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Why endurance athletes should care about their mitochondria

Taking care of the powerhouse hidden inside your cells can help you stay stronger longer.

Until last year, founder and cyclist at the NZ Cycling Project James Canny’s knowledge of mitochondria was limited to what he learned in high school biology.

But when the New Zealand-based rider—who was hit by a drunk driver when he was only 17 years old and went through extensive rehabilitation before being able to return to competition—met fellow cyclist John Marshall, the Chief Marketing Officer for MitoQ, after racing with his team at the 2019 Intelligentsia Cup in Chicago, he was convinced to participate in a trial of the company’s powerful antioxidant that provides support to the mitochondria.

“Not only do I race when possible and manage the NZ Cycling Project, I work full-time and I’m a new father to twins—so I am extremely time poor when it comes to training and staying fit,” says Canny. “My rides are usually short, targeted sessions, and after I started taking MitoQ last year, I noticed that I simply wasn’t as tired after rides, I was sleeping better, and I felt like I had a lift in energy. Now, as a new dad, any additional help with sleep or recovery is even more welcome!” He wasn’t a unique case; Canny says that his training mates experienced the same general improvements after taking the supplement.

For as much as athletes think about their heart, lungs, and muscles when it comes to strength, power, and endurance, they often overlook that much smaller player in the performance equation: their mitochondria.

“Mitochondria are tiny organelles inside your cells,” says David Hood, Ph.D., a professor and research chair in cell physiology at York University in Toronto, Canada. More specifically, they’re responsible for the majority of the chemical energy needed to power the cell’s biochemical reactions, according to the National Institutes of Health.

These “cellular powerhouses” are responsible for cell function, signaling and metabolism, regulating physical processes like hormone levels, and crucially, for giving our cells, organs, and tissues the energy they need to function. They do the latter by converting potential energy from food to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that’s responsible for storing and releasing energy in the body. In the production of ATP, the mitochondria make damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS). As part of the energy production process, the mitochondria also make CoQ10, an antioxidant that helps to control ROS and support the mitochondria. Without this vital molecule, the cells can become damaged and the level of ATP that the mitochondria produce can drop. And ATP is what drives muscle contraction—a pretty important element of activity.

James Canny on the attack.

As your mitochondrial quantity increases, so does the quality of those mitochondria, according to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The more—and healthier—mitochondria you have, “the more ATP and energy you’ll be able to produce aerobically,” says Hood. “When you rely more on aerobic energy production, you tend to produce less lactic acid, which allows your muscle contractions to be more efficient and leads to less fatigue—which leads to more endurance.”

Another endurance benefit: As you make more mitochondria, you also make more enzymes that break down fat, says Hood. A well-trained person uses more fat for their energy and less carbohydrates. “It takes a much longer time to deplete fat than your limited carbohydrate reserves, which means you can run or cycle or swim for much longer periods of time,” he explains. When they’re functioning well, healthy mitochondria can help you recover from intense workout loads faster in terms of regenerating energy supplies.

However as a natural part of the aging process, the important support offered by CoQ10 in the mitochondria can decline, something that high intensity exercise can also induce by proliferating ROS.

Like everything else in our bodies, our mitochondria can become less efficient as we age. With increasing age, levels of CoQ10 in the mitochondria can decline by about 10 percent with each passing decade. When your mitochondria don’t function properly, it means they aren’t producing enough energy for your body to function properly. You’ll likely experience fatigue and lethargy, workouts can feel way tougher than they should, and recovery can take longer.

“Some people think that the more ROS you generate, the more likely your muscles are to fatigue,” Hood explains. “But the more mitochondria there are, the faster you’re going to recover in terms of regenerating energy supplies for the next exercise bout.” For this to occur however, you want to ensure the mitochondria are functioning well and healthy, so they‘re best able to deal with the ROS.

Fortunately, just by engaging in endurance exercise, you’re helping your body’s mitochondria. Getting a good night’s sleep can be a good place to start, too.

However even if you’re exercising, eating well and sleeping a good amount, the natural age-related decline of CoQ10 levels within mitochondria can still occur. This could explain why athletes like Canny are experiencing a difference from taking MitoQ.

To best support mitochondrial health, antioxidants need to be able to get inside mitochondria, to where the ROS are produced. However mitochondria have a tough outer membrane that lets very little pass through. MitoQ claims it has isolated the active component of CoQ10 and given it a positive charge that enables it to be sucked into the negatively-charged mitochondria. Research has found that this novel antioxidant is able to be absorbed by the mitochondria hundreds of times better than regular CoQ10 or its active form, ubiquinol, which are only effective at getting into the bloodstream.

For the past 20 years, studies on MitoQ have focused on benefits to ongoing health, but it is now undergoing clinical trials to research performance benefits. Anecdotal evidence has shown that, when paired with smart training, MitoQ helps the body to better-absorb intense training periods and recover more quickly, and a clinical trial released in 2020 by Ulster University, Sport and Exercise Sciences Research Institute found that MitoQ attenuates the damage that high-intensity exercise causes to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in skeletal muscle.

Given his own experience with MitoQ, Canny has now shared the word within his cycling team, which competes globally and always strives to beat the pros. “So far the boys have had an incredible summer season, podium placing in numerous national races including taking both the Sprint Ace and King of the Mountain jerseys in the grueling Tour of Southland stage race; placing 2nd in the NZ Elite Men’s Mountain Bike Championships and top five in three other categories; bagging U23 New Zealand Champ and multiple top 10 placements at New Zealand Nationals. You can see the results, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”