By Lars Hundley
Recently, I ran into a blog about following a ketogenic diet as a cyclist, http://www.ketoadaptedcyclist.com, written by the attorney, certified Bulletproof nutritional coach, and road cyclist, Valerie Peterson.
As someone who tries to avoid white sugar and wheat, I learned from personal experience that it takes a while to adapt to riding well when you’re restricting carbohydrates. For me, it took almost six weeks of a much higher perceived effort during faster rides before I finally started to adapt and feel normal again. Once I did, I was able to ride for two or more hours just carrying water without worrying about bonking, which helped me avoid eating and drinking most of typical sugary cycling products I felt were not necessarily beneficial to my health in the first place.
A ketogenic diet takes the low carbohydrate approach even further than I did. I found Valerie’s blog so interesting that I asked her if she’d be willing to do an interview for Road Bike Rider to introduce our readers to her perspective on nutrition and whether a ketogenic diet can really work for an avid cyclist.
Can you give a quick explanation of what a ketogenic diet and ketosis actually means?
A ketogenic diet is one that restricts carbs, allows for moderate protein, and high fat. However, high fat means good fat, like coconut oil, grass-fed beef, fat from nuts, etc. Restricting carbs and protein allows your body to shift from burning carbs for energy, to burning fat instead. Being in ketosis (or nutritional ketosis) means your body is using ketones for energy rather than glucose so the result is you are using fat stores for energy.
How long have you been a cyclist?
I’ve been riding since around 2009, and started doing more “serious” long rides in 2011. I grew up playing as many sports as possible (in a small town you can do pretty much every sport), and I played volleyball and basketball in college. I always had a bike as a kid, but it was a means of transportation for me – I didn’t really think about using it as a way to stay in shape!
Is your husband also a cyclist?
My husband is also a cyclist. He introduced me to cycling and has been a great coach. He started out racing mountain bikes, then switched to road. We both ride road now. I’ve dabbled in mountain biking, but I really enjoy riding on the road. Of course it can be stressful at times when you’re riding on roads with a lot of cars around, but it is always enjoyable for me.
Do you both ride low carb?
Starting in 2015, we both started following a ketogenic diet. Our dedication to this started after I read the book, “Grain Brain.” The research in that book that connected carbohydrates with dementia made sense to me. I have dementia in my family (which is what led me to the area of elder law in 2003), and I am determined to do everything in my power to avoid getting dementia. That book and subsequent research I did convinced me that we can adopt a lifestyle that will help prevent dementia and other diseases that affect the brain, and what we eat is a huge part of that lifestyle.
What kind of cycling do you like to do?
I have ridden several big organized rides: Copper Triangle was my first big ride that I did back in 2011. The following year I rode Triple Bypass, and continued to do other centuries locally. I consider my biggest organized ride accomplishment to be completing Lotoja – a 207 mile ride from Logan, UT to Jackson, WY that must be completed before sundown. They control when you start the race and my age group was one of the later starts. I completed it in 12 hours and 10 minutes of riding time, and finished in the top third of my age group. But what I’m most proud of is the fact that I did this ride in 2015, which was my first year following a ketogenic diet. I was able to follow my diet and had a great result. I chronicle this in my blog for those who want more detail!
The other accomplishments I’m most proud of are the rides I’ve done in France. My husband leads tours over there as a hobby (his website is FranceCyclingTours.com), so we try to go over to ride each year. We usually spend between 7-10 days and we ride some pretty epic roads every day.
In three separate trips, I’ve ridden some of the most famous climbs of the Tour de France – Mt. Ventoux twice, Alpe d’Huez twice, Col du Tormalet, the Col du Telegraph and Galibier double, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Col du Solour and Col d’ Abisque (same day, and then Solour again this year), Lacets de Montvernier, and many other beautiful, lesser known climbs in France.
I’ve also climbed some amazing roads in Colorado both as part of Copper Triangle and Triple Bypass, and some we’ve done just for fun! I’ve climbed Loveland Pass, Independence Pass and Pikes Peak, to name a few.
I don’t typically ride with a group other than my husband and another friend who lives nearby. I’m not opposed to it, but my work schedule prevents me from participating in group rides during the week and I usually go on longer rides involving a lot of climbing on the weekend.
Did you or your husband go through an adaptation period when you switched to keto, where you initially rode worse or felt worse when you made the switch?
Definitely! For a few weeks, neither of us felt great on a ride. It felt like we did not have much energy. However, we pushed on and once we made it past those few weeks, we started to feel much better. Our muscles weren’t as sore after a hard ride, our stomachs weren’t upset, and we immediately started feeling stronger on rides. I also went through a day that had to have been the “keto flu.” My stomach rejected everything I tried to put into it! This was about 2 weeks into our switch to a ketogenic diet. After that, however, I did not have any other issues.
What should someone expect if they are used to eating a lot of carbs and riding while consuming high carb foods? Is it a difficult transition, and will they bonk all the time?
It’s hard to say, but I think it’s reasonable for someone to expect a transition that is not a smooth one! The best advice I didn’t take was to get adapted during a time that you’re not exercising a lot. I can’t remember why we didn’t follow this advice – either we were stubborn, or I read it after we were already riding, or both! At any rate, if possible, I’d try a ketogenic diet for at least 2-3 weeks, check your blood to make sure you’re in nutritional ketosis on a consistent basis, then start training hard. I always ask people why they are choosing a ketogenic diet because their motivation can be key to how they react to the adaptation process. I was very clear in why I was doing it, which had nothing to do with athletic performance, so that may have made it easier for me to suffer through those tough rides early on. If someone is adopting a ketogenic diet for athletic performance, they could get discouraged easily when they see a dip in their performance for what could be 4-6 weeks. I would encourage anyone to wait to judge their performance until they know they are fully adapted, meaning they are in nutritional ketosis consistently, and if they still see a decline in performance then it may not be the right diet for that person.
How can you avoid bonking if you are riding keto?
It depends on whether you’re fat-adapted, and how long you’ve been adapted. Once I was in ketosis consistently (at least a month), I did not bonk and haven’t ever since. But if you have a sprint at the end of a race and you’re worried about having enough energy, it’s fine to take in some carbohydrates before the sprint. Your body will burn those first, then will switch back to burning fat when it’s used up all of the glucose.
What should you eat on rides while on a ketogenic diet?
If you’re keto-adapted (or fat-adapted), you shouldn’t need anything on a ride shorter than 2 hours. Hydration is more important. Make sure you have a sports drink that has zero sugar, but plenty of electrolytes and magnesium. We use ZipFizz, and I also like Nuun. You can take a small bag full of almonds or cashews with you, or a low carb bar, preferably one without sugar alcohols that can hurt your stomach. We use Stabilyze and Atkins Trail bars because both have zero sugar alcohols.
How do you personally eat and drink on a long ride of more than three hours?
I’ll answer this in 2 parts – year 1 of a ketogenic diet, and what I do now. In year 1, I would take Super Starch before a long ride. I would carry nuts with me, and a low carb bar or 2. I’d usually eat one bar during a long ride, and some of the nuts. In my water bottle I would have something that had zero sugar, no aspartame, but lots of electrolytes and vitamins and a second bottle with just water. I used to use a product from Vega in my water bottle, then switched to ZipFizz because it tasted better but had the same ingredients. I would also use Vespa before and during a long ride and found I could substitute it for the Super Starch as it was easier on my stomach.
Now, I don’t need the Super Starch before or during a long ride. I use ZipFizz or Nuun in one water bottle, water in the other, and I carry an Atkins trail bar and/or a Stabilyze bar with me, but rarely eat them on a ride. I am strict about the Atkins trail bar and Stabilyze bars because they do not contain any sugar alcohols. I use salt tabs if it’s hot (2 before a ride, and 1-2 each hour). I’ll also carry nuts if it’s hot – cashews, almonds or peanuts. I’m rarely hungry on a ride and haven’t “bonked” since the first several weeks in 2015 when I was becoming fat-adapted. I’m also religious about taking magnesium at night. I’ve done this for a few years now and rarely have cramping.
One of the big criticisms I see about going ketogenic is that you won’t get enough fruits and vegetables to stay healthy and you will end up eating too much meat and dairy. Are you concerned about not getting enough fruits or vegetables?
I am, and getting enough vegetables is sometimes a struggle for me. I also struggle to eat enough fish, mainly because it’s hard for me to cook it and then eat it! For me, it just takes a conscious effort to include a vegetable with lunch and dinner, even if it’s the same one day after day (we eat a lot of broccoli!). If it’s easy to prepare, I’m far more likely to eat it so I keep it simple. Sometimes I’ll just cut up half of an avocado with my meal if I don’t have time for anything else.
Following up on fruits and vegetables, do you feel that a ketogenic diet is a realistic long term way to eat for most people? Specifically, do you feel that there might be health risks with not consuming enough fruits and vegetables? It seems like you can dig up some compelling research for quite a few ways of eating that seem to track well with health with large groups of people over long periods of time like vegetarian or Mediterranean.
I think most people will find a balance that works for them depending on their ultimate health goals. My ultimate goal is avoiding dementia and other autoimmune diseases and I choose to believe the research that links processed foods that are high in carbs and sugar, to those diseases. As a result, it’s not a diet for me, it’s just a lifestyle that I choose to lead. As for consuming fruits and vegetables, I think it’s a matter of discipline, and being willing to think outside the box when it comes to meals.
For example, it may mean eating a small salad with your eggs at breakfast, or having an avocado with a handful of nuts for lunch. There are also supplements that can help. I’ve tried one called Keto Greens, which provides vegetables in a powder form. It doesn’t taste the best, but it works better than no vegetables at all. I save fruits for dessert – mainly berries because they are lower in sugar, but occasionally I’ll have grapes, or a peach. Fruits are very high in sugar, and many vegetables are high in starch so people following a ketogenic diet just have to be careful about which fruits and vegetables they consume. I also believe the timing of your meals makes a big difference. I’m definitely a fan of intermittent fasting, and longer fasting when I feel I need to.
Are you concerned about cholesterol or blood pressure or anything else that you might test, and do you measure these things? What kind of results have you seen, if so?
I’m laughing a little at this one because I am absolutely militant about checking my cholesterol! What I learned on this journey is that our overall cholesterol numbers mean absolutely nothing because they are only an estimate. What does matter is the size of your particles in your LDL cholesterol – small particles are bad (B particles), big fluffy particles are good (A particles). I also learned that your triglycerides to HDL ratio does matter. Ideally you will have a ratio of 1 or 2, for example, triglycerides of 100 and HDL of 50 would be a ratio of 2.
Here is a blog post I wrote about my research on the issue of cholesterol: http://www.ketoadaptedcyclist.com/fat-and-cholesterol/. I also wrote a blog post on how I lowered my “bad” cholesterol by 40 points and brought my triglyceride to HDL ration down to 1:1: http://www.ketoadaptedcyclist.com/how-i-lowered-my-cholesterol-40-points/. I also had a particle study done last year and learned I have the big “fluffy” particles so I feel very good about that!
My blood pressure has never been an issue, and since the ketogenic diet it’s been consistently hovering around 110/60, sometimes lower, sometimes slightly higher.
Are there other ways to approach using a ketogenic approach that aren’t as long term? For example, as a way to transition away from too much sugar in your diet, or as a way to go into a more wheat and sugar free diet? Or do you feel that this defeats the purpose?
I think it truly depends on what your motivation is for starting a ketogenic diet. If you aren’t adopting it as a lifestyle then it will be tough to stick to it long term. I can’t stress enough how dangerous sugar is to our bodies, and would highly recommend everyone cutting it out of their diet. Once you’ve detoxed from sugar, then start eliminating another problem food like white starchy processed food until you reach a diet that helps you maintain your health goal and that you can stick to.
How important is actual ketosis versus just significantly restricting simple carbohydrates, for example? This will be different for each person. I like the feeling of being in ketosis – steady energy, very rarely tired during the day after a meal. I don’t get the same feeling when I just restrict simple carbs because I’m still consuming a lot of other carbs that causes a spike in my insulin and then later a loss of energy. Other people may operate well on a low carb diet and feel really energized. I think it’s more important to find a food combination that you can stick to, and that helps you reach your health and fitness goals.
I’m sure you’ve seen criticism of the ketogenic diet by some well regarded coaches, like the article by Chris Carmichael, Should Endurance Athletes Go Keto. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
I usually consider the source, their experience, whether they are selling something, and what type of research it’s based on. Here is a blog post I wrote in response to this article: http://www.ketoadaptedcyclist.com/does-a-ketogenic-diet-improve-endurance-performance/.
Which coaches, experts, blogs, books, etc. do you follow that convinced you that a ketogenic diet is the way to go?
Jeff Volek and Stephen Finney have probably done the most research that pertains to cyclists and/or endurance athletes. In this blog I discuss a study they did on whether a ketogenic diet improves athletic performance: http://www.ketoadaptedcyclist.com/does-a-ketogenic-diet-improve-endurance-performance/.
I listen to Dr. Attia quite a bit, and read his blog religiously when I was first starting out. He took some time off from his blog, but now has a great podcast that I listen to when I have time! His blogs and podcasts are very technical, but always packed with interesting tests and research he’s done on himself.
I will listen to Ben Greenfield when he has a podcast specifically on ketogenic diets or ketosis. As for books, I have read: Grain Brain by Dr. Perlmutter, The Low Carb Athlete by Ben Greenfield, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Finney, Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore, Cholesterol Clarity by Jimmy Moore, The Complete Guide to Fasting by Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer by Nasha Winters and Jess Kelly, The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, The Walhs Protocol by Terry Wahls, Eat Dirt by Josh Axe, Eat Fat, Get Thin by Mark Hyman and Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.
As you can see, I read a lot about health. Most of the athletic performance research is from articles published online or podcasts from others experimenting with a subject of one (themselves) – there just aren’t a lot of books I’ve found on that topic.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that I’m a stronger athlete since starting the ketogenic diet. I can ride longer without fueling, I ride faster, but neither my husband nor I race. But we are data nerds and analyze our performance pretty religiously based on our Garmin output. He recently purchased a power meter and is training with that, and I intend to buy one later this year.
Can you give me some examples of some typical meals if you’re on a ketogenic diet?
Breakfast: Cage-free eggs and pastured bacon (I’m pretty strict about both of these – the bacon is harder to find, but stores like Whole Foods carry it). I will skip breakfast on days I’m not exercising a lot.
Lunch: A low carb wrap with lunch meat from a trusted source (Applegate is my go to brand for lunch meat – humanely raised animals, vegetarian fed), 2-3 mini sweet peppers. Another option would be a salad with lots of avocado and eggs.
Dinner: Grass-fed meat with a vegetable. We will eat steak maybe once a week with steamed or roasted broccoli or brussel sprouts.
I can’t stress enough how the quality of meat (grass-fed and grass-finished, pastured pigs, cage-free chickens, all raised humanely) matters when on a ketogenic diet. It costs more, but will provide so many more health benefits, especially when you are eating more meat on this type of diet. It’s also important to control portions in order to keep the amount of protein down. If you ingest too much protein your body will convert it to glucose.
Any last thoughts about giving a ketogenic diet a try as a cyclist or endurance athlete?
Be very clear about why you want to try this type of diet. Then dig into the research about how it may impact your performance. If you believe that your performance will improve because of this type of diet, it will. But you have to give it time – the adaptation process can take weeks, and during that time you may have some really tough rides and you’ll be tempted to think it’s not working. Test your blood to see if you’re in ketosis consistently, and track how you feel on rides once you’ve been in ketosis for at least a month. In my mind, that’s the best way to know whether this type of lifestyle will help you achieve the goals you want.
Valerie is the Chief Executive Officer of ElderCounsel, LLC. Before joining ElderCounsel, Valerie practiced law in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale where she was the owner of Peterson Law Office, P.A., and later Fisher & Peterson, P.C., a firm specializing in the areas of elder law and estate planning.
In addition to serving as CEO, Valerie also serves as instructor for several ElderCounsel educational courses, including the Elder Law Immersion and Practice Building Camp. Valerie has also taught for the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), the Academy of Veterans Pension Planners (AVAPP), and for various state bar associations and estate planning councils.
Since 2012, Valerie has served as an adjunct professor for Stetson Law School where she teaches the Veteran’s Benefits Course to Elder Law LL.M. students.
Valerie is accredited by the Veterans Administration to assist veterans with claims, a member of NAELA, the Academy of VA Pension Planners, and she is a member of the Florida and Kansas Bar Associations (currently inactive).
Valerie resides in Evergreen, CO with her husband, Jonathan Mintz, and two cats, Milo and O’Malley. Both she and her husband love the outdoors and are avid cyclists who enjoy all that the mountains have to offer. Valerie is also a certified Bulletproof® Coach and has a personal blog that is focused on nutrition and cycling: http://www.ketoadaptedcyclist.com.