Winter is coming!  Winter in Edmonton is particularly challenging when engaging in endurance exercise!  How can being keto-adapted help you do your best training and best competitions ever?  First, what does being keto-adapted mean?  When you are keto-adapted you are using fat as your primary fuel source instead of carbohydrates. Most of us following a standard American diet, eat somewhere between 200-300 g of carbs/day.  We are coached to carb-load before competition and to replenish carbs during prolonged training and races to keep us fueled. Ketones are a completely different fuel than glucose. Basically, severely restricting carbohydrates in one’s diet (< 20 g/day), while eating an abundance of healthy fats (~ 70%) and moderate protein (20-25%), results in unlocking internal fat stores, which are turned into ketones.  Muscles, your heart and your brain love ketones-but it takes time to convert to premium fuel from regular!  Ketones are anti-inflammatory and reduce injury (always a concern in cold weather exercise) as well as speeding up recovery.

There is a lot of interest and emerging science in competing while in a keto-adapted state.  For instance, recently 4 amateur, fat fueled keto-adapted British rowers smashed an endurance race record by rowing across the Atlantic in just over 29 days – five days quicker than the previous record! The London-based team was among 25 teams racing the 3000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. They were expecting to take 40 days to complete the row – but their families had to re-book flights to greet them as they progressed so far ahead of schedule! While they were not rowing in cold weather, it shows the advantage of not requiring frequent repetitive fueling with carbs and the more rapid recovery of keto-adapted muscles.

As our amateur athletes showed, we are still being surprised by the results and the science of optimal performance. We would all like hard and fast rules to follow as a keto-adapted athlete.  There are some guidelines, but currently keto-adaptation is more about listening to our bodies. Certainly, a solid piece of advice is don’t change things on race day!

Emerging science suggest the best strategy is live by the adage “train low and compete high”.  It turns out that regularly exercising in a glycogen depleted state literally changes the metabolic machinery in muscle cells creating extremely efficient mitochondrial batteries.  In cold weather, another advantage of these metabolic power houses is that they produce extra heat to help cope with, and indeed, enjoy winter training.  When preparing for a high intensity training session or race day, you can train yourself to “compete high” by adding in carbs with your usual protein and fat. Meals before the event should be small and light.  Protein is also a very important part of the diet, pleasantly satiating and muscle building.  It requires experimentation and self-awareness but the journey can be fun and open new possibilities!  Winter is a great time to play with it!


Blair O’Neill is an interventional and preventive cardiologist practising at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute specializing in low carbohydrate lifestyle counselling.  Barbara O’Neill is an RN and certified heath coach focussing on helping clients achieve optimum health on a low carb lifestyle.  Check out their website,