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Ketone supplement could be game-changer for team sports

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DCU’s latest research has revealed a newly-developed sports supplement known as a ‘ketone ester’ has the ability to help Gaelic, soccer, rugby and other team players make better decisions in the crucial closing minutes of a game.

Ketone esters are generally regarded as beneficial for endurance sports people like long-distance runners and cyclists, but this is the first research conducted into its benefits in enhancing physical and cognitive performance within team sports.

The research, carried out by Brendan Egan and Mark Evans of the School of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University, and funded by the Irish Research Council, shows that while these new supplements don’t improve running performance in team sports, they may help players reduce bad decisions made due to fatigue and exhaustion during the final stages of a match.

The study, ‘Intermittent running and cognitive performances after ketone ester ingestion’, involved 11 male team sports athletes in two main experimental trials – identical, except for the supplement drink, consumed before and during the exercise performance test.

  • Ketone ester ingestion very likely benefits team players in reducing the number of bad decisions due to exhaustion towards the end of gruelling games
  • It is well-known among sports scientists that decision-making by players dis-improves as a game progresses – but this dis-improvement did not take place in team sport athletes who had taken ketone supplements.
  • There was no evidence of a benefit of ketone ester ingestion on physical performance, but the benefits of ketones are mostly likely to be seen in those individuals with higher levels of aerobic fitness and higher proportion of type 1 muscle fibres.

Lead Investigator and Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Physiology at DCU, Dr Brendan Egan, says, “Given that team sports athletes are presented with a multitude of decisions throughout match play, interventions that preserve or improve decision-making could positively influence performance outcomes”.

The supplement was originally developed in the United States through funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with a special interest in assisting performance in warfighters.The commercial version used in this study is known as KE4 by KetoneAid, Inc.

“Despite the lack of benefit to physical performance, the novel finding of preserved executive function after exhausting exercises suggests that there remains a possibility that ketones could enhance sports-specific performances of team sport athletes,” Dr Egan added.

A ketone is an organic substance made naturally in our bodies during periods of fasting or starvation when it can act as a fuel for the brain and muscle, but is now available in supplemental form. Several companies are currently producing ketone supplements usually in the form of ‘esters’ or ‘salts’, but work published earlier this year (also from Evans and Egan) indicates that the salts are not as effective as esters at increasing ketone levels in the blood after ingestion.

With supplements becoming a major industry in Ireland among elite sports people, the research is likely to lead to an interest in ketones for physical and cognitive benefits.

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