Monday, January 6, 2020

Dear Mark: Ketones for Overtraining?

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering a question about taking ketones for overtraining from a reader.

Hi Mark,

I just saw this article the other day and I’m wondering what you think of it. Should high-carb athletes (or regular carb athletes) be taking ketone supplements? Is there any reason why they shouldn’t? It’d be awesome to get the “best of both worlds,” but is it safe?



I saw that one too. Very interesting. Here’s the full study they reference.

Okay, so what’s this all about?

Most ketone ester studies have looked at the benefits to performance. An athlete takes ketones prior to training, then they measure the effect it has on subsequent performance. It’s useful in that situation, improving performance by a few percentage points. I’ve noticed the same thing. Whenever I use ketones—which is rarely—I’ve usually taken them before an Ultimate Frisbee session.

Other studies have looked at post-training ketone supplementation, but only acutely. They’d have trainees work out or compete and then take ketones, with the effects including increased protein synthesis and glycogen repletion. Good to know, but what about long-term post-training supplementation? Would those acute effects translate to long-term effects?

This recent study aimed to find out. Instead of having the athletes take the ketones before or during training, or after but only in the short-term, they had them take them post-training consistently over a period of several weeks to see if they’d aid in recovery. They did.

All the athletes in the study trained twice a day. In the morning, they did either HIIT—high intensity interval training, 30 second all out cycle sprints with 4.5 minutes rest—or IMT—intermittent endurance training, 5 × 6 min with 8 min recovery or 5 × 8 min with 6 min recovery. Evenings, they did steady state endurance training. This was a heavy schedule designed to promote overtraining. There was a lot to recover from.

Both groups showed evidence of overtraining:

  • Lower adrenaline at night. Increased adrenaline at night is a hallmark of overtraining and can make it really hard to get a good night’s sleep.
  • Blunted decrease in resting heart rate. Acutely, stress increases heart rate. But over the course of several weeks of overtraining, an athlete’s resting heart rate will drop. Taking ketones led to a lower reduction in resting heart rate, indicative of lower stress.
  • Improved bone mineral density. Ketone-takers had slightly higher bone mineral density than the control group, in whom bone mineral density decreased. This is a marker of positive response to training. In overtraining, bone mineral density tends to drop.
  • Increased tolerance of training. Those who took ketone esters had a higher subjective tolerance for training on subsequent days, indicative of improved recovery.

The group who drank ketones had better numbers, though.

And when they tested both groups with a two-hour endurance session at the end of each week, the ketone-takers had better performance: more power output during the last 30 minutes.

In the past, I’ve expressed skepticism over high-carb eaters adding exogenous ketones to their diets. It just seemed physiologically “wrong” and unnatural to mix ketones and high-carb intakes, since the normal prerequisite for ketosis was a low-carbohydrate intake.

But this study, and some other research I’ve since explored, makes me wonder if adding ketones to a high-carb training schedule might make physiological sense. There are instances where exercise alone is sufficient to get someone into ketosis. For instance, in multistage ultra-marathoners—men and women running 240 km/150 miles over five days, no amount of dietary carbohydrate was able to keep them out of ketosis. They ate over 300 grams a day and they were still deep into ketosis. They even tried eating over 600 grams a day, and they still couldn’t keep themselves out of ketosis. That tells me that ketone production during protracted training is a feature, not a flaw, of human physiology. The two can naturally co-exist even in the presence of carbs.

The key is “glycogen stripping.” As far back as the 1980s, researchers knew that depleting glycogen stores was a prerequisite for ketosis. Now, back then, most researchers saw ketosis as a negative side effect of glycogen depletion, as something to be avoided and mitigated with “proper” carbohydrate intake. They were unaware of the potential benefits ketone bodies can deliver to athletes.

Ketones are anti-inflammatory. I even know a few high-level athletes who are experimenting with extended fasting during de-load periods to reduce the effects of overtraining and speed up healthy recovery. I make the distinction between healthy and unhealthy recovery. Healthy recovery is true recovery; it speeds up the process without inhibiting healing or training adaptations. Unhealthy recovery can get you back out there quicker but you might miss out on some of the benefits of training. One example of this is using ice baths to recover from intense performances. Doing so will blunt pain and help you get training/competing, but it may inhibit some of the benefits of training, like hypertrophy. Useful when you have to get back out there (it’s the playoffs). Not so useful if you’re trying to adapt to the training (it’s the off-season).

Ketones are protein-sparing. When ketones are present in the body, you are less likely to break down muscle tissue and organs for amino acids to convert into glucose. This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? As an alternative source of fuel for the vast majority of your body’s tissues, ketones reduce the amount of protein you need to break down to provide glucose.

Thus, contrary to my earlier assessment, what was unnatural about the study wasn’t the combination of ketones and carbohydrates. That can clearly occur in natural settings where glycogen is depleted and elevated levels of physical activity are maintained. The unnatural aspect of this study was the insane level of training these subjects were doing.

Humans are built for high volumes of low-intensity work and movement—walking, hiking, gathering, low-level labor.

Humans are built for low volumes of high-intensity work and movement—fighting, killing and field dressing large mammals, carrying heavy objects.

Humans are not built for high volumes of high-intensity work and movement—”two a days,” sprinting in the morning and going for long bike rides in the afternoon. We can do it, but there are consequences.

So what the ketone esters are doing is restoring the natural balance. They are physiological tricks to restore order in a highly-stressed body asked to perform supranatural feats of endurance.

If you try them out for this reason, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t use ketones as a way to get back out there and keep overtraining. Instead, use them to enhance the training effect—to improve your recovery, to make your time off more meaningful and effective.
  2. Consider simply going keto. Adding ketones to a bad diet might be better than nothing at all, but the real benefits come when you commit to going keto, build up those fat-burning mitochondria, and become truly fat-adapted.

Taking ketones after a training session clearly works. But you can get there just as easily, with likely downstream benefits, by going low-carb. I’m reminded of the study from a few years ago where athletes “slept low“: after similarly grueling training, they’d eat a low-carb meal (rather than refuel their glycogen) and go to sleep.

They rapidly reached the very-low carb/ketogenic state for a good portion of the day by depleting glycogen and failing to replace it, from the afternoon snack to the post-workout breakfast. They weren’t just “high-carb.” They were smart carb, filling the glycogen, depleting it, and forcing their bodies to run on fat for a while.

To me, that’s a better (cheaper, too—ketone esters are expensive!) way to get similar results.

But whatever route you take, it’s a good way to spend time in the ketogenic state. The presence of ketones, especially paired with training, is a good thing for anyone.

What’s your experience taking ketones? How do you incorporate ketogenic states into your training schedule?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!


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2020 Word of the Year + KERF’s Future

It’s time for the 2020 word of the year, a tradition I’ve done for the past few years.

2020 Word Of The Year

2020’s word is VISION.

I’m looking far out, past January and even 2020 and asking myself: Where do I want to go?

Advice From Smart Women

I’ve been listening to a lot of great podcasts by smart women – Jenna Kutcher, Brooke Castillo, Gretchen Rubin, and their guests. They emphasize quality over quantity. They encourage working smarter, not harder. They recommend outsourcing what you don’t love so you can focus on what you do. Jenna Kutcher in particular has been SO inspirational. I want to be more like her. I’m not saying I desire a multi million dollar empire, but I’m asking myself what lessons I can take from Jenna and apply to my own business.

SEO Is The Best And Worst

In the last quarter of 2019, I hired HashtagJeff, a leading Search Engine Optimization guru, to perform an audit on KERF and give me some advice on how to clean up my site. I have 12 years of posts – over 7,200!! Let me tell you it has been a process. The internet has drastically changed since I first started blogging (as you guys know!) Blogs used to be diaries. Now we are expected to have resource centers and write long form content that covers every angle of a topic. The kind of posts that KERF was founded on, and the kind I enjoy writing, like a weekend recap, are considered “fluff.” They’re fun for long-term blog readers, but they do absolutely nothing to help your website grow. The good news is I have a lot of older posts from 2013-2019 that have practical and helpful information. The bad news is no one ever sees them because they are buried in my archives and not written so Google can read them well. One of my goals this year is to upcycle some of those posts, add a 2020 spin based on my current mindset, and give them new life. Another goal is to make KERF more user friendly so readers both new and old can more easily find my content. I repeat: SEO is the best and worst!!

What direction will KERF go?

KERF was built on quantity over quality. I used to write 21 “fluff” posts a week. People used to be shocked when I said I published three times a day, but I always replied that my content was auto generated – I was always eating more food! The internet revolved around banner ads back then, so quantity was king. The more you posted, the more pageviews you site received, the more money you made. (My pageviews peaked the week Mazen was born hitting over 2 million that month.)

These days, SEO aka quality, is king. Writing about daily life is easy. Creating the kind of quality content that is helpful and provides value takes so much more time. You can’t do both at the same time without maxing out your working hours or hiring a team to help you. I don’t want to outsource my posts because you guys are here for my voice not someone else’s. Therefore, I have to slow my posting pace in order to be able to provide both quality content and catch KERF up to speed. I’m not going anywhere, I’m just shifting and evolving with the online word.

Those of you who have been reading about my life for 12 years – not to worry – I will still be writing about our lives and adventures. Just maybe not as frequently as usual. We will see. Plus there is always Instagram for daily life stuff. You can’t get much more real than the kinds of things found in Instagram Stories :mrgreen:

My Future Focus

I’ve taken a lot of time these past few months to consider what my niche is. If it’s not sharing every.single.meal. anymore, then what is it? I’ve also asked myself what I like writing about the most. The two themes that I’ve settled on are: healthy mindset and simplicity.

Healthy Mindset

This is where real food and nutrition come in. What I have always been drawn to is the psychology of wellness. What motivates us and how do we turn choices into habits? Before becoming a Registered Dietitian, it wasn’t the micronutrients or physiology that interested me most. It was the side of nutrition that affects behavior change and motivation. How does our mindset influence our health?


This is the umbrella term for all of my other favorite topics: Home Neat Home, parenting, life hacks, budgeting, clean beauty, work-life balance, leisure time, even fashion. My brain craves simplicity like I crave kale and oatmeal.  How can we balance simple with the chaos of everyday life? How can we work and play smarter, not harder? How can we create a home space that feels calm and orderly and relaxing? How can we cook and meal plan without spending all day in the kitchen?

How I Plan To Work Smarter

Usually when I sit down to my computer for a period of time, I am looking ahead to the next week and see five days of posts to fill. Often I’m so focused on a posting schedule that I rush through posts, eager to check them off the list. I find myself overwhelmed and behind, which spills into time with my kids. Rather than creating a list of posts that have to go up on time to fill a calendar week (deadlines I created with no real vision), I’d like to sit down to a 3-4 hour block of work time and work on whatever flows. If that means three posts for the next week instead of five, then that’s what will publish.

I also want to have time to work ON the blog as well: cleaning up my site, making posts easier to find, SEO optimizing and upcycling older content. Plus side projects: creating thoughtful emails for my lists, possibly writing an e-book on home organization, mentoring my Beautycounter team.


All this boils down to: we work to make money. But also to give our lives purpose. Where do I want to be in 5 years? 10 years? I have considered letting KERF fade away, but I decided that would be such a missed opportunity. I am in the thick of parenting young children right now, which makes balance a bit more tricky, but I LOVE THIS BLOG. And I love all of you. And to step back would be fun for a minute and then I am 100% sure I’d regret it. So instead of stepping back, I’m stepping forward, with new sparkly glasses, and saying: Where can I go that will be exciting, meaningful, helpful, purposeful, and fun?

As always, I would love your thoughts, wishes, requests, and encouragement! Please share in the comments.

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