Endurance athletes are always looking for an edge. That extends to professional cyclists, who are among the fittest humans on earth and who require an inordinate amount of fuel to pedal through grueling mountain stages and time trials during multi-week races like the Tour de France.
Nutrition for endurance athletes has come a long way. For years, cyclists would force down as many simple carbs as they could stomach, often turning to quick-sugar options like Coke and candy bars. These days, you’re more likely to see the best riders opt for carb-laden sports drinks, gels and blocks. More recently, science has produced a new option that boosts your body’s ketones.
Which begs the question …
WHAT ARE KETONES?
Ketones are compounds naturally produced in the liver that are used for energy when carbs are unavailable. This can occur when your body is literally starving, and your brain and muscles need a fuel source, or by self-induced means, like undertaking the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet.
Ketones are sometimes called the “fourth macronutrient” — the others being fat, carbs and protein — and companies have been working since 2003 to turn them into a consumable product. Enter ketone drinks. After first being engineered for potential military application as a way to keep soldiers going strong during multi-day battles, consumable ketones are now being marketed to endurance athletes.
HOW DO KETONE DRINKS WORK?
Turning ketones into a liquid product wasn’t easy. The first versions tasted terrible and were exorbitantly expensive. Then, in a 2016 study, a group of researchers created a ketone ester that could be consumed like a regular sports drink. To evaluate the product, they gave the ketone ester to elite cyclists and asked them to complete one hour of intense cycling followed by a 30-minute time trial. The cyclists taking the ketones performed better in that time trial, going an additional 400 meters, or 2% farther, than cyclists not taking the ketones.
According to the study, the ketone group also saw better blood lactate clearance and higher glycogen stores, suggesting the body used the ketones for fuel rather than burning precious glycogen.
Of course, all of that occurred in a controlled testing setting, which is a different scenario than your regular weekend outing or occasional century ride. But still, ketone esters are no longer just for the scientists and elite athletes. Earlier this year, a company called Hvmn (pronounced “human”) rolled out the first commercial ketone drink.
ARE KETONE DRINKS SAFE?
It’s possible ketone drinks can have benefits beyond endurance sports. A recent study published in Obesity found that ketone ester drinks may suppress appetite and benefit weight loss. Another study published in the Journal of Physiology found that ketone ester supplements lower blood sugar and might be helpful for those with Type 2 diabetes. So it’s worth watching this space to see what else researchers learn.
Of course, with any new supplement, the long-term effects of consuming ketone esters is unknown, so you should do your own research, talk to your doctor and otherwise perform some due diligence before trying it. That said, according to Hvmn, its product is currently being used by cyclists, NFL players, the military and pro fighters.
If you’re looking for an edge in your next ride, you can score some online. Just know that it comes at a price: a three-pack of bottles sets you back $99 or $33 per serving. And, per the performance study above, the margins are small. That additional 2% might make a significant impact for a professional cyclist, but it’s unlikely to produce noticeable effects for the average rider. But if you’ve got some spare cash and are willing to experiment (after checking with your doctor), well, now you can.