For each powerful pedal stroke you perform on a bike, you probably know that you’re engaging your calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes. But what’s powering those muscles is mitochondria, and without their hard and efficient work, there’s no way you’d move forward.
Let’s rewind back to high school biology class for a sec: Mitochondria, as you may recall, are tiny structures within your cells. They’re often called the “powerhouse” of your cells because they generate most of the chemical energy needed to power the cell’s biochemical reactions.
That energy is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). “ATP is the fuel for the gas tank,” says Anurag Singh, M.D., Ph.D., and chief medical officer with Swiss life sciences company Amazentis, who has researched this subject for more than a decade.
Your body can only store a little bit of ATP at any given time, so in order to support activity and daily life ATP needs to be continually regenerated on a cellular level through a series of complex biochemical reactions within the body. The oversimplified explanation is that ATP can be produced aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), but mitochondria can produce more ATP with oxygen.
What does that have to do with cycling? On a macro level, “mitochondrial health translates into better performance, endurance, and recovery,” says Dr. Singh. In order for your muscles to contract, they need ATP. The more ATP your working muscles get, the longer, stronger, and more efficiently they can actually perform that work (or vice versa).
The more mitochondria you have, the more ATP and energy you’ll be able to produce. Plus, as your body produces more mitochondria, it will also make more of the enzymes that break down fat, which can help make your fat-burning more efficient, says Dr. Singh. The better you are at burning fat over carbs for energy, the longer it will take to empty out your fuel reserves—which means you can last longer on the bike. (Your mileage on this may vary, literally, depending on the length and intensity of the ride.)
Best of all, exercise creates a positive feedback loop for your mitochondria: Not only does it increase the number of mitochondria in your body, it increases the quality of those mitochondria, according to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. And the higher the quality of your mitochondria, the more efficiently they work, and the better you can perform. Here’s how to optimize that system.
Endurance (or aerobic) exercise is what stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, a process that increases the number of mitochondria in your cells, according to research published in the American Journal of Physiology—Endocrinology and Metabolism.
In fact, mitochondrial volume density (the percentage of muscle fiber volume occupied by mitochondria) can increase by up to around 40 percent in response to endurance training, according to research published in the journal Experimental Physiology. Remember: The more mitochondria you have, the more energy you can produce.
But you shouldn’t always ride at the same pace, says Dr. Singh. Adding speed workouts can make your mitochondria more efficient, which helps them work even better. Compared to moderate continuous intensity training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), sprint interval training increased mitochondrial respiration (the oxygen-requiring metabolic reactions and processes that convert energy from foot to ATP), according to a 2019 study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
While your mitochondria are busy generating energy, they’re also generating highly reactive molecules called oxidants (or reactive oxygen species AKA ROS), which can be damaging to your cells. The more efficiently your mitochondria work, though, the less oxidants they produce.
The prevailing thought right now, says Dr. Singh, is that a diet rich in antioxidants—most commonly found in fruits and vegetables—is the best way to keep your mitochondria on their A-game. These antioxidants can help neutralize ROS in your body, according to research in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
There are a number of micronutrients involved in mitochondrial function: B vitamins, ascorbic acid, α-tocopherol, selenium, zinc, coenzyme Q10, caffeine, melatonin, carnitine, nitrate, lipoic acid, and taurine. You should be able to get an adequate intake of these nutrients from a well-balanced diet. But if you don’t think you’re getting nutrients you need to boost your mitochondria, a supplement may help.
Timeline Nutrition’s Mitopure Powder, for example, is a purified form of a metabolic compound called Urolithin A. Laboratory studies suggest Urolithin A might help activate a process called mitophagy, which cleans defective mitochondria after they have been damaged or subjected to stress.
“As we age, and as you exercise a lot, your mitochondria get burned out,” says Dr. Singh. “Mitophagy is the body’s way of cleaning the old, faulty mitochondria out so there’s room to generate newer, healthier mitochondria.”
Urolithin A is a natural compound that can be created in the gut after eating certain foods, but studies have shown that only 30-40 percent of people are able to naturally produce it, and to varying degrees. Mitopure may be a way to add a dose of this powerful compound to your diet and help revitalize mitochondrial health.
If you want to splurge on a massage, go for it—massage promotes the growth of new mitochondria in skeletal muscle according to a 2012 study from the journal Science Translational Medicine.
If you can’t consistently splurge on a massage, DIY the experience with foam rolling, which research also shows could also help boost your mitochondrial health. In a 2015 study on foam rolling in the Journal of Athletic Training, biochemical changes indicated that new mitochondria were being formed, potentially due to the constant pressure on the muscle.
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