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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, James Canny, cyclist and founder of the NZ Cycling Project, had limited knowledge of the mitochondria with 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,” explains Pankaj Prasun, M.D., co-director of the Mitochondrial Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, NY. “They’re responsible for producing 90 percent of your energy, which is why they’re called the powerhouse of those cells.”

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 RS 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.

The connection between your mitochondria and endurance exercise is twofold: First, endurance exercise actually stimulates a process called mitochondrial biogenesis, according to research published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism. “When you challenge your body with endurance exercise, you secrete a compound that works inside the cell to stimulate the mitochondria to proliferate,” Prasun explains.

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 David Hood, Ph.D., a professor at and research chair in cell physiology at York University in Toronto, Canada. “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. “If you think of your mitochondria like a factory, they generate power but they also generate fumes, or oxidants,” explains Prasun. These molecules, called reactive oxygen species (ROS) are highly reactive or damaging to your cells.

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. “There’s no direct correlation between sleep and mitochondria health,” says Prasun, “but a lack of sleep doesn’t create a good hormonal environment inside the body, which is good for the mitochondria. Anecdotally, if someone doesn’t sleep properly, their already low energy becomes even lower.”

You can also give your mitochondria a boost by eating a diet full of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, says Prasun. “If you’re eating a very high-fat diet or one that’s not heart-healthy, your mitochondria have to work tirelessly to burn that fat, which causes more oxidative stress [i.e. ROS],” he explains.

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 is now spreading the word within his cycling team, which competes globally and always strives to beat the pros. “We just received a team shipment,” he says, “and I’m very excited to hear the feedback and see the results from our elite riders once our delayed season kicks off.”