Everybody wants to know how the highest-level athletes fuel their bodies for elite competition. What are their go-to foods? Which diets do they rely on for max performance? How do they strategically break up their day? In Eat Like a Champion, a recurring franchise, we give you the inside scoop on our professional athletes' dietary habits: what they're eating, why they're eating it, and when they're eating it. Follow their lead and fuel like a champion.
How did a ketogenic diet work for him? In listening to Yorek’s answer, you get a robust picture of how he used personal nutritional experiments to better understand himself, rather than come to any judgement on specific diets.
A Brief Definition of Keto for Endurance Athletes
Keto is broadly understood to be a low-carbohydrate approach to nutrition, but a hard, clinical definition of a ketogenic diet is simply eating (or not eating) in a way that shifts your metabolism into producing significant levels of ketone bodies, in particular beta-hydroxybuterate.
You could, for example, just starve yourself into producing more ketones.
Again, broadly speaking, being keto-adapted means relying less on carbohydrates for energy and more on using fat to fuel both the body and the brain.
One illuminating study that put fat-adapted endurance athletes to the test showed what was possible for those who had been restricting carbohydrate intake for six months or more: Compared to endurance athletes who ate high-carb diets, the fat-adapted runners were, on average, burning two or more times the fat, up to 1.8 grams of fat oxidation per minute.
But, as Yorek discovered, there can be more to the story.
Yorek’s Keto Experiment
Yorek found a measure of success with keto, for sure.
“As far as overall health, brain function, and performing in longer distance events — three hours plus — I’m a big fan of keto,” he says.
But like others have found, if an event is shorter in nature, or requires higher-intensity bursts of effort within a race, or both, a strict ketogenic diet can cause you to sacrifice metabolic flexibility. It becomes hard to drop the proverbial hammer and put in a high-intensity burst of effort, speed, or strength.
Yorek says that, for him, the enduring value of his ketogenic experiment has been a deeper understanding of how macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats) are used by the body and how he can tweak that information toward specific performance needs.
Chasing Carbs and Calories
For now, Yorek finds that more carbs help him toward his current goals.
“The biggest takeaway from what I've learned about diet is that it’s important to figure out what it is that a particular event will require in terms of energy expenditure, and to match that with the most efficient nutrition for your body, the best you can,” he says.
Since Yorek is currently focusing on relatively short duration races, pure keto isn’t optimal.
“I need carbohydrates in order to maximize energy output," he says. "That said, I am very conscious of getting enough high-fat foods in my diet.”
He also shoots to consume, daily, one gram of protein per pound of his bodyweight.
Advice for Spartans
As far as advice for beginning Spartans, Yorek says that eating lean meat, vegetables, and “plenty of Himalayan salt” is something we could all do well by. But to go further, it’s best to keep individual variation in mind.
“Honestly, each body is so different — and the needs of an athlete training for a DEKA FIT versus a Spartan Ultra are different — so just try to learn what it is that you need for what you are hoping to achieve,” Yorek says.
He adds with a smile: “I'm just old and have failed enough to have a good idea about how to go about it.”
The experience and ongoing pursuit of knowledge are paying off: Yorek recently won the National Guard Marathon with a 2:36 effort, in 73 degrees of heat and 88-percent humidity.
“I went from fifth place to first place in the back half of the marathon,” he says, attributing the performance to what he learned about hydration from ultrarunning guru and Lore of Running author, Dr. Tim Noakes, M.D.
“This was big because I'm particularly known for going out too hard and blowing up in longer races,” he adds with a laugh.
While Yorek eats plenty of carbs these days, he is not shy about high-fat snacks, pizza, and the occasional locally-brewed beer. It’s a matter of getting enough calories to support two and sometimes three workouts a day.
“I’d love to put on about 10 pounds to be able to move weight better, but my training volume makes that very difficult for me to do,” he says.
With his chase for calories in mind, here’s a glimpse of how Yorek now eats in a typical weekday.
Yorek's Daily Fuel Plan
- A bottle of water with electrolytes
“Plenty of coffee," he says. "Black coffee with heavy whipping cream for the fats.”
If Yorek is going for three workouts in his day, he’ll have a spoonful of peanut butter and get the first training session in here.
- Steel-cut oats
- A big spoonful of peanut butter
“Breakfast tends to be pretty high in carbs,” Yorek says. “I might have eggs if I need the extra protein for the day.”
- Mixed nuts
- Peanut butter pretzel bites
“Peanut butter pretzel bites: I love those things," he says. "But I might simply have another spoonful of peanut butter. I usually do my first workout after this snack.”
- Sandwich or wrap: salami or turkey and some vegetables
- Branch-chain amino acids drink
“And maybe a yogurt and a Snickers bar," he says. "I’m a sucker for a Snickers, preferably the almond butter version.”
- Mixed nuts
- Similar salty snacks
“This is before my afternoon training session,” Yorek says.
- A vegetable and/or salad
- Rice or pasta
- Alternatively: pizza night!
- Maybe even a good IPA
“Dinner is the catch-all for calories," he says. "Usually a meat, a veggie, and a carb. Or I just load up on pizza! I will always try and have some sort of veggies or salad along with things.”
“Over the last year I’ve really cut down on the beers, so I will enjoy a couple of solid IPAs during the week and maybe one or two more on the weekend, but that’s about it.”