Higher Physical Performance by Optimizing Metabolic Functioning

In the first part of this 4-part series, "What Allows Us To Endure," we delved into the absolute need for energy, embodied by the mighty ATP, to ignite our existence and elevate our physical activity. Now, it's time to embark on a journey to unlock the secrets of supercharging our energy production system – the very art of ATP synthesis. It's not merely about craving energy; it's about mastering the art of generating it in abundance and with unparalleled efficiency. Get ready to push the boundaries of your physical capabilities as we explore how to harness more energy and fortify our body to conquer the most demanding challenges.

Unleash the Power Within: The Quest for More Mitochondria
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Picture this: You're driving your car, and you notice that it's guzzling fuel faster than ever before. What do you do? You head to the nearest gas station to refuel, right? Now, think of your body as a high-performance machine, and ATP as its fuel. The more efficiently you can produce ATP (or the more efficiently the car’s engine uses gas for energy generation), the longer you can go without running out of gas.
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So, how do we supercharge our ATP production? The answer lies in boosting the number of our cellular power plants – the mitochondria. It's like adding more engines to your car to make it run faster and farther. This process is known as mitochondrial biogenesis, where cells multiply their mitochondrial workforce.

Why the obsession with mitochondria, you ask? Well, it's all about energy efficiency. Mitochondrial respiration is the champion of ATP synthesis, churning out a whopping 28-30 ATP molecules in one go (Cox, Michael & Nelson, David. 2000). Compare that to the meager ATP yield of glycolysis and lactic acid fermentation, and you'll understand why we're on a mission to keep our cells away from those alternatives during exercise (Rigoulet M et al. 2020).

In essence, the more mitochondria we have, the more energy we can produce, and the longer we can keep the pedal to the metal without fatigue setting in.

So, join this thrilling journey into the heart of mitochondrial biogenesis, where we unlock the secrets to an energy-efficient existence.

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How do we trigger mitochondrial biogenesis?
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Now we get more practical. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, numerous research findings have unveiled enhancements in mitochondrial biogenesis and function following training interventions. A twelve-week endurance training regimen (5 days/week) resulted in a twofold increase in the number of mitochondrial enzymes and a 60% surge in total protein content (Holloszy 1967). Another study reported a ~30% rise in mitochondrial concentration in the gastrocnemius muscle (calves) after ten weeks of daily endurance training (Gollnick et al. 1969). Additionally, engaging in 1-hour cycling sessions four days a week over five months, with an intensity ranging from 70% to 90% of VO2max, led to a substantial 95% increase in oxidative capacity and a 117% increase in glycolytic capacity (Gollnick et al. 1973).

An increase in oxidative capacity often accompanies an increase in mitochondrial density due to the close relationship between these two factors within the context of cellular energy production.

As we already know, Mitochondria are the primary sites for oxidative phosphorylation, a process through which cells generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body's primary energy currency. To meet the energy demands of a more oxidative metabolism, cells require a greater number of mitochondria because these organelles are responsible for producing ATP through oxidative processes, such as the electron transport chain and the Krebs Cycle (see my last article about aerobic respiration).

When we consistently engage in endurance exercise or aerobic training, it stimulates various physiological adaptations in skeletal muscles, including:
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Increased Mitochondrial Biogenesis: Exercise triggers the production of more mitochondria, a process known as mitochondrial biogenesis (Sanchis-Gomar et al. 2014). This means that new mitochondria are synthesized within the muscle cells.

Enhanced Mitochondrial Density: The creation of new mitochondria results in an increased density of these organelles within the muscle fibers. More mitochondria are distributed throughout the muscle tissue.

Improved Mitochondrial Function: In addition to an increased number, exercise can also enhance the functional capacity of existing mitochondria, making them more efficient at producing ATP.

All of these adaptations contribute to an overall boost in oxidative capacity, as the muscle cells become better equipped to use oxygen to generate energy through aerobic processes. This increased oxidative capacity enables us to sustain prolonged periods of exercise, as our muscles are more efficient at utilizing oxygen and metabolizing fuels like fatty acids for ATP production.

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Embrace Your Endurance Potential: The Art of Long-Distance Training
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Imagine embarking on an epic journey, not in a flash, but with the measured steps of a determined explorer. This is the essence of long-duration endurance training – a single set lasting anywhere from a robust 12 minutes to several awe-inspiring hours. It's a dance with low-intensity, typically hovering between 50-80% of your maximum heart rate, and it can take various forms: from the rhythmic cadence of walking and running to the wind-in-your-face adventure of cycling or the serene glide through water while swimming.
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Now, here's the secret to success: Begin low to reach new heights. If you're stepping into the world of long-distance training, don't kick off with a colossal 10k run. Instead, let your journey commence with a modest 1, 2, or 3-kilometer stride, allowing your body to acclimate to the rhythm of your chosen activity. Then, as you progress, gradually amplify both the distance and intensity. Watch in wonder as your body transforms, becoming a finely-tuned machine, ready to conquer greater challenges with each passing step.

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  • 1 set

  • 12 minutes to hours

  • Low intensity (50-80% of max HR)

  • Walking, Running, Cycling, Swimming, etc.

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Unlocking ATP's Efficiency Secrets: The Power of Adaptation
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We've unraveled one key to producing ATP more efficiently: the need for an army of mitochondria. But there's another thrilling chapter in this saga of energy optimization within our cells. It's a story of transforming our body's energy systems into a well-rehearsed orchestra, playing harmoniously to achieve peak performance in ATP synthesis.

Picture this: You're tackling a DIY project, assembling a complex piece of furniture from IKEA. The first attempt is a maze of instructions, materials, and cautious assembly. But as you build more shelves, something magical happens. Your movements become fluid and swift, screws twist effortlessly into place, and you finish each shelf in record time. Now, imagine this same principle at work within your cells during ATP generation.

In the cellular respiration ballet, every step, from glycolysis to the electron transport chain, can become a virtuoso performance. The more you engage your energy system, the smoother and more efficient each dance step becomes. Your body optimizes these processes, fine-tuning them for future physical feats.

So, what's the catalyst for these incredible adaptations? Enter exercise, but not just any exercise – high-intensity training. It's the beacon that ignites mitochondrial activity, propelling you toward the peak of energy efficiency (D.C. Hughes et al, MacInnis et al. 2016). Through these adaptations, your body becomes a well-oiled ATP-producing machine, ready to conquer whatever challenges lie ahead.

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Spark Your Inner Power: The Anaerobic High-Intensity Interval Training
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Get ready to dive into the world of high-intensity training, recommended by Dr. Andrew Huberman and MD Peter Attia.
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Anaerobic High-Intensity Interval Training:

  • Sets: 3-12

  • Repetitions: As fast as your form remains good while keeping safety in check.

  • Work-Rest Ratio: Starting from 1:5 to 3:1. That means you could be sprinting for 20 seconds and recovering for 100 seconds or going all out for 60 seconds with a swift 20-second breather.
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Here's how you can weave it into your training plan: Kickstart with two sessions per week, each comprising 4 sets of 20 seconds of intense effort followed by a luxurious 100 seconds of rest. As you progress in your fitness journey, aim to add more sets until you conquer a challenging 12 sets.

Now, the secret sauce lies in the fact that this style of training catapults your system beyond the 100% mark of your VO2 Max. In simpler terms, it supercharges your oxygen utilization to unprecedented levels.

But here's the kicker: You'll be pushing yourself to the brink with every set. Just when you think you can't go on, you'll dive into yet another round. It's a relentless pursuit of your physical and mental boundaries, and the rewards are nothing short of extraordinary.