Ketogenic, or low-carbohydrate diets have become more and more popular lately. Individuals who turn to these types of diets do so for a number of reasons including healthy body weight control, increased muscular definition, better hunger control, etc.
It is often believed that low-carb diets would hinder performance of athletes due to a lack of power and or strength, but a recent study out of Padova, Italy shows otherwise.
Despite the increasing use of very low carbohydrate ketogenic diets (VLCKD) in weight control and management of the metabolic syndrome there is a paucity of research about effects of VLCKD on sport performance. Ketogenic diets may be useful in sports that include weight class divisions and the aim of our study was to investigate the influence of VLCKD on explosive strength performance.
The use of carbohydrates has been widely used by high-performance athletes to assist in their desired competitions. Carbohydrates are digested and converted to glucose and then glycogen, or the main energy source used by the muscles (stored in the liver and muscles) for quick sources of energy, like what is needed during strength or explosive power movements.
One would believe that a reduction in dietary carbohydrates would therefore equate to a drop in performance because an athlete would not be able to complete fast, powerful movements with as much force or efficiency.
What this study has found, however, is that athletes can actually maintain levels of strength for relatively short periods of time. Assuming sufficient levels of dietary protein are met, strength gains can be maintained while cutting weight and body fat percentage.
Despite concerns of coaches and doctors about the possible detrimental effects of low carbohydrate diets on athletic performance and the well known importance of carbohydrates there are no data about VLCKD and strength performance. The undeniable and sudden effect of VLCKD on fat loss may be useful for those athletes who compete in sports based on weight class. We have demonstrated that using VLCKD for a relatively short time period (i.e. 30 days) can decrease body weight and body fat without negative effects on strength performance in high level athletes.
As the study notes, this is especially important for athletes who must meet weight guidelines whilst maintaining levels of strength. This can be an effective tool for these types of athletes who traditionally dehydrate themselves and reduce calorie intake in an attempt to reduce weight. This could be a more beneficial tool to reduce weight due to the maintenance of strength levels.
Other sports that are not as strict on weight classes, such as soccer for example, could benefit from such findings based on the strength to weight ratio. Athletes who maintain a level of strength or power yet are at a reduced weight could potentially increase performance on the field due to increased body and motion control - i.e. agility and speed.
It should be noted, however, that further studies should be completed to understand long-term (longer than 30 days of low-carb dieting) performance effects of reduced carbohydrate ingestion to see whether or not performance would eventually start to decline due to reduced carbohydrates.
I know that for myself, when I decide to use periods of low-carb dieting, I surprise myself with how well I am still able to perform during my workout or training sessions. I am always fearful that I will notice the effects of a lower than usual carb diet, but am almost always surprised at how well my body adapts and finds ways to still perform with the food that I do ingest.