Fat Adapted Athlete: My experience with climbing on the ketogenic diet

Now I don’t know about you but climbing has never struck me as a sport that requires elite levels of endurance, so what’s the draw to the ketogenic diet for me?

The dreaded wall. Last summer, after breaking free of a knee injury I started to get more serious about trail running. I’m not a runner because I like running, I think it’s hard and not very satisfying just for the sake of it. My passion for running comes from where it can take me. I moved up to a small town called Ward in the mountains outside of Boulder Colorado a year and a half ago in the interest of living at a higher elevation and enjoying the mountain life. I live within hiking distance of the continental divide in the middle of the Indian Peaks wilderness. As I look up at those mountains I’m inspired and drawn to them, not just to run on the trails but to climb them. But I can tell you that cruising trails and scrambling peaks at an altitude of 13,000 feet can crush your soul.

This is part of a series of posts on my current diet. Read Part 1: What is a ketogenic diet?

Indian peaks Pano_labeled_croppedAfter hiking several of the trails in the Brainard Lake area I concocted a plan to summit every peak in the cirque in one day, in one continuous push. I called it the Indian Peaks Cirque Traverse. The coolest part…The Kasparov traverse was right in the middle! Awesome views combined with technical climbing and peak bagging? Perfect. This was my epic project for the summer.

Alpine sunrise Indian peaks traverseWhen it finally came time to do it I was out all day. I started by running up Mt Audubon just in time to watch the sunrise, blasted the Dances with Wolves soundtrack as I summited Paiute, free soloed the north face of Mt Toll and huffed my way up Pawnee and over to Shoshoni. By the time I got to the Kasparov traverse I was beat. Luckily it was rocky and scrambling is a much slower pace.

Bishop's scepterI free soloed all of the little gendarmes except for the Rook since I didn’t have a rope to rappel back down. But man was I beat as I finished the rest of the bout.
All in all I did the whole project (maybe 25 miles), picking up my second wind after Navajo peak (it was all downhill after that) in about 12 hours. But I must have eaten at least ten GU packs, 2 pears, 2 peaches, half a pound of cheese and a baguette. Those gel packs are hard to eat after a while. Later that summer I decided to run the Pawnee-Buchannan pass loop (counter-clockwise from Brainard lake) and suffered a similar fate. I finished the 30 miles in about 9 hours since I wasn’t doing any climbing, but I hit a wall as I was jogging up the cascade creek trail. Man, it was brutal.

I like to suffer, if you can’t tell, but I had to do something about that wall. Even after you break through you still feel like crap and can’t push very hard. This is because the brain is a glucose eating monster (nom nom nom nom!)  and in a state where you aren’t wired to burn fat as readily your brain really throws a fit. Add mental and neurological fatigue to the physical beating!

This year I had bigger plans. I concocted a way to build upon last year’s achievements. The continental divide traverse. James peak to Longs peak (or maybe the reverse), and all of the peaks in between, in one push, and hopefully in under 24 hours. This epic little beauty clocks in somewhere around fifty miles if you stick to the divide. It may take me another year or so to complete as I’m currently rehabbing my ankle from a lead fall that I took in Eldo. Ankle in the ER I also wanted to do the rim to rim to rim of the grand canyon (49 miles), and figure out what it would take for a cirque of the towers rim traverse, and spend a day out trying to summit all of the peaks in the Glacier gorge. All of this definitely sounds nuts. I figure that this will be a great way to prepare myself physically and mentally for bigger and taller mountains someday. And just imagine being able to climb really technical routes and link-ups in really remote locations and not being too beat up by it because you built a solid foundation of badass fitness!

What about logistics for all of this? There must be a way to fuel all of this, while still being unsupported, without having to stash food (in bear country no less, although marmots are more of a problem), and still be able to come out on top. I need a way to sustain my energy and not be so dependent on Espresso Hammer gels. As a minimalist I refuse to believe that the answer is to carry more food, or stash food. I want to carry less, not more. Enter the ketogenic diet.

The major goal of the ketogenic diet is to switch your body from burning sugar to burning fat as its primary fuel source. The end result is having your body switched over into fat burning mode all of the time so that you have a deeper reservoir of energy to draw from, and you don’t have a glycogen wall slowing you down. It’s clear that my climbing performance was not the main deciding factor in choosing to try out a ketogenic diet. Rather, I saw this as an exciting opportunity to see if I could liberate myself from deep fatigue on all day outings. This is obliquely climbing related, but definitely alpinism related. Let’s return to a question I posed earlier in the previous post about how a diet low in sugar can affect performance of activities that predominantly rely on sugar as the rapid fuel? This is the major question.

How does following a ketogenic diet affect climbing performance?
The main voice of opposition to combining the polar opposites of a low-carb diet and high carb exercise states that performance will suffer due to a lack of substrate. In layman’s terms, “You’re just going to be overly fatigued and feel like poo.” Now this is true, but only for the time that it takes for your body to get good at burning fat. For me, I spent two weeks feeling like poo, and climbing like poo as well. What I noticed first was that while I was adapting to the diet, I would climb my normal training load at the gym (12-16 routes) and I would fatigue more easily. This manifested itself in getting too pumped to recover on a route that was normally within my training range. As a result I had to climb about a letter grade or two lower than my standard in order to get the same mileage in. My power stayed consistent but my power endurance really suffered.

From my journal at 5 days post diet introduction:
“What are the negative consequences that I am experiencing thus far from the adaptation period?

  1. Orthostatic hypotension [due to hyponatremia]
  2. Ravenous hunger
  3. Slight cramping from overexertion
  4. More fatigue at anaerobic threshold i.e. getting pumped while sport climbing and not recovering during the bout.”

To make sure that I got into ketosis faster, I did everything that I could to burn my glycogen faster. I spent an hour on the treadmill twice a week at a fairly intense pace, and I restricted carbs by either fasting most of the day or by focusing my intake on very fatty foods, usually the latter. I deep-fried my eggs in bacon grease then made hollandaise with the leftovers. (This is as good as it sounds by the way). I regularly drank a “bulletproof” mate every morning with several tablespoons of grass-fed butter and coconut oil blended in. I made sure that I drank a tablespoon of bouillon in a half quart of water everyday, and I stuck with it. I started to feel normal again after about a week and after two weeks I knew that I was “IN” ketosis because I had a huge boost to my mental acuity and energy levels. The reality is that I may have been “in” sooner but bumped back out, or just not fully capable of maintaining a high level of fat burning. I lost 5 lbs in the first week.

Once I got into ketosis it was off to the races. How much training could I tolerate, and even more importantly, how is my climbing doing? After getting back into the gym all of the power endurance loss I experienced was gone. I’m not sure if the diet caused those muscles to perform better, or if I was experiencing a training effect from having continued to climb during my adaptation phase. Who cares? I felt awesome.

From my journal at two weeks post diet introduction:
“Last night I went to the gym and ran on the treadmill for an hour and then climbed and then did 118 push-ups in a push-up contest, climbed some more, and then did some shoulder exercises. After the run on the treadmill I felt so good. I know I was in ketosis for sure! I felt energetic, and powerful, feelings that I haven’t felt while adapting the last two weeks. I still wasn’t super strong while climbing, but I’m managing pump well, even after exerting myself hard, so over all, this is a good thing and I feel like I haven’t really lost performance at this point.”

Ketosis didn’t really boost my performance for climbing by making me have more endurance, but I did note that I could workout longer and I wasn’t bothered by nagging hunger that is usually characteristic of my sessions. Supposedly there is an advantage to being able to recover more quickly from exercise as there is more stable energy availability for muscle repair, but I noticed that I still needed about 72 hours between really hard climbing sessions or hangboard workouts.

I dashed my ankle on a ledge while taking a lead fall in Eldo, occurring about 6 weeks into my diet, essentially delaying any of my crazy ridge traverses, but also sort of negating the purpose of being so strict on the diet. Well I kept with it anyway, because with running and climbing out of the picture my only remaining forms of suffering were my diet and my hangboard workouts. I got very consistent with my hangboarding and I still required two full days for a full recovery. That seemed to be perfect, any sooner and I couldn’t complete the workout, and any later and I wouldn’t make any gains. I did make consistent gains on the hangboard for the first four weeks, I took two sessions to de-load by decreasing volume and resistance, then I made consistent gains for four more weeks after the de-load.

I mentioned that I had lost 5 lbs after my first two weeks, I gained it back and it didn’t affect my performance. In fact, I had to start eating less because I gained weight from being more sedentary after my ankle injury. I was up to 160 lbs after having ankle surgery (mostly water), and now I’m back to 152 lbs. One of the nice things about this diet is that when I don’t eat all day it is because I don’t feel like eating all day, and it doesn’t bother me. I have more than enough energy and the psych doesn’t wane as the day goes on. If I get hungry, I eat. I don’t get grumpy unless I’m dehydrated, so none of the low blood sugar hanger that most people experience. Two thumbs up for getting to your goal weight for sending the proj.

Conclusion: Is the ketogenic diet worth it for climbing?

I pointed out that my original motivation for following the diet was not for improving my performance for climbing, I didn’t reasonably expect it to be able to make me fitter by any means. I have been able to tolerate my training loads well and without as much deep fatigue and I have a greater control over my weight. I have definitely gotten stronger on this diet, but I have also trained much more. If you’re climbing goals are strictly power related such as completing a hard boulder, then you might consider asking Dave Macleod for advice. He’s sent some of his hardest projects in bouldering while on a ketogenic diet. If you’re looking to get out and push yourself for a hard day in the alpine whether on the trails or the rock or the ice, then I’d say there is there is a real benefit to being fat adapted.

If you are thinking of trying the ketogenic diet please do everything you can to educate yourself so that you can implement it properly. There are several resources available that are good starting points. If you are an avid self experimenter like myself then I’d suggest also keeping a food journal and visiting your doctor/dietician to have your cholesterol levels checked (ask for an NMR profile) before-hand and after several months on the diet to make sure you are not doing yourself any harm.

Books to read:
The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, Stephen D. Phinney, Jeff S. Volek, ISBN 978-0983490708
The Art and Science of Low carbohydrate Performance, Stephen D. Phinney, Jeff S. Volek, ISBN 978-0983490715
The Ketogenic Diet, Lyle McDonald, ISBN 978-0967145600
The Primal Blueprint, Mark Sisson, ISBN 978-0982207703

Web Resources:
r/Keto FAQ
/r/ketorecipes – The official subreddit for keto recipes
Cereal killers blog – Worth a nod
Peter Attia’s Blog – Also google his podcast interviews and watch his youtube videos

Training Beta – Dave MacLeod
Bulletproof Radio – Dr Richard Veech
Four Hour work week – Dom D’Agostino
Four hour work week – Peter Attia
Four Hour work week – Peter Again
Found my Fitness – Dom D’Agostino

There’s a ton out there, go and find it!

One Reply to “Fat Adapted Athlete: My experience with climbing on the ketogenic diet”

  1. Pingback: Fat Adapted Athlete: What is the ketogenic diet? – The Aspiring Alpinist

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