In the past, there’s been several posts here on the site about how to practically implement a low carbohydrate diet.
For example, a few months ago, I released the podcast: Is It Possible To Be Extremely Active and Eat A Low Carbohydrate Diet? (which incidentally, I’ll be revisiting very soon in an upcoming podcast with Peter Attia).
I’ve also written the book Low Carbohydrate Diet For Triathletes, and produced these articles about how to avoid typical recommended carbohydrates dosages and instead eat a higher fat diet:
And a few days ago, Tim Olsen, the winner of the brutal Western States 100 Mile Run revealed he is a low carb athlete.
But the reality is that it can be very, very difficult and uncomfortable to switch to a low carbohydrate or “ketogenic” diet if you don’t have the help of a few supplements – especially if you’re serious about performance in sports like triathlon, Crossfit, marathoning and other high-energy depleting events.
So in this article, I’m going to tell you about 7 supplements that help you perform better on a low carbohydrate diet, along with a couple footnotes at the end of the article that I think you’ll find very interesting.
When you shift to a low carbohydrate or a ketogenic diet, your body loses storage carbohydrate, and also begins excreting sodium and water. When this happens, your blood pressure quickly drops, and much of the low energy that is attributed to “low blood sugar” when eating low carbohydrates is actually due to this low blood pressure.
Because of this, if you experience feelings of lightheadedness or sluggishness (especially during your workouts) you should include extra sodium in your diet. One strategy is to get 1-2g of extra sodium during the day by using vegetable or chicken bouillon cubes. I personally do fine by simply using 2-3 effervescent electrolyte tablets each day (I use the brand “nuun All-Day“) combined with liberal use of sea salt on my meals.
You’ll need to especially be sure to include extra sodium (close to 1g is good) about 30 minutes prior to your workout.
But if you already get 3-4g of sodium per day in your diet, this is probably a moot point for you.
Caveat: the extra sodium is not because Tim Noakes was wrong in my interview with him. You don’t need extra electrolytes during your workout to keep your muscles from cramping. This is simply extra sodium to help you maintain adequate blood plasma volume and blood pressure.
2. Branched Chain Amino Acids.
In the episode “Do Amino Acids Really Help You Exercise Or Are Nutrition Supplement Companies Just Pulling A Fast One On You“, you learned about Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s).
The BCAAs are unique from other amino acids because the enzymes responsible for their degradation are low in your tissues, so they appear rapidly in the blood stream, and expose your muscle to high concentrations – ultimately staving off muscle breakdown and stimulating muscle synthesis – even during exercise.
BCAA supplementation after exercise has been shown to cause faster recovery of muscle strength, and even more interestingly, the ability to slow down muscle breakdown – even during intense training and “overreaching” (getting very close to overtraining).
When you supplement with BCAA’s, they can decrease the blood indicators of muscle tissue damage after long periods of exercise, thus indicating reduced muscle damage, and they also help maintain higher blood levels of amino acids, which can make you feel happy even when you’re suffering during exercise.
But most importantly, if you’re on a low carbohydrate diet, when taken prior to a fasted exercise session, BCAA’s could improve your fat oxidation and utilization of storage fatty acids as a fuel.
Dosage for BCAA’s would be leucine, isoleucine and valine in a 3g:1.5g:1.5g ratio. I personally just whole amino acids (see below), but they’re spendier, so if you want to go with BCAA’s you could use the supplement Recoverease, at about 4 capsules an hour.
Whole amino acids offer you all the benefits of Branched Chain Amino Acids, and then some. Whole amino acids (also known as essential amino acids, or EAA’s), were essentially (pun intended) summed up in this article I wrote about EAA’s:
“If all 8 essential amino acids are present, muscle repair and recovery can start before you’re even done with your workout – and when you’re mentally stretched toward the end of a tough workout, game or race, high blood levels of amino acids can allow the body and brain to continue to work hard instead of shutting down.”
This is all the more true if you’re in a carbohydrate depleted state.
Anyways, protein quality is typically determined based on the EAA profile of any given protein, and generally, animal and dairy products contain the highest percentage of EAAs, resulting in greater protein synthesis and post-workout recovery than vegetarian protein-matched control.
But you don’t have to take a steak (or your pea and rice protein powder blend) out with you on your workouts. Most of the clients I coach are now simply popping 5 Kion Aminos tablets during their long workouts or races, and getting extremely fast absorbing EAA’s in the process. Some prefer mixing 5 grams of the sugar-free lime flavored powder into their water bottles. Both are fast, convenient, keep you in an anabolic state, and improve resistance to fatigue.
EAAs are a nutritional supplement really anybody could benefit from and Kion Aminos delivers the scientifically validated ratios of EAAs for optimal absorption and utilization by your body.
Glutamine plays a role in muscle glycogen synthesis and whole-body carbohydrate storage. This was first observed in a study in the American Journal of Physiology that found that an infusion of glutamine promoted a resynthesis of muscle glycogen stores that wasn’t observed in a control group infused with alanine plus glycine.
An oral dose of glutamine at about 8 grams can promote storage of muscle glycogen to levels similar to consuming straight glucose, which is especially useful when you don’t have much glycogen (storage carbohdyrate) to go around due to a low carbohydrate diet.
Glutamine supplementation has also been shown to enhance glucose production during exercise. Once again, if you’re carbohydrate restricted in your diet, this can be good news. There’s also some evidence that supplementation with glutamine may be effective for preventing immune suppression from strenuous exercise.
In a study entitled “Potentiation of the actions of insulin by taurine”, the amino acid taurine was shown to have a carbohydrate sparing effect. Taurine may also amplify the effect of insulin, allowing for more efficient carbohydrate utilization.
Research on taurine and caffeine containing beverages have shown that during prolonged endurance exercise, decreased heart rate and decreased catecholamine (stress hormones) are observed compared to using caffeine alone. Based on this, many folks will slam a Red Bull energy drink during a tough, long event.
But I don’t recommend Red Bull, for a variety of reasons, including the presence of artificial sweeteners and citric acid. Instead, you can just do 2g of a taurine supplement, about 30-60 minutes prior to a tough or long exercise session in a relatively carbohydrate depleted state.
When you exercise while on a low carbohydrate diet, you’re going to be burning lots of fatty acids as a fuel, and the medium chain triglycerides (MCT‘s) that you’ll find in medium chain triglyceride oil and coconut oil can be a tremendous asset for keeping your energy levels high.
You could technically repeat this dosage every 2-3 hours during something like a long bike ride, but it can be logistically difficult and messy to carry oils (feel free to leave a comment below if you have a good solution for this).
Although a low carbohydrate diet doesn’t massively deplete magnesium in the same way that it does sodium, upon switching to a low-carb diet (especially when combined with intense exercise) many people experience nighttime leg cramping and more muscle discomfort during exercise, and this is likely due to low magnesium.
About 70% of people don’t get anywhere near enough magnesium, and if you’re leaching magnesium with a combination of your sweating and a low carbohydrate diet, you’re almost guaranteed to have some muscle twitching issues. Considering that over 300 enzymes require magnesium as a co-factor to make them work properly, it’s a smart move to add magnesium into a low carbohydrate diet.
You can do about 300-500 milligrams of something like Natural Calm Magnesium before you go to bed at night (I find that this really helps me sleep better), and then 10-15 sprays of a topical magnesium on each leg immediately before your workout. Back off the total amount of magnesium you consume if you get loose stool.
VESPA is basically a naturally-occuring amino acid compound that is extracted from wasps. The theory behind this supplement is that wasps rely upon this amino acid to be able to travel extremely far distances on relatively low amounts of carbohydrate fuel, and a relatively large reliance upon storage body fat.
While there’s not much evidence on VESPA, there’s plenty of anecdotes that it can give some benefit to people who are training in a low carbohydrate or ketogenic state.
For example, as I mentioned earlier, ultrarunner Tim Olsen just won the brutal Western States 100 Mile Running Race and said:
“On race day, I use Vespa which is an amino acid supplement about every 2hrs and a 100 calorie gel pack about every hour. Being on a low carb diet helps me to efficiently burn fat as my fuel. The few cal an hour I use allow me to run as fast as I can…”
I personally have not noticed a difference with VESPA when I used it with no other fuel sources, but in coming months, I will be experimenting with a combination of VESPA, UCAN SuperStarch and Kion Aminos during my long and hard training sessions. If I can sustain high speed and power output for long periods of time (e.g. a 3 hour Hammer-fest on the bike that I would normally need higher amounts of sugar to fuel) without gastrointestinal distress, I may end up using this approach in racing.
(Use code “bgf” when you order VESPA and they’ll throw in extra VESPA samples for you.)
Finally, based on a discussion I had with Mark Sisson at the Ancestral Health Symposium, we thought about forming an elite squad of low carbohydrate and ketogenic athletes who use very little commercial sugar sources during racing, and instead rely on fat and amino acids. The original thought was if you’re fast (i.e. 9-10 hour Ironman, 9.5-10.5 hour Iron-woman, ranked Crossfitter, sub-3 marathoner, etc.) and interested in being involved in that elite squad, we’d form one.
But alas, the team never formed! We instead created a low carbohydrate training package that includes nutrition, forum support, a low carb primer and much more. You can check it out at LowCarbTriathlete.com. Enjoy!
So you’re gearing up for a killer exercise session, or a big event like a marathon or a triathlon.
And you’re eating a low carbohydrate diet, and not wanting to carbohydrate load or use lots of carbohydrate during the event.
Based on this article here’s what you do:
30-60 minutes prior: 1g sodium (i.e. a chicken boullion cube), 5-10g BCAA’s or EAA’s, 2-3 tablespoons medium chain triglyceride oil or coconut oil, 2g taurine and 10-15 sprays topical magnesium on each limb.
Immediately after: 8g glutamine
OK, that’s all I’ve got, so leave your low carb diet supplements questions, comments and feedback below, and also let me know the results of your hard and/or long low carbohydrate exercise sessions using this approach!