How to Help Your Cells and Mitochondria Produce Energy for Enhanced Athletic Endurance and Mental Clarity

By on September 3, 2014

Increasing your cells’ efficiency in producing energy might just be the best way to increase athletic and mental performance across the board. Low energy is what prevents us from working properly, what stops us exercising when we know we should, and what causes us to fail that last rep when we are working out.

cell energy

Your entire body is made from billions of cells, and their well-being and performance is what ultimately dictates your health and physical ability. Of particular importance is the way that they utilise ATP and ‘mitochondria’ (the power plants of your cells) in order to generate energy that you can use to power your muscles. Ever wondered why young children seem to have boundless energy? It’s because their cells are full of healthy mitochondria and you have fewer of these as you get older. If you’re suffering with chronic fatigue, then it may just be the result of low, or ineffective mitochondria. On the other hand, if you’re currently suffering from ‘average performance’, then boosting your mitochondria and cell health could well be the key to breaking records in the gym, beasting it in the office and waking up full of energy and power.

In this post, I’m going to be looking at how the cells generate energy, and how understanding this can help you to boost your endurance, speed and power in the gym as well as improving mental clarity and focus. Hang onto your hats, because this is going to get deep…

An Introduction to ATP

The first thing you need to understand is how our bodies get energy in the first place. Originally this energy comes in the form of glucose, which we get (more or less) from our food and from energy stored in fat. Your body doesn’t actually run on glucose though, it runs on ‘ATP’ or ‘Adenosine Triphosphate’ – which is sometimes referred to as the ‘energy currency’ of life. ATP is a ‘nucleoside’ made of three phosphates, held together by powerful bonds. It’s by breaking those bonds that the body can release energy to be used for locomotive power. Chemicals such as myosin in the muscles are what we use to break the ATP down, but that’s not really important for now.

To actually make use of glucose then, your body needs to first convert it into ATP first, and this occurs via three different systems that kick in in a systematic manner, starting with the phosphagen system…

The Phosphagen System

The phosphogen system is the energy system that our body uses when it needs a quick, sudden burst of power. It only lasts for around 15-30 seconds before running out, so it’s useless if you’re going for a jog. If you need to lift a heavy weight one to three times though, this is the system you’ll be relying on.

The phosphagen system works using the ATP that you already have floating around in your muscles, as well as the ADP and AMP. ADP is ‘adenosine diphosphate’, while AMP is ‘adenosine monosphate’. These are what are left over once ATP is broken down and used for energy. Fortunately, the body also produces a substance called creatine phosphate in the liver, also known as ‘CP’. This allows our cells to ‘recycle’ ADP by taking phosphates from the CP and moving them over to the ADP.

In other words:

ADP + Creatine Phosphate = ATP + Creatine

Unfortunately though we only store so much creatine in our muscles at any given time, which is why this energy system only has a 15 second window before it burns out.

energy muscle

The Aerobic System

Under normal circumstances, this is when our body would switch to the aerobic system of energy, which is where the body actually breaks down glucose into useable ATP. This is the most efficient energy system in the body and lasts the longest, but it also requires oxygen to work. Hence the heavy breathing you probably experience when you run up the stairs.

The aerobic system is also sometimes known as ‘cellular respiration’ and is broken down into three stages itself. These are:

Glycolysis: Glucose is a molecule made from six carbon atoms. This needs to be broken down before it can be used by the body. During ‘glycolysis’, glucose is broken down into 2 ATP and two three carbon molecules called ‘pyruvic acid’ (also known as H+ ions).

From here, the pyruvic acid is then broken down into two acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl CoA), which are two carbon molecules. So it goes: Glucose (6 carbon) > Pyruvic Acid (3 carbon) > Acetyl CoA (2 carbon).

Glycolysis itself actually requires 2 ATP initially to work and results in 4 ATP by the end, along with the acetyl CoA.

The Krebs Cycle (Citric Acid Cycle): During the Krebs cycle, or ‘citric acid cycle’, which occurs in the mitochondria (the energy stations of your cells), the acetyl CoA is then broken down further into 2 ATPs, 6 NADH and 2 FADH. NADH is nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, and FADH2 is Flavin Adenine Dinucleotide. All you need to know about them is that they contain hydrogen which can be converted again into even more ATPs. This happens in the next stage ‘oxidative phosphorylation’. This Krebs cycle also creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct which we then breathe out.

Oxidative Phosphorylation (Electron Transfer Chain): Now is phosphorylation, during which point the mitochondria convert the NADH and FADH2 (hydrogen) into a whopping 34 ATP, resulting in a grand total of 38 ATPs by the end of it all. This is called oxidative phosphorylation because it requires the highly reactive oxygen in order to work. This process is carried out in the mitochondria via the ‘electron transport chain’ or ETC, and involves a proton gradient across internal membranes of the mitochondria.

So in short, the aerobic system is the breakdown of glucose into ATP through various stages which relies on oxygen for the latter portion. This is why you get out of breath when you run up the stairs, and it’s the energy system you need to improve upon if you want to increase your endurance for long distance running, cycle etc.

The Anaerobic System (Lactate System)

During most training, you will only rely on these two energy systems, but under certain circumstances (such as HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training – or being chased by a lion) you will use the anaerobic system.

The anaerobic system is what happens when you run out of ATP and creatine in your muscles, but you are moving too quickly to rely on the aerobic system. In other words, the aerobic system can’t deliver oxygen to your muscles fast enough and thus you have to find another source of energy. This occurs when you sprint for instance.

Essentially what happens here is that glucose is broken down partially by a stunted version of glycolysis (anaerobic glycolysis) which only makes it through the first stage without the help of oxygen. This then results in a little useable ATP, but the pyruvic acid doesn’t get broken down into NADH and FADH2. Thus what you’re left with is a little ATP and a build-up of acid.

Anaerobic glycolysis is thus not as efficient as aerobic glycolysis because not everything gets turned into useable energy. Pyruvic acid also has another name: lactic acid. And when this lactic acid builds up in the muscles, it leads to that burning sensation and ultimately muscle fatigue and failure (it’s a combination of this and microtears that lead to failure during reps on the bench press).

Hacking the Energy Systems for Greater Performance and Mental Clarity

So that’s how your body provides you with energy to do everything from running marathons, to doing maths to sleeping. Unfortunately though, our capacity for generating and using energy is limited, and this limits what we can accomplish before burning out.

The good news is that there are a number of ways we can hack this system, to give ourselves more energy in every task. Here are some examples that build on the understanding we now have of how the cells produce energy…

Supplements

Supplementing With Creatine: Supplementing with creatine provides your muscles with more creatine than you produce in your liver alone. This then means you have more phosphates available for recycling ADP into ATP. For these reasons, creatine is a highly popular supplement among bodybuilders and athletes and help you to pump out a few more repetitions on the bench press. Studies show that creatine supplementation could also boost mental performance and short term memory, essentially by giving the brain cells more energy for optimal function (1).

Beta-Alanine: Beta-alanine is another supplement that may aid with your cells’ energy systems, specifically the anaerobic system. This is because beta-alanine supplementation increases levels of carnosine (as a precursor) – which is in turn a dipeptide that can regulate acidity in the muscles. This can thus prevent a build-up of lactic acid leading to failure during high exertion. In one study it was found to significantly improve performance on stationary bikes (2). Carnosine can’t be taken directly unfortunately, as it gets changed by the GI tract when consumed orally.

L-Carnitine: L-Carnitine meanwhile boosts mitochondrial function by helping to bring in fatty acids that can be burned for fuel. Thus, it is a popular ingredient in many ‘fat burning’ supplements, and may lead to increased energy levels.

CoQ10: Coenzyme Q10 is a substance found in the mitochondria that helps with oxidative phosphorylation. It is found in beef, and low amounts of the micronutrient have been linked to high blood pressure. Natural production of CoQ10 declines with age, and this could be part of the reason that we see decreased energy levels as we get older. Supplementation with CoQ10 is relatively controversial as the effects of oral supplementation haven’t been proven one way or the other and it is difficult for the body to absorb, but it’s an interesting supplement to look into. If you want to increase CoQ10 without risking wasting your cash, then just eat lots of beef as that has lots of other benefits too.

PQQ: According to Life Extension Magazine, CoQ10’s effects are heightened when combined with PQQ – a nutrient found in all plant-based food sources. One study showed that PQQ deficiency in mice could lead to 20-30% reduction in their mitochondria. Again, at this stage I wouldn’t recommend wasting your cash, so until more studies are done on this one you could increase your PQQ intake by eating green peppers, kiwi fruit, papaya, tofu and parsley. It’s also a very powerful antioxidant, so that’s a bonus!

Omega 3 Fatty Acid: Omega 3 fatty acid is a fat found in oily fish and a few other sources. I get mine from tuna because I love tuna. Omega 3 has long been known to be good for your brain and for your cells, and part of this is because higher amounts of omega 3 in cell membranes increases ‘cell fluidity’, helping nutrients to more easily pass through and reach the mitochondria.

Lipoic Acid: Lipoic acid is another supplement that may help to support healthy mitochondrial function (3). Lipoic acid is an ‘organosulfur compound’ and an antioxidant. Most importantly though, it is a ‘co factor’ in five enzymes, two of which are crucial for the citric acid cycle – AKA the krebs cycle. In other words, this acid aids with the break-down of acetyl CoA

Forget Resveratrol: Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in red wine, and for a while it looked as though it could not only combat free radicals, but also stimulate the production of new mitochondria. These findings were based on a study looking at mice however, while human trials have failed to replicate the results. It appears that the amounts we would require to see benefits in humans are impractical (4). Oh well, you can’t win them all!

My Dream Supplement

I would love to see a supplement that would combine creatine, lipoic acid, CoQ10, beta alanine, omega 3, l-carnitine and PQQ. That would be a ‘throw everything’ at your cells approach to boosting energy big time, but in the mean time I recommend eating a lot of beef as it contains several of those key ingredients on its own!

Lifestyle and Training

Taking supplements can give you a boost in energy, but at best it will be a ‘shortcut’ to increasing your energy levels. Much better is to use lifestyle changes to stimulate the production of more mitochondria and ensure maximum efficiency. Like everything, your energy efficiency can be trained.

HIIT Exercise: One of the best ways to increase energy levels is to increase your density of your mitochondria is to exercise intensively. Like every in your body, if you don’t use it, you lose it. If you barely ever move anywhere in other words, then your mitochondrial count will go down, whereas if you exercise often it will go up. This is why people who exercise regularly have more energy (at least it’s one reason), and high intensity training is thought to place the greatest demand on your body’s energy processes making it the best choice.

Any exercise will increase mitochondria count, by elevating levels of AMPK (amp-activated protein kinase) which the body sees as a signal to amp up production or ‘mitochondrial biogenesis’. (The birth of new neurons is called ‘neurogenesis’ but ‘mitochogenesis’ sounds ridiculous…). Here’s a paper that explains the process in a little more detail (5). Watch out though: increasing AMPK can also increase myostatin which suppresses muscle development (6).

VO2 Max: Your VO2 max refers to your body’s ability to take in oxygen during exercise. This is closely related to your general fitness and dictates just how quickly your body can use the aerobic system to generate energy. VO2 max really deserves an entire post, and indeed I’ll be writing one focusing on that topic soon. For now though, recognise that aerobic training can boost your VO2 max, as can improving your breathing, training the intercostal muscles (potentially), improving hydration and electrolytes (try chia seeds), training at high altitude and possibly even supplementation (look up: cordycep, I’ve yet to research this one properly but it’s interesting fo sho). Increasing iron intake can also help which is also found in high quantities in beef.

Strength Training: As it happens, strength training may also help to increase mitochondrial count (7), so lifting weights can actually help to improve aerobic performance. This certainly explains some of my own experience. All the more reason to use resistance cardio then.

Cell Health: Also highly important is to generally protect your cell health. That means getting plenty of sleep, drinking plenty of water (your cells are 70% water), avoiding free radicals (no smoking, obviously) and eating lots of antioxidants. The healthier your cells, the better they will be at producing energy, using protein and making you not die.

Conclusions

So wow, there you have it. That’s how your cells generate energy, and how you can utilise that to increase your own performance several fold. It’s a pretty complex and detailed look, but if you want a few takeaways, this is how to boost your own energy:

  • Supplement with creatine
  • And maybe a few others, like beta-alanine, l-carnitine and omega 3
  • Train with HIIT
  • Increase your VO2 Max
  • Eat lots of beef

Oh, and one more thing: a single mitochondria is called a ‘mitochondrion’. Cool, right?

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