Background: Low-carbohydrate, high-fat and ketogenic diets are increasingly adopted by athletes for body composition and sports performance enhancements. However, as yet, there is no consensus on their efficacy in improving performance. There is also no comprehensive literature on athletes' experiences while undertaking this diet. The purpose of this pilot work was two-fold: i. to examine the effects of a non-calorie controlled ketogenic diet on body composition and performance outcomes of endurance athletes, and ii. to evaluate the athletes' experiences of the ketogenic diet during the 10-week intervention.
Methods: Using a case study design, five New Zealand endurance athletes (4 females, 1 male) underwent a 10-week ketogenic dietary intervention. Body composition (sum of 8 skinfolds), performance indicators (time to exhaustion, VO2 max, peak power and ventilatory threshold), and gas exchange thresholds were measured at baseline and at 10 weeks. Mean change scores were calculated, and analysed using t-tests; Cohen's effect sizes and 90% confidence limits were applied to quantify change. Individual interviews conducted at 5 weeks and a focus group at 10 weeks assessed athletes' ketogenic diet experiences. Data was transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis.
Results: All athletes increased their ability to utilise fat as a fuel source, including at higher exercise intensities. Mean body weight was reduced by 4 kg ± SD 3.1 (p = 0.046; effect size (ES):0.62), and sum of 8 skinfolds by 25.9 mm ± SD 6.9; ES: 1.27; p = 0.001). Mean time to exhaustion dropped by ~2 min (±SD 0.7; p = 0.004; ES: 0.53). Other performance outcomes showed mean reductions, with some increases or unchanged results in two individuals (VO2 Max: -1.69 ml.kg.min ± SD 3.4 (p = 0.63); peak power: -18 W ± SD 16.4 (p = 0.07), and VT2: -6 W ± SD 44.5 (p = 0.77). Athletes reported experiencing reduced energy levels initially, followed by a return of high levels thereafter, especially during exercise, but an inability to easily undertake high intense bouts. Each athlete reported experiencing enhanced well-being, included improved recovery, improvements in skin conditions and reduced inflammation.
Conclusions: Despite performance decrements and some negative experiences, athletes were keen to pursue a modified low-carbohydrate, high-fat eating style moving forward due to the unexpected health benefits they experienced.
Trial registration: ACTRN: ACTRN12617000613303. Registered 28 April 2017, retrospectively registered.
Keywords: Endurance athletes; LCHF; Low-carbohydrate, high-fat; Performance; Well-being.