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By Dr. Geoff Lecovin

MS., DC., ND., L.Ac. CSCS., CISSN, Dipl. Sports Nutrition (IOC)

Tue Dec 03, 2019

cyclists racing
Photo by Markus Spiske from Unsplash

As a competitive athlete, aiming to be faster, higher and stronger, “ Citius, Altius, Fortius”, are often primary goals. 

How you train, eat and recover is the key to achieving these goals.

Your training and nutrition need to be specific for your goals. The specific training adaptations and performance metrics of an endurance athlete are much different from those of strength athletes. In fact, in some cases endurance and strength adaptation can interfere with each other.

When it comes to endurance adaptations, one important goal with your training should be to enhance the production of mitochondria, the powerhouses of your cells. Mitochondria take nutrients, breaks them down, and create energy rich molecules for the cell. More mitichondria set the stage for greater energy production. If you are an endurance athlete, that means the potential for better performance.

Energy Systems 101

ATP–CP System: Short and Intense

For short and powerful activities, The ATP-CP system or phosphagen system is used.  This consists of ATP that is already stored in muscle and creatine phosphate (CP), which rapidly replenishes ATP. This system requires no oxygen for energy production, making it anaerobic in nature. The body’s phosphagen stores (ATP and CP) can fuel an all-out effort for only about 10 seconds before being depleted, e.g. A power lift, 40-meter sprint, long jump, baseball pitch, or basketball dunk. 

Glycolysis (Anaerobic/Lactic Acid)

The second energy system, glycolysis, supplies the energy for activities that last longer than 10 seconds and up to 2 minutes. The lactic acid system also produces energy anaerobically (without using oxygen) through the breakdown of muscle glycogen, a process called glycogenolysis. After it has been released from storage, glycogen produces energy through the metabolic pathway of glycolysis, which forms lactic acid as a by-product. Glycolysis proceeds rapidly to provide ATP (the energy currency). It soon becomes limited by the accumulation of lactic acid. Glycolysis supplies fuel for 800-meter runs, 200-meter swimming events, and stop-and-start activities like basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, and ice hockey.

Aerobic System

The aerobic energy system is used for prolonged endurance or ultra-endurance exercise which depend on aerobic (with oxygen) production of energy. Muscles require a steady supply of ATP during sustained activities like walking, running, swimming, cycling, rowing, and cross-country skiing, or anything done for longer than two minutes continuously. The fuels for these activities are mainly a mix of carbohydrate and fat, depending on the duration and intensity of the activity. Shorter and more intense activities rely on carbohydrates while longer less intense activities primarily use fat. Since Aerobic respiration occurs in the mitochondria it should now be clear that the more mitochondria you have, the better the potential for your aerobic capacity.

Train Low

Advances in our understanding of molecular biology have allowed exercise scientists to determine how endurance-based training programs promote adaptations in skeletal muscle that result in mitochondrial biogenesis and a concomitant increase in exercise capacity. 

Nutrient-gene and nutrient-protein interactions can promote or inhibit the activities of a number of cell signaling pathways and, thereby, have the potential to modulate training adaptations and subsequent performance capacity.

Low carbohydrate availability during training perturbes homeostasis in the body resulting in molecular signals to produce more mitochondria. This can be achieved by training fasted in the morning after an overnight fast or by limiting carbohydrate intake prior to exercise. 

Compete High

Because carbohydrates are the primary energy substrate used for more intense activities, such as powering up hills or sprinting to the finish line, saturating liver and muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores, serves as an ergogenic (performance enhancing) way to get a competitive edge during more intense training or a race.

Practical ways to incorporate train low into your workouts

Train low 1–2 times per week. This can be accomplished  by doing morning workouts after fasting overnight and by avoiding the intake of carbohydrates during these workouts. Start with a short, 30-minute workout while fasted, slowly, over time, extending the duration of these workouts to up to 90 minutes. 

If you need an extra boost during these sessions, consuming caffeine 45 minutes prior to your session can both help to enhance the oxidation of fat for energy as well as serve as a stimulant to get you through these workouts. In addition caffeine augments the molecular signaling process of mitochondrial biogenesis.

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