Interview with Low Carb, Keto Ultrarunner Michael McKnight

Interview with Low Carb, Keto Ultrarunner Michael McKnight

Last May, Michael McKnight turned heads in the ultrarunning world by running 100 miles while consuming zero calories. That’s right: zero, zilch, none. Michael is a low carb endurance athlete that I was very interested in chatting with regarding low carb or keto diets in endurance athletes as I venture into further distances and more difficult challenges in the coming months and years.

In addition to the zero calorie 100-miler, Michael is also a two time 200-mile triple crown winner. The Triple Crown is made up of the three original non-repetitive 200-mile trail running courses in the USA, the Bigfoot 200, Tahoe 200 and Moab 240. Over 600 miles in an eight-week span. Most recently, he became the FKT holder on the Colorado Trail.

Image: Van Horn Photography

Here is our chat regarding his accomplishments, keto/low carb lifestyle and some intermittent fasting.

In your mind, what is a keto/low carb lifestyle?

A healthy lifestyle which focuses on eliminating processed foods and sugars.

What made you take on this way of eating and living?

I had countless issues with digestion and low energy within my ultrarunning. I was either puking, or bonking. I learned about the science of a low carb approach for endurance athletes, and loved that it could essentially make me bonk proof.

Can you explain how it’s beneficial to ultrarunning and how it’s changed your running? 

As mentioned above, I haven't had any bonking issues since adapting to this approach. I always have a consistent baseline of energy. My digestive issues decreased drastically as well because I don't have to eat as much. This style of eating can be beneficial for endurance athletes, especially those who target 100+ mile races. Scientifically speaking, your body naturally burns more fat during longer ultras due to having a lower heart rate. Lower heart rates trigger fat burning, and following a low carb lifestyle can fast-track that. You should never be getting your heart rate up high enough in a 100+ mile race where you go anaerobic. 

How do you incorporate some carbs into your peak training periods?

I'll up my fruit intake and will even sometimes have some sweet or red potatoes. I typically time those carbs within 4 hours of my runs as well. I'm getting roughly 100 grams a day during training.

Image: Van Horn Photography

What do you say when people criticize keto/low carb or say that it isn’t sustainable?

The Standard American Diet isn't sustainable either. Low Carb is fairly new, so you can't blame the history of America's health issues on keto. 

How often do you have a meal or day that isn’t keto/low carb?

Every day I'll have a "keto" breakfast and "keto" dinner. But lunch I'll go carb heavy (80-100 grams) since lunch is usually the closest meal to my run. I never cheat by eating junk. I'll just up my carbs through fruits or potatoes.

When did you start intermittent fasting and why?

One year ago to prep for my 0 calorie 100 attempt. I wanted my body to get used to being in a fasted state while training.

What kind of results do you see with it?

All positives. Leaned out to a more ideal race weight. Same amount of energy on my runs. Lower heart rate. Better sleep. Faster recovery.

How did you get into ultrarunning?

I broke my back in 2012, which was shortly after I got into running. Through my recovery, I met someone who was training for a 100-mile race. This is when I first learned about ultras, and he invited me to pace him at his race. Through training with him and pacing him, I fell in love with the sport.

Image: Van Horn Photography

What made you want to run 100 miles on no calories?

Just wanted to see if it was possible. I'm not going to race in a fasted state. But I'm curious at what is possible, so I imagine I'll do another big 0 calorie attempt.

What is the 200 Mile Triple Crown like?

Best race series ever. I did it in 2017 and 2019. In 2017 I wasn't as strict with my low carb lifestyle and I suffered. I had issues during each race. I had recovery issues between them. It wasn't great. In 2019 I was very strict and strategic, and had no issues at all.

What is the difference between running 50 miles to 100 miles and difference between 100 to 200?

Slower pace. More logistics to prepare for. Sleep deprivation especially. You really need to learn how to manage your pace, and perform on little sleep.

What was your experience like breaking the FKT on the Colorado trail?

Hardest experience of my life. I can't describe how hard it is to go that far on that little sleep. Super stoked I was able to grab that FKT!

Favorite accomplishment as a runner?

Running 100 miles on 0 calories.


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