rowers, specifically. It’s all about marathoners. 😉 It’s up to us to test which foods and patterns support our training goals, and which don’t. If only it were as easy as one recommended diet!

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