Targeted Ketogenic Diet: An In-depth Look

Updated Oct 4th, 2021 – Written by Craig Clarke

Medical review by Dr. Frank Aieta, ND

The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD), simply put, is nothing more than a regular keto diet – with the exception of eating carbs around your workout times. That means any day you exercise, you will be consuming carbohydrates.

If your goal is still fat loss, make sure to include the extra calories from the carbs in your calorie total for that day. This means that fewer fats should be consumed on these days.

The TKD is meant for people who exercise regularly at high-intensities or for extended periods of time. On the other hand, if you are sedentary or only do low-intensity exercise a couple of times a week, then the standard ketogenic diet is all you need.

Benefits of a TKD

targeted keto diet benefits

The TKD is a “compromise” between a Standard Ketogenic Diet and a Cyclical Ketogenic Diet, meaning that you can still perform high intensity activity, but you won’t have to be out of ketosis for long periods of time.

For most people’s purposes, TKD can help you withstand performance during high intensity exercise – although not as well as CKD. It’s most appropriate for beginner or intermediate strength trainers or for those who cannot use a CKD diet for health reasons.

As of now, there are no studies out that show the limitations of weight training based on low sources of blood glucose. There are studies that give carbs prior to resistance and strength training, but have not found increased performance over the long run. However, many SKD keto-ers report strength and endurance improvements during high intensity activities if they consume pre-workout carbs.

This is mainly due to the fact that the muscles require glucose to fuel most types of anaerobic training. When you give the muscles the glucose that they need by following the targeted ketogenic diet, they will respond with the ability to perform at high-intensities for sustained periods of time. When those same muscles don’t have enough glucose, they will lack endurance and strength during tasks that require a substantial effort for 15 to 300 seconds continuously.

Endurance athletes and moderate-intensity exercisers may benefit from the targeted ketogenic diet as well when participating in activities that last an hour and a half or longer. Studies show that supplementing with carbohydrates before the performance of long endurance tasks like running a half marathon can improve performance and reduce the perceived exertion of the runners without impairing ketosis.

Not sure what I mean by a reduction in perceived exertion? Here’s an example. If you consume 25-50 grams of carbohydrates before exercising and you feel like that activity is easier to accomplish compared to doing the same activity without the extra carbs, then that indicates that your perceived exertion decreased. Although this was only found to occur in studies on endurance runners during a half-marathon, this phenomenon may also explain why many keto dieters report having increased strength and endurance during high intensity exercise as well.

Another benefit of consuming carbohydrates prior to working out, is the effect that it has on insulin levels. Yes, high insulin levels are the exact opposite of what you want on the ketogenic diet, but — at the right times — insulin increases can be beneficial. For example, Increasing insulin levels prior to exercise has an anabolic effect on the muscles, preventing muscle breakdown and promoting muscle growth.

Although you can experience a performance boost and a perfectly timed insulin response by using the TKD, these are not the primary goals of this dietary strategy. The main reason behind it is to maintain glycogen levels, so you are essentially setting yourself up for the next workout.

The Takeaway: To sum up this section simply,  if you’re an athlete or if you exercise regularly and your performance has been suffering, then I recommend that you experiment with carbohydrates before your training. By doing this you can help preserve your glycogen stores, decrease how strenuous the exercise feels, and improve strength and performance.

What To Eat on The Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD)

keto carbs before workout - what to eat

Most people experimenting with TKD find that 25-50g of carbohydrates taken 30 minutes prior to exercise gives them the best performance. Most suggest eating simple, easily digestible carbs, such as liquids or high glycemic foods that absorb fast into the body — sweet tarts, white bread, candy bars.

However, the best sources of carbs for a successful TKD would be dextrose and glucose. You want to avoid fructose, as it tends to go directly to the liver to replenish liver glycogen (instead of going to the muscle, which is what we want).  The highest fructose foods tend to be natural foods like fruit and honey.

On the other hand, some good carb sources for TKD are things like gummy bears, hard candies, Gatorade, and Powerade. People also have shown great results taking in natural maple syrup prior to workouts. However, all of these options still contain a decent amount of fructose.

To get the purest form of glucose, try supplementing with dextrose tablets or glucose gel packets. These will provide you with a pure source of glucose without any fructose, making them the cleanest carb sources for the TKD.

Regardless of what carb source you choose, it should be consumed on its own or with protein (for a muscle building effect). Fat consumption should generally be avoided immediately before and after exercise. Dietary fat tends to slow the digestion of protein and carbohydrate, which is something you don’t want while you are implementing the TKD.

The only fats that won’t impact carb or protein digestion are medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) because they are digested more quickly than any other fat. As a side bonus, they also help increase ketone levels whether you eat carbs or not. This makes MCTs a great addition to your pre or post workout meal if you are looking to increase your ketone levels.

The Takeaway: Eat 25-50 grams of carbs from high-glucose, non-fat foods like gummy bears, hard candies, Gatorade, Powerade, and natural maple syrup. Cleaner forms of glucose like dextrose supplements and glucose gel packs may be even more effective. Consume protein with your carbs to boost muscle growth and/or MCTs to increase ketone levels.

Will The TKD Kick Me Out of  Ketosis?

Will The TKD Kick Me Out of  Ketosis?

With the influx of carbs that you will be taking in before exercise, your ketones levels will inevitably decrease. By how much will they drop? It depends.

Many will find that they drop out of ketosis for a few hours after their workout, due to the increased insulin levels. The good news is that working out will make various systemic changes that help you get back into ketosis.

For example, working out can help increase insulin sensitivity, which means that less insulin will be needed to handle the 25-50 grams that you eat on the TKD. Cell membrane proteins called glucose transporters will also be more active as a result of the exercise, turning muscles into a glucose magnet that suck up sugar from the blood. The combination of increased insulin sensitivity and glucose transporter activity will ensure that the carbs are used up by muscle, insulin levels drop, and ketone production will be ramped up sooner rather than later.

If you want to boost your ketone levels naturally, you can do some low-intensity cardio to help lower insulin even more and increase the free fatty acids in your blood (more free fatty acids = more ketones). Another strategy that you can use to boost ketone levels is to supplement with MCTs before, during, or after exercise. These fatty acids will be converted into ketones regardless of your insulin and blood sugar levels.

It is important to realize, however, that you may not need to use either one of these ketone boosting strategies.  Your ketone levels depend on many factors including your workout intensity, workout duration, stress levels, how keto-adapted you are, and your insulin levels, so you might stay in ketosis after you ingest the pre-workout carbohydrates. On the other hand, you may stop producing ketones completely for a couple of hours.

Does this mean you should rigidly track your ketone levels before, during, and after your workouts on TKD?

Although you can measure your ketones to find out if you are in ketosis or not, this is completely unnecessary. The most important thing is that you stick to your ketogenic diet plan after your workout. If you do so, you will be in ketosis in a couple of hours, and your results will not suffer at all.

The Takeaway: Eating carbs pre-workout will decrease your ketones levels. How much your ketone levels decrease depends on many factors, but — as long as you stick to the ketogenic diet — you will have no problem getting back into ketosis. If you would like to give your ketone levels a boost, then do some low-intensity exercise after your workout and/or supplement with MCTs.

Should I Implement a Targeted Keto Diet?

If you are a beginner or intermediate weight lifter, high-intensity exercise, or athlete (0-2 years of training), then you might want to try a TKD. This dietary approach may provide you with the performance boost you need but are not getting from following the SKD alone.

Remember, the goal with this approach is to get JUST enough carbs to provide glycogen for the workout, where you can build lean muscle while keeping body fat down.

After you are keto-adapted, however, the extra carbs may not be helpful anymore. Studies show that keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners are able to replenish their glycogen stores and maintain glycogen levels just as well as endurance runners who are on a high-carb diet.

For this reason, you may experience that the TKD doesn’t do anything for you after you are on the keto diet for a couple of  months and you are keto-adapted. If this is the case, then you should stick with the SKD or try the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (best for high-intensity athletes/exercisers).

How Do I Start a TKD?

Here’s how you can execute the TKD properly and get the best results:

  • If you’re on a SKD and want to perform high intensity activity, you will have to consume carbs at some point around your exercise. The way you calculate your macros will be exactly the same, except you must take into account the extra calories you’ll get from eating carbs – adjust your fats as needed. (More specifically, every gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories, while every gram of fat is 9 calories. If your goal is to lose weight, this means that you should reduce your fat intake by around 11 grams if you consume 25 grams of carbs on work out days.)
  • The best time to consume carbs is 30-60 minutes prior to your workout, where you will eat around 25-50g of carbohydrates. It’s suggested that you ingest quickly absorbing, high GI carbohydrates.
  • The best carbohydrate sources for the TKD are hard candies, gummy bears, sugary sports drinks, natural maple syrup/sugar, dextrose supplements, and glucose gels.
  • Stick to sugar sources that are high in glucose, as fructose can refill liver glycogen and interrupt ketosis.
  • Most fats should be avoided at this time, as they slow the digestion process. If you must have fat before your workout, then have MCTs.
  • If you have to ingest more than 50g of carbs around your training, then try to split it up – eat half of those carbs 30 minutes before the workout and half right before you start.
  • If you are consuming post-workout carbs, 25-50g is the limit. (Keep in mind that this strategy will keep you out of ketosis for more extended periods of time.)
  • Instead of ingesting carbs post-workout, have a high-quality protein shake to boost recovery. Having carbs post-workout is entirely unnecessary.
  • If you have various training sessions a day, divide your 25-50 grams of carbs between both sessions or adjust your carb dosage depending on the intensity and duration (e.g., 15g for the first session and 25g for the second one).
  • Experiment with supplements that have been proven to boost performance like creatine, taurine, beta-alanine, L-citrulline, and MCTs. For more information on these supplements and recommended dosages, check out our guide to keto bodybuilding.
  • If following the TKD isn’t working for you, consider trying out the cyclical ketogenic diet