Ketone, the new super fuel for pigeons?

The Sky cycling team is said, to have begun to provide a ketone drink to their cyclist a few years ago. Anyone who follows the sport knows that Sky has dominated the Tour de France for many years. They regularly ride at the front of the peloton and from there control the race. Is this because of the new super drink containing ketones?

What are ketones?

Ketones is a type of fuel that develops in our body during periods of fasting. While fasting we limit ourselves and eat very few if any carbohydrates. When not eating carbohydrates as a source of fuel, the body switches to burning fate and that is how the ketones occur. When a fat molecule is broken down in the body, it results in one molecule of glycerol and three free fatty acid molecules. Through oxidation, this is converted into the muscle cells (mitochondria) to ATP by a complicated process. Glycogen, which is all types of off sugars and starches combined, also follow down such a path to eventually be converted into ATP. What is ATP? It is like what comes out of a battery: energy. I will spare you the chemical reactions and formulas, this means the explanation is not complete. But the total explanation is dry, and that would only be of interest to only a small group of readers.

In ketosis.

If there is enough oxygen present in the body, it produces about 8 to 20% more “energy” than carbohydrates (Glycogen). If we take in fewer carbohydrates during periods of fasting, then less glucose is present in the body. To then energize the body, fat will be burned along with some protein from the muscles. At that moment, these ketones are created in the liver. So, if you eat few carbohydrates for 7 to 14 days, quit a bit of protein and a lot of fat, ketones are created, and the body goes into “ketosis”. Hello … Are you still following?

Ketones in powder form or in Sports drinks.

What makes all this interesting, is that ketones give more energy than carbohydrates. But if you eat low carbs…surely that can’t be conducive in achieving top performances? No, it is not. Athletes only use this method to lose weight to get down to competition weight for the Tour de France. During the tour, a huge amount of energy is consumed. To address the quandary, a decision was made not to use fewer carbohydrates while riding the tour, but to add extra ketones to the carbohydrate-rich diet. The body does not have to get “into ketosis” at all. They did that by adding these ketones to a sports drink. Theis would have a positive impact on endurance performances, as glycogen stores could be saved for a longer period. However, there are no well-designed studies available at this time, which can demonstrate this effect. The sports drink used by the Sky cycling team was developed by the University of Oxford (UK). The substances in the drink have now been approved by the cycling federation, as they do not cause damage to the body. The product therefore is not on the doping list and may be freely used.


The ketone added drink has been used in cycling since 2011 and yet hardly any tests have been done on it. The question than becomes whether it works as theorized. As far as I know, there is only one test done by Oxford University. Top athletes cycled hard for an hour. The athletes who were given the ketone drink cycled 400 meters further than the athletes who drank the placebo drink, without knowing who got what. That offered a 2% advantage during the one-hour test. But only one scientific test is not enough, to really draw any conclusions. In other words, there is still a lot of water to flow down the Rhine before we can come up with definitive answers.

Pigeon sport and ketones

And sure enough, you could almost wait for it. If something new comes along in the cycling world, the first pigeon ketone problems were on the market. I searched high and low for any scientific trails with pigeons. But I could not find anything. According to the product labels and leaflets, the product could improve the endurances and performance of the pigeons. That is for the long distance and overnight results. The product labels also claimed that the ketones fed the brain. Thus, the pigeon should be more alert. Also, the ketone powder would mainly affect recovery after a race in a positive sense. Could, should be! Understandable claims. That is, because you cannot claim anything these days. If you do, the government will be knocking on your door asking for copies of the trails that were run and their conclusions. And those trails are just too expensive. Further I did not read anything about the pigeons flying higher speeds using these products.


Faster recovery is a good thing. I am not sure we need ketones for faster recovery. Recovery is of course quite different for cyclists who must cycle a stage every day during the Tour de France, than recovery of pigeons that are flown every two or three weeks. Inquires on the exact process of the products were not answered.
Also, my question about how much would be left of these ketones if the pigeons were in the basket for 3 to sometimes 4 days before being released to race home, were not answered. In any case, it was not claimed that the pigeons would fly faster. Only scientific trails and analysis, that is tests in wind tunnels, could answer that question. The products containing ketones are very pricey and I think it is a bit early to be bringing them to market. After all, there are still too many questions on their effectiveness in the pigeon sport.

Willem Mulder

Willem Mulder