Low carbohydrate, high fat diet impairs exercise economy and negates the performance benefit from intensified training in elite race walkers

J Physiol. 2017 May 1;595(9):2785-2807. doi: 10.1113/JP273230. Epub 2017 Feb 14.


Key points: Three weeks of intensified training and mild energy deficit in elite race walkers increases peak aerobic capacity independent of dietary support. Adaptation to a ketogenic low carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diet markedly increases rates of whole-body fat oxidation during exercise in race walkers over a range of exercise intensities. The increased rates of fat oxidation result in reduced economy (increased oxygen demand for a given speed) at velocities that translate to real-life race performance in elite race walkers. In contrast to training with diets providing chronic or periodised high carbohydrate availability, adaptation to an LCHF diet impairs performance in elite endurance athletes despite a significant improvement in peak aerobic capacity.

Abstract: We investigated the effects of adaptation to a ketogenic low carbohydrate (CHO), high fat diet (LCHF) during 3 weeks of intensified training on metabolism and performance of world-class endurance athletes. We controlled three isoenergetic diets in elite race walkers: high CHO availability (g kg-1 day-1 : 8.6 CHO, 2.1 protein, 1.2 fat) consumed before, during and after training (HCHO, n = 9); identical macronutrient intake, periodised within or between days to alternate between low and high CHO availability (PCHO, n = 10); LCHF (< 50 g day-1 CHO; 78% energy as fat; 2.1 g kg-1 day-1 protein; LCHF, n = 10). Post-intervention, V̇O2 peak during race walking increased in all groups (P < 0.001, 90% CI: 2.55, 5.20%). LCHF was associated with markedly increased rates of whole-body fat oxidation, attaining peak rates of 1.57 ± 0.32 g min-1 during 2 h of walking at ∼80% V̇O2 peak . However, LCHF also increased the oxygen (O2 ) cost of race walking at velocities relevant to real-life race performance: O2 uptake (expressed as a percentage of new V̇O2 peak ) at a speed approximating 20 km race pace was reduced in HCHO and PCHO (90% CI: -7.047, -2.55 and -5.18, -0.86, respectively), but was maintained at pre-intervention levels in LCHF. HCHO and PCHO groups improved times for 10 km race walk: 6.6% (90% CI: 4.1, 9.1%) and 5.3% (3.4, 7.2%), with no improvement (-1.6% (-8.5, 5.3%)) for the LCHF group. In contrast to training with diets providing chronic or periodised high-CHO availability, and despite a significant improvement in V̇O2 peak , adaptation to the topical LCHF diet negated performance benefits in elite endurance athletes, in part due to reduced exercise economy.

Keywords: athletic performance; ketogenic diet; sports nutrition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletic Performance*
  • Diet, Carbohydrate-Restricted / adverse effects*
  • Diet, High-Fat / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Male
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Physical Conditioning, Human*
  • Walking / physiology*