Keto Diet Plan for Runners

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Written by Brenda Peralta, Registered Dietitian and medically reviewed by Abby Courtenay

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One of the most vital aspects for a runner is nutrition. It helps you fuel up to perform at your best. What you have before, during, and after your training session can make or break your performance.

Depending on the fuel that you give to your body, your time can either increase or decrease. Traditionally, a high-carb diet is recommended for runners. However, each day you see more and more marathon runners switching to a keto diet plan. Is a low-carb lifestyle good for a runner?

In this article, we will discuss everything related to running and a ketogenic diet. We will cover topics such as what is this diet plan for runners? Benefits and drawbacks of having this type of eating plan. How to start a low-carb plan? Foods to eat and to avoid. Finally, a one-day meal plan for runners and a shopping list.


What is the ketogenic diet for runners?

The ketogenic diet plan for running professionals and enthusiasts is based on a low-carb, moderate protein, and high-fat diet. The percentages used vary since they depend highly on the protein needs for each person. A traditional macronutrient breakdown might be the following.

  • Carbs: 5-10%
  • Protein: 20-30%
  • Fats: 70-80%

Typically, the protein intake is not usually calculated through percentages but rather than grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. A standard recommendation for runners is 0.73-.82 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (or 1.6-1.8 g per kilogram of bodyweight).

Once you calculate the protein, you can calculate the carbs, and the fats are what's left.

Not all types of runners are good candidates for a ketogenic diet. Runners who do sprints or short races are better off with a higher-carb diet. However, endurance runners, like marathons and ultramarathons, may find that doing keto helps their performance improve.


Benefits of a keto diet plan for runners

There are several benefits of doing a low-carb diet. The most traditional is the weight loss achieved. However, for a runner, this might not be the primary concern. Are there other benefits of having this type of diet for a runner? Here is a list of the most common benefits you can obtain.

  • Better fat adaptation. This means that you are better at processing fats as fuel.
  • Improved sleep
  • Stable energy levels throughout the day
  • Improved blood work
  • Better insulin sensitivity

In some cases, runners do the ketogenic diet for a specific period of time. For example, in the recovery phase (when training intensity is not as high), you might try a ketogenic approach to shed a couple of pounds before you are in season.


Drawbacks of keto and running

The main drawbacks are seen during the first week of adaptation. While your body adjusts to using ketones as the main energy source, you might feel sluggish and have the keto flu (fatigue, nausea, and headaches). All of which can impair performance or training sessions.

If you are looking to begin a low-carb diet, try to start it when you are in the off-season of training. Make sure that you do not have a major event coming up. That way, if you do need to skip a training session because you are low on energy, it is not right before a competition.

A keto diet might not be the best choice for sprinters or high-intensity runners. It seems that these people perform better in higher-carb diets. Thus, one of the biggest drawbacks is reduced performance in some cases.

To prevent any of the first symptoms of the keto flu, make sure to stay well hydrated. Drink plenty of water, and you can even incorporate electrolytes.


How to start keto for runners

Before you start a ketogenic plan for runners, you must talk to your healthcare provider and sports nutritionist to check if you are suitable for this type of eating plan. Once they give you the thumbs up, you are ready to begin.

  1. Calculate your calories. It is essential that you calculate the calories you need depending on your overall goal (gain, maintain or lose weight). Keep in mind that your activity level has an impact on how much you need to eat. How many days of training do you have per week? How many hours does each training session last? It is important to have an adequate calorie intake so your performance doesn't take a hit.
  2. Calculate the macros. Once you know how many calories you need, it is time to determine the macronutrient composition. First, start with protein. Remember that you need between  0.73 and 0.82 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (or 1.6-1.8 g per kg). When you have the amount, you can proceed with carbs. If you are training hard, it’s recommended that you lean toward the higher end of the percentage range (10%). Finally, fats are what is left.
  3. Prepare a weekly menu. That way, you can plan ahead depending on your training and any other big event that you might have. Preparation is always key for an athlete.

There is also the possibility of doing a cyclical keto diet. This means that for longer or more intense training sessions, you can follow a low or moderate carb intake. For some people, this helps improve performance.




Foods for a runner on keto

Now let's talk about which foods we want to add to our diet and which we want to avoid. We are first going to look at fats. Since the majority of the calories come from this group, it is going to be the main energy source for a runner.

Healthy fats need to be added in large quantities to ensure you are getting enough energy during the day, especially for your training session.

There are two types of fat groups: saturated and unsaturated.

Saturated fat sources generally come from animal sources. If they are consumed in excess, they might increase your risk of heart disease. 

Unsaturated fats tend to come from vegetable sources, and they are better for your heart. Thus, when choosing fats, try to choose unsaturated over saturated. Avocado, olive oil, olive, nuts, seeds, and nut butter are common sources.

Protein is another vital group for runners. This will help you keep your muscle mass. Try to include a source every 2-3 hours. Some of the most common protein sources are eggs, chicken, red meat, pork, fish, seafood, protein shakes, plain Greek yogurt, and tofu.

Veggies are another essential group for athletes since they provide the vitamins and minerals for our body to function correctly. Try to eat at least 3 colors of veggies during the day to get different nutrient sources. There are no restrictions on which vegetables to choose as long as they are non-starchy. You can have leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, zucchini, celery, cucumber, and mushrooms, to name just a few.

Fruit helps you provide energy before or during  your workout. Make sure to measure the portion to ensure you stay within your carb daily goal. Try berries, bananas, grapefruit, apples, and pears.

Avoid highly-processed carb sources since they provide calories and carbs but lack nutrients. Breads, pastries, cakes, cookies, sugar, honey, candy, and ice cream are some foods to avoid.

A runner might want to include additional supplements to help with performance. The most common ergogenic aids are creatine, caffeine, electrolytes, and salt tablets.


Keto-friendly shopping list for runners

Now that we know which foods to include and avoid, it is time to go grocery shopping and restock your kitchen! Here you can find a grocery list to make it easier for you next time you go shopping.

  • Fats
    • Avocado
    • Seeds: flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds
    • Ghee or butter
    • Olive oil
    • Olives
    • Coconut oil
    • Almond, cashew, or peanut butter
    • Nuts: cashews, walnuts, peanuts, or almonds
    • Coconut milk
    • Cream cheese
    • Sour cream
  • Protein
    • Plain Greek yogurt
    • Eggs
    • Protein shake
    • Turkey
    • Chicken
    • Red meat
    • Ground beef
    • Fish: tilapia, salmon, tuna, mackerel, sea bass
    • Seafood: shrimp, octopus
    • Tofu of tempeh
  • Fruits
    • Berries: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries
    • Banana (ideal for runners due to potassium)
    • Apple
    • Pears
    • Peaches
    • Grapefruit
  • Veggies
    • Leafy greens
    • Cabbage
    • Zucchini
    • Eggplant
    • Mushrooms
    • Broccoli
    • Cauliflower
    • Okra
  • Extras
    • Almond or hemp milk
    • Spices
    • Condiments (sugar-free)
    • Gels or sports bars
    • Sugar-free drinks
    • Electrolytes
    • Tea
    • Coffee


1-day sample ketogenic meal plan for a runner

It is time to talk about the best part: how to create a tasty menu! Here you can find an example to guide you on building one day's worth of meals.

  • Breakfast: Pan-fried eggs with vegetables and strawberries
  • Morning snack: Banana almond protein shake
  • Lunch: Tuna salad with lettuce wraps
  • Evening snack: Apple with peanut butter, and string cheese
  • Dinner: Keto cobb salad

Calories: 2,236 | Macros: 60.2 g net carbs – 154.4 g protein – 145.3 g fats

BREAKFAST Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Pan-fried eggs with vegetables and strawberries Eggs 3 units 215 1.1 18.9 14.2
  Mushrooms 50 g 15 3.8 1.7 0.2
  Spinach 1 cup 7 0.3 0.8 0.1
  Garlic 1 clove 4 1 0.2 0
  Olive oil 1 tablespoon 119 0 0 13.5
  Strawberries 1 cup halves 49 8.7 1 0.5
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
409 14.9 g 22.6 g 28.5 g            
MORNING SNACK Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Banana almond protein shake Vanilla protein powder 1/2 scoop 54 1 12.1 0.2
  Almond milk 1 cup 40 2.9 1 2.5
  Banana 1/2 small unit 45 10.2 0.6 0.2
  Almond butter 1/8 cup 193 2.6 6.5 17.3
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
332 16.7 g 20.2 g 20.2 g            
LUNCH Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Tuna salad with lettuce wraps Tuna 1 can (142 g) 121 0.1 27 1.3
  Mayonnaise 1 tablespoon 94 0 0.1 10.3
  Avocado 1/2 fruit 182 3.4 3.4 15.4
  Onion  1 tablespoon 4 0.8 0.1 0
  Tomato 1/2 cup 12 1.8 0.8 0.6
   Lettuce 6 leaves 6 0.2 0.4 0.1
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
419 6.3 g 31.8 g 27.7 g            
EVENING SNACK Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Apple with peanut butter, and string cheese Apple 1/2 medium 52 11.4 0.2 0.2
  Peanut butter 1 tablespoon 94 2.4 3.8 8
  String cheese 2 units 168 1.2 13.4 11.6
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
314 15 g 17.4 g 19.8 g            
DINNER Ingredients Serving Size Calories Net Carbs(g) Protein(g) Fat(g)
Keto cobb salad Bacon 2 slices 63 0.2 5.2 4.6
  Chicken 1 unit 287 0 40 12.8
  Lettuce 1 cup 8 0.5 0.6 0.1
  Cherry tomatoes 1/2 cup 14 1.6 0.4 0
  Eggs 2 units 143 0.7 12.6 9.5
  Avocado 1/2 fruit 182 3.4 3.4 15.4
  Ranch dressing 1 tablespoon 65 0.9 0.2 6.7
Calories Net Carbs Protein Fat            
792 7.3 g 62.4 g 49.1 g            
DAILY TOTALS   2,236 cal 60.2 g net carbs 154.4 g protein 145.3 g fat

Pro tip: If your training lasts more than 1 hour, plan a snack for every hour of exercise. For example, if you are working out for 4 hours, take 4 snacks with you.




Questions about the keto diet and running

If you still have questions related to running and keto, this is the section for you! Here you can find the frequently asked questions about these two topics.

Have a significant fat and protein intake. For example, eat some nuts and seeds with a couple of scrambled eggs or cottage cheese.

Remember that hydration before a race is as important as after.

It depends on the distance and the intensity. You can have sports gels, amino acid supplements, or fruits to help you fuel during the race or training session.

Add plenty of healthy fats and protein to help you in your recovery. For example, you can have a keto avo toast with salmon if you are running in the morning. This is a perfectly balanced meal.

Remember to drink plenty of fluids after your run, especially if it is humid or hot.

Yes, you can do marathons and ultramarathons on keto. Remember to take it slow and always check with your healthcare provider if it is the right choice for you.

You can hydrate with sports drinks that don't contain sugar. Several brands offer tablets or sports drinks with the essential electrolytes to ensure good hydration post-exercise.

You can use certain amino acid supplements for long-distance runners.

Remember to always try the product during one of your training sessions before using it in competition.


Alternatives to a ketogenic diet for runners