Why the Keto Diet May Benefit Athletes


The science has been around for over 100 years, yet the ketogenic diet has only recently taken the world by storm. Why? While the ketogenic diet has proven effective in weight management,1 recent studies have also demonstrated a variety of health benefits that don’t include weight loss. For competitive athletes specifically, the keto diet can help increase energy levels and often improve cognitive function—enhancing athletic performance both on and off the playing field.1 Here’s why athletes should adopt the keto diet.

Defining the Keto Diet

On a keto diet, a person eats mostly healthy fats, consumes high-quality protein in moderation, and restricts carbohydrates to less than 50 grams per day. Because the keto diet is low in carbs and high in fat, the diet prompts the body to burn fat for energy rather than glucose. This leads to the production of ketone bodies, molecules that can be used as a source of fuel. When the body produces ketones, it’s in a state called ketosis: a natural mechanism activated during prolonged fasting, starvation, or lack of carbohydrate ingestion.

Advantages for Athletes

While dietary needs vary across gender, sport, and individual athlete, the keto diet has proven advantages for performance athletes.2 When athletes burn ketones instead of glucose, they experience increased cognitive and physical performance.1 Cognitively, the brain operates better on ketones versus glucose from sugar or carbs.3 Ketones are an efficient, slow-burning fuel source with preserved uptake by the brain, leading to heightened levels of concentration and longer periods of focus.3 Ketones also increase the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which works to support the brain’s existing neurons while encouraging new neuron and synapse growth.4-5

Physically, keto-adaptation—the body’s transition to burning fat instead of glucose for energy—has been shown to help improve endurance exercise capacity in athletes, as well as improve fat mobilization and oxidation during exercise performance.6 Keto-adaptation also helps improve aerobic and anaerobic exercise capacity in endurance athletes.7 The keto diet minimizes the breakdown of lean muscle tissue and increases the body’s ability to maintain lean body mass while burning fat, which is beneficial for performance athletes’ body composition. Additionally, ketones increase mitochondrial glutathione levels, subsequently feeding the mitochondria better and leading to more rapid recovery between exercise sessions. 8

Taking Endurance to the Next Level

The greatest potential physical outcome of keto-adaptation for athletes is improved endurance capacity during competition. Performance athletes, like ultrarunners or soccer players, who are keto-adapted have been shown to experience increased endurance and less central fatigue during the course of their competition or match.9 On the keto diet, the body taps into slow-burning fat storage, which can help prevent athletes from “hitting the wall.”4 This is especially beneficial to those athletes who can’t easily digest foods while exercising—e.g. a tennis player between sets. During keto-adaptation, liver and muscle glycogen deposits are maintained, attenuating the glycogen depletion observed in athletes consuming high-carbohydrate diets. With the absence of glucose to burn, athletes shouldn’t experience the peaks and valleys of varying blood sugar levels.

Off-Season Benefits

The keto diet is suitable to adopt during the off-season, too. Athletes looking to improve their fat-to-muscle ratio, especially those who are required to meet certain weight goals for their sport, may benefit from an off-season keto diet. The keto diet benefits athletes’ off-season training, as well. Exercising while glycogen storage levels are low is a training technique popular for improving mitochondrial function and a key strategy athletes can utilize if they’re looking to improve endurance. By reducing oxidative stress, gut and immune functions are better supported, helping athletes sustain their health while they rest. Ketones also provide substrates to help repair damaged neurons.7

Competitive athletes are always looking for an edge: a means to run a millisecond faster or reach a fingertip higher. For a clean boost, I recommend that athletes’ look no further than the keto diet. With benefits spanning from increased cognitive functioning to enhanced physical performance, ketones are the body’s natural resource for unlocking athletes’ innate potential.


  1. McSwiney FT, et al. Keto-adaptation enhances exercise performance and body composition responses to training in endurance athletes. 2018;81:25-34.
  2. Volek J, et al. Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004;1(1):13.
  3. Page KA et al. Diabetes 2009;58:1237-1244 and Ota M et al. Psychopharmacology 2016; 233(21-22):3797-3802.
  4. Volek JS, et al. Rethinking fat as a fuel for endurance exercise. Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):13-20.
  5. Hartman AL, et al. The neuropharmacology of the ketogenic diet. Pediatr Neurol. 2007;36(5):281-292.
  6. Gasior J, et al. Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the ketognic diet. Behav Pharmacol. 2006;17(5-6):431-439.
  7. McSwiney FT, et al. Keto-adaptation enhances exercise performance and body composition responses to training in endurance athletes. 2018;81:25-34.
  8. Jarrett SG, et al. The ketogenic diet increases mitochondrial glutathione levels. J Neurochem. 2008;106(3):1044-1051.
  9. Volek JS, Phinney SD. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity LLC. 2012.

Dr. Silverman is a paid consultant and guest writer for Metagenics.


This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.

This entry was posted in Body Composition, Ketogenic, Sports Nutrition and tagged , , , , , on by .

About Robert Silverman

Robert G. Silverman, DC, DACBN, DCBCN, MS, CCN, CNS, CSCS, CIISN, CKTP, CES, HKC, FAKTR is a chiropractic doctor, clinical nutritionist and author of Inside-Out Health: A Revolutionary Approach to Your Body, an Amazon number-one bestseller in 2016. The ACA Sports Council named Dr. Silverman “Sports Chiropractor of the Year” in 2015. He also maintains a busy private practice as founder of Westchester Integrative Health Center, which specializes in the treatment of joint pain using functional nutrition along with cutting-edge, science-based, nonsurgical approaches. Dr. Silverman is a seasoned health and wellness expert on both the speaking circuits and within the media. He has appeared on FOX News Channel, FOX, NBC, CBS, and CW affiliates as well as The Wall Street Journal and NewsMax, to name a few. He was invited as a guest speaker on “Talks at Google” to discuss his current book. As a frequent published author for Dynamic Chiropractic, JACA, ACA News, Chiropractic Economics, The Original Internist and Holistic Primary Care journals, Dr. Silverman is a thought leader in his field and practice.

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