‘Ketones are like another lane on the highway’ – why Visma-Lease a Bike partnered with Ketone-IQ and went public with their secret weapon

Michael Brandt, the CEO and co-founder of US ketone drink manufacturer Ketone-IQ, tells Rouleur what sort of performance benefits WorldTour teams are getting out of the superfuel – and explains why the rest of us can benefit from ketones too

This article was produced in association with Ketone-IQ

In January, Visma-Lease a Bike announced a research partnership with US ketone drink manufacturer Ketone-IQ. The team revealed their riders had been using ketone supplements as part of their nutritional strategy for several years. And up until the partnership they had been purchasing the ketones themselves. You might have heard of ketones as a sort of super fuel that’s more efficient than carbohydrates, something that your body produces when it’s running out of carbohydrates. You might have heard all sorts of things, so for the latest Rouleur Conversations podcast – you can listen via the link at the bottom of this page – we spoke to Michael Brandt, the co-founder and CEO of Ketone-IQ, formerly HVMN.

Starting at the beginning, what are ketones? In the brand’s own definition, they are “a natural source of fuel for the body, often created when your stored carbs are depleted, triggering the body to convert fat into ketones for fuel. Unlike fats, ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier, allowing ketones to fuel both the brain and the body. Compared to other sources of energy like glucose or fat, ketones are a more efficient fuel that can produce more power while using less oxygen.”

“There’s calories in ketones and that’s a key defining characteristic,” confirms Brandt, a Stanford graduate in computer science and former product manager at Google. “Caffeine, other stimulants and supplements can give you a perception of feeling more energised but when we talk about fuel we talk about calories, something that actually has energy inside it that your cells can use. And the ability to drink a ketone directly via an exogenous ketone drink – that’s really effective at raising your body’s ketone levels. You drink it and you immediately have ketones circulating. With Ketone-IQ you’re able to put fuel into that fat-ketone pathway immediately in a bioavailable way that wasn’t possible before.” Brandt explains that, furthermore, ketones can be used as fuel in parallel with your carbohydrates since the pathway is different. “If you’re fuelling hard on gels and snacks and gummies from a typical fuelling regimen with carbohydrate, you’re probably maxed out. It’s advantageous to be able to stack ketones in parallel through another pathway – it’s like another lane on the highway.”

A Visma rider holding a bottle of Ketone-IQ

What exactly are the benefits – what sort of improvements can we expect? “We’ve seen two broad categories of benefits,” he explains. “One is with acute immediate benefits in the current effort where when you drink ketones they seem to preserve your glycogen, your body’s carbohydrate stores, meaning they give you more matches to burn later in the race. We did a study at one of the large military colleges here in the United States: participants ran and then they performed a sprint on the bike. The ketone group had significantly higher power output on the sprint test on the bike afterwards. Around the hour mark and beyond, you have more in the tank than you should. It's a different feeling than caffeine or the ‘spiky’ types of supplements. Instead, what ketones offer is a longer burn. It's a longer, elevated ability to perform.”

The second benefit, says Brandt, is what WorldTour cycling teams like Visma-Lease a Bike are specifically interested in, and it’s how ketones can enhance recovery as well as ‘acute’ performance. “In stage races where you’re racing for three weeks, 200 kilometres a day against the best riders in the world, it’s relentless and so the ability to recover more quickly is crucial,” says Brandt. “People talk about expending energy on the bike, but as soon as you get off the bike your body is still doing metabolism… you’re always doing metabolism. It’s like water: just like your body is always using water, your body is always doing metabolism. And if you have a more efficient fuel, which ketones are, you’re able to improve aspects of your recovery.”

To demonstrate how it works, Brandt references a double-blind placebo-controlled study done at a Belgian university, KU Leuven, with a ketone group and a non-ketone group of cyclists riding over a three-week period to simulate a Grand Tour. The ketone group after three weeks saw a 15% higher power output in their final time trials. According to the exercise physiologist Chiel Poffé who had conducted the study, the ketone group in the Grand Tour-simulating three-week trial were also able to handle a larger training load in their final week – which suggests a huge advantage for pro teams using them.

“So there’s benefits in the recovery stage where you’re able to repair muscle quicker, able to reload glycogen stores quicker, you’re able to do that when you have ketones in your system. At the pro level, where athletes train and race every day, the recovery benefits are really interesting on top of that first category of benefits which is acute, immediate benefits in the current effort.” To be able to produce 15% more power in a final time trial after three weeks is huge, isn’t it? “Yes, we have these crazy new aero helmets and we’re fighting for every watt,” says Brandt. “So it’s cool when you see something like this that breaks through.”

Better performance through better health

What about downsides? Brandt is keen to emphasise that drinking ketones is not harmful – quite the opposite. “The thing to underline is that it’s helping riders to be healthier,” he says. “It’s not like a deal with the devil. A lot of times when you hear about these big performance benefits you’re trading health points for it: too many red blood cells, a heart attack in the middle of the night… and that rightfully should not be allowed in sport. We’re getting better rider performance via better health and that’s what we’re all about. We’re completely WADA compliant. Outside of the WorldTour teams we’re working with we have Olympic and NSF certification so we’re super above board.”

Can Brandt say how many WorldTour teams Ketone-IQ is working with? “Most teams at this point, I can say that. For a while some teams were buying from us, someone would buy and we’d be shipping large amounts to different addresses that were connected with teams. What was really cool about kicking off this official partnership with Visma-Lease a Bike is that now we can talk about it more publicly. Obviously there’s that sensitivity when it’s just a sales relationship. But I think we can share that 60% of the peloton is using our product. But as for naming people specifically, we respect the sponsor relationship where if you’re going to namedrop, teams would prefer that there’s some partnership in place. So we always kept it general… but now with Visma we can talk about it more publicly. For them too it meant they could bring it into the light of day – this doesn’t need to be some sort of dark secret… but there are aspects of exactly how they use it that they like to keep a secret, just to keep an edge. When I was in Tenerife at the training camp in the spring we were there shooting content with the riders and there were other teams there. Ineos was also at the hotel. We had some bottles lying on the table and someone on the team was like oh, put those away. In general we want to make a lot of noise about how we’re working together but there’s also discretion. You don’t want to give away all your secrets.”

So in the end what do Brandt and HVMN hope to achieve with Visma – to do more research and publish more data? “Yeah, that’s the main thrust. We have a big research project going on with KU Leuven, which is one of the top research universities in sports physiology. They’ve done a lot of work on ketones and we’re looking at how ketones help with natural EPO production, formation of new blood vessels, how riders respond in both normal oxygen as well as hypoxic – when you’re at altitude your blood oxygen drops, which presents its own set of fuelling challenges. One of the interesting things about ketones is that they turn into cellular energy – ATP – in your cells using less oxygen than carbohydrate, so they’re already interesting at normoxic [sea level] conditions but they start being super interesting at hypoxic conditions. In 2019 my company got a $6 million grant with the US Department of Defense Special Operations Command. There were seven different subtasks to that research. One of the really special areas of interest for them was hypoxia. If your blood oxygen is lower because you’re in a fighter jet or at altitude or deep sea diving then your performance is impaired. There’s not a lot that works to counteract the effects of hypoxia, but with ketones we saw that you are able to mitigate a lot of the detriments – the ability to make ATP in less oxygen and also longer-term effects like the ability to make more blood vessels and EPO. Basically a better ability to carry oxygen around your body.”

Fuel for the mind as well as the body

So the effect of ketones on cognitive performance is as important as it is on athletic performance? “Yes, your whole body is using energy all the time. Skeletal muscles, cardiac muscles, neurons in your brain are using energy, and you’re turning available substrate into ATP for energy in the mitochondria of cells, and a lot of people notice the effect of ketones mentally. You start feeling a little more switched on. It’s like a runner’s high, your brain feels like it has more gas, you can focus a little better.”

Brandt explains that in addition, the improved brain function can lead to better athletic performance: “You have ketones flowing around your quads and calves but there’s something about it in your brain especially – like the central governor effect. A lot of the time when your legs feel tired it’s not that they’re tired but that your brain is tired of telling them to move. If you take a biopsy from someone’s leg muscle when they’re tired, they still have physical, muscular ability to keep going.”

As he explains, ketones’ ability to stop the brain from feeling fatigued during or after exercise is an area where Ketone-IQ can be beneficial for those who both work out and work. “For people who ride bikes and are not professional riders, as soon as they get in from their ride they’ve got to go to their actual job, so we’re seeing not only higher energy on the bike, but people are having Ketone-IQ before a big meeting, before calls. If you don’t want to have too much caffeine – for most people there’s a limit, it interferes with your ability to sleep and therefore perform the next day – we see a lot of people in our community using Ketone-IQ as a high-performance energy. Not just on the bike but also for the transition from bike into work day. To re-energise.”

'It feels like an extra gear'

Brandt is an athlete himself, a self-proclaimed ‘endurance junkie’ with a 2:42 marathon PB, who runs 80 miles per week and also cycles, swims and skis. And as the CEO of Ketone-IQ, he obviously has a busy job, too. What do ketones do for him personally? “I have two or three shots a day [10g ketones per bottle], starting first thing in the morning when I get my workout in. I like it just as a way to flip on for a meeting, a podcast, when I want to be sharp. It feels like an extra gear. I also like that it doesn’t mess with my sleep unlike caffeine, and I don’t feel good once I’ve gone beyond two or three cups of coffee – but with ketones you don’t get that. You don’t get anxious, jittery, sweaty, so I like that way that makes me feel alert but in a calm and collected way.”

Ketones were notoriously expensive at first and also notoriously bad tasting. How has it become both cheaper and tastier? “In 2019 it was super expensive – three bottles for $100, $35 a drink and it tasted really acrid. The target group at that point was the Special Operations Command, pro cyclists, Conor McGregor started using it and other pro athletes started catching wind of it. Most new tech starts crazy – the first computer was the size of truck with one megabyte of storage. Now everyone has a terabyte in their pocket. Early on, technologies are high friction but in the successful ones you find some fringe of users who are interested. Someone is willing to pay $35 for an absolutely crazy-tasting drink that can give them performance benefits. As an entrepreneur it’s always interesting to find your first 1,000 fans. When those customers are very elite – the Department of Defense, WorldTour riders – that signals that there could be a lot of other people who would want access to those benefits if you can bring down the price. It took several years after that initial contract with the Department of Defense. We raised a bunch of money because we had a proof point from these customers, then we were able to scale up the manufacturing and work with new technology. Right now we work with a fermentation process which is much more scalable and affordable, like kombucha or beer, where you can give it plant biomass and then have a special organism that ferments it into the ketone. In the early days it was much more of an expensive manual chemical process. So the ability to switch it to fermentation solves a lot around the taste. It still has a taste to it for sure but it doesn’t have the same crazy chemical taste.”

However, says Brandt, “the work continues and I want to get the price down even further [Ketone-IQ now costs $4.50 per serving]. I think a lot about how far electrolytes have come since the first Gatorade in the 1960s. People are still iterating on the technology: some people are heavy sweaters and should have more electrolytes, some people should have less, there are still brands doing innovation on it 50 years later. So we’re still innovating on ketones and we’re still in the first decade. So I’m really happy with how far we’ve come and how broadly available it is than ever before. Our mission as a team is to create the world’s best ketone delivery – why can’t it be everywhere? High-performance energy for everywhere. I want it to be in every corner store in the world. I think it’s that cool. I should be right up there with caffeine or protein powder, the nutritional fundamentals. We have our work cut out to get there but I always say to my team, if you’re making high-performance energy there’s no upper bound to the amount of fun you can have. You can go to an ultra-marathon across Mongolia, you can sponsor all sorts of athletes, you can work with the Tour de France – we’re going to be with team Visma in one of the cars and I’ll probably ride a stage the day before… it’s just an adventure. Because of the nature of the product we get to say yes to a lot of things, so we’re having fun building the company.”

Brandt concludes: “Working with great athletes, saying yes to a lot of fun things and getting the product out there – just making people’s lives better with high-performance energy, it’s really exciting and I think there’s a fundamental human need for more energy, to get more out of your day, out of your life, fully become who you’re meant to be and being the best version of yourself. Helping people to do that in a healthy way, that makes me really thankful for the position I’m in.”

Ketone-IQ is offering a discount for Rouleur readers: Visit https://ketone.com/ROULEUR for 30% off your first subscription order of Ketone-IQ.

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