All athletes, no matter at what level, wants to make sure they are at their peak athletic performance during competition. Although it’s standard for athletes to strategize what to put in their body to perform, it’s easy to forget what is happening inside the body that allows them to compete at their best in the first place.
When it comes to improving your sports performance naturally, it’s crucial to think about the energy processes within your body that allow for those amazing feats of athleticism.
Energy and Athletes
As you know, you need energy to do anything. You normally get that energy from foods that are broken down in the body during a process called cellular respiration. This progressive process breaks down carbohydrates, fats, and simple sugars to produce energy and other useful metabolites. (1)
Metabolites have multiple functions, including energy conversion. They can enter or leave the cellular respiration cycle at any point to be used in a variety of metabolic pathways within the body. (2)
These mechanisms are happening in our body all the time. So, what should you do as an athlete to make sure the energy processes are going to where they’re needed to hit that prime energy level for peak performance?
It all starts with the right amount of electrolytes.
Electrolytes' Role in Energy
Electrolytes' role in the body involves maintaining electrical neutrality in the cells by generating and conducting this energy in the nerves and muscles. This means that they either carry a positive or negative electric charge.
When essential minerals dissolve in a fluid (such as in water), they form electrolytes. This then produces positive or negative ions that your body can use in its metabolic processes. (3)
Most common electrolytes are bicarbonates, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphate, and sodium. These are key in maintaining homeostasis, or balance in the body, or else health issues can occur (such as fatigue). (4)
Electrolytes usually come from food and fluids; that’s why so many athletes are particular when it comes to what they are putting in their bodies. They want to make sure that they get the right “fuel” for the energy they need to perform at the highest level. (3)
As an athlete, you are pushing your body to and maybe even past its limit. So getting your electrolytes from the right fluids and foods is essential when you are training and competing.
In sports performance training, you want to make sure that you are not causing your body to malfunction because you didn’t give your energy processes the right amount of fuel.
Of course, to gain the most from electrolytes, it’s good to know what they do during ATP production in the mitochondria.
Mitochondria’s Role in Sports
Most, if not all athletes, have a very high metabolism. This comprises all chemical reactions that occur within living organisms, starting at the cellular level with the mitochondria. (5)
The basis of energy production in the body happens in the mitochondria, or the “powerhouses of the cell.” Chemical energy produced by the mitochondria is stored in a small molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP production is essential for cellular mobility, digestion, and muscle contraction, and is the cell’s “energy currency.” (6, 7)
Energy conversions are essential for recovery and for optimal health of bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons. Electrolytes give you energy because they are penetrating deep into the mitochondria to make ATP. And ATP needs to be constantly replenished. (8)
Athletes, especially endurance athletes, can train their bodies to become more efficient in utilizing their energy systems for next-level sports performance. But that doesn’t mean that they neglect restocking mitochondria with the nutrients they need to make ATP. (9, 10)
That’s why it’s important to train constantly and consistently (with appropriate recovery and rest of course). Exercise and training, with a proper nutritious diet, increases the mitochondrial content of skeletal muscle, which is what you need to perform at those peak competition moments (11).
Plus, the more mitochondria you have, and the better-structured they are, the more you can push yourself in your sport. And in the long run, it helps your overall health and well-being. (12)
Toxins that Inhibit Sports Performance
If you want to train and compete at your best, it’s important to eliminate anything that can inhibit your chances at success.
However, environmental factors could be the sneaky thief that is stealing from your athletic capabilities and leaving you with limited energy.
As explained earlier, cellular respiration involves metabolites for metabolic pathways to create energy. Interestingly, many harmful bacteria and fungi use a similar process for their own cellular respiration. (13)
Fungal and infections are common among athletes and can develop quickly into widespread outbreaks. (14)
Metabolic adaptation is key for pathogens to increase their load in the body. Although not much is known about how these pathways adapt to the bacterial metabolism in your cells, it is still important to decrease the chances for bacteria to invade or change the nutrition influence of our foods. (15)
Lyme disease is another bacterial concern, especially for athletes in outdoor sports. Lyme disease spreads through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick carrying the B. burgdorferi bacteria. Unfortunately, this disease and its coinfections are often misdiagnosed, especially because testing has limitations. (16, 17)
Lyme disease could be affecting more athletes than previously thought. Lyme disease mimics many disorders, so some athletes might mistake it for overtraining or extreme soreness. Athletes tend to ignore these factors unless the pain doesn’t go away. (18)
Flu-like symptoms often occur, plus anorexia, fatigue, fever, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, neck stiffness, and swollen lymph nodes. (17)
WNBA player Ella Delle Donne wrote an open letter in July 2020 about her struggle with chronic Lyme disease and its coinfections. It’s challenging enough to be an athlete at her level, but she has been battling this health issue privately for years because it’s not talked about enough, nor is it addressed often. (19)
It’s important for athletes, especially athletes who train and compete outdoors, to determine if what they’re feeling is normal tiredness or something more lingering that needs to be addressed.
Unfortunately, the use of drugs, and in some cases, performance-enhancing drugs, has become common among athletes. Although they may have short-term benefits for increased energy, the health risks are usually detrimental. (20)
Many drugs are illegal for athletes to take, and can be harmful in other aspects of life. Some athletes may use drugs for therapeutic reasons or to reduce anxiety. While taken to gain competitive advantage, overuse of drugs could lead to side effects that actually impede athletic abilities and health in the long term. (21)
Stimulants, such as amphetamines and caffeine, could also be used to stimulate the central nervous system to decrease fatigue, improve muscle strength, increase aggressiveness and alertness, and improve endurance. Energy drinks and most pre-workouts usually contain high doses of caffeine and other stimulants. (22, 23)
Although they can boost physical performance, there are side effects, including: (20)
Hypertension (mild high blood pressure)
To help with energy levels for working out, it makes sense for many athletes to take a pre-workout powder or shake, especially one with multi-ingredients. But it’s important not to go overboard with the serving size and just take what is recommended to eliminate the side effects. (24)
Ultimately, athletes should minimize the ingestion of other dietary aids that contain high levels of niacin and caffeine when taking pre-workout or other stimulants. Taking these aids with the stimulants in pre-workout can create issues. (24)
As with everything, make sure to read and research the ingredient list, and choose carefully what stimulants you choose to put in your body.
Essential heavy metals are involved in critical physiological processes in the body. They are considered essential in trace amounts to maintain various biochemical and physiological functions in living organisms (think iron and zinc).
However, toxic heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, need to be removed from the body so they do not leach the body’s energy. Heavy metal toxicity can affect blood composition, lower energy levels, and damage the functioning of the brain, kidney, liver, lungs, and other important organs. (25)
Once absorbed or consumed, heavy metal toxins are distributed to tissues and organs via the digestive tract and blood circulation. Because large amounts of heavy metals are distributed in the skeleton, heavy metal toxins are stored the longest in bones. This is especially detrimental, as bone health is crucial for maintaining high athletic function because of its mitochondrial oxidative potential. (26)
Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body, which is detrimental to athletic performance, growth, and optimization.
Ironically, oxidative stress is actually produced during high competitive exercises. What counters this is antioxidants, which are molecules that fight and protect against free radicals in your body. Antioxidants can be found in our bodies, as well as in whole foods with vitamins such as C and E. (27)
Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. If they aren’t kept in balance by antioxidants, they can start damaging your body. (27, 28, 29)
The reduction of oxidative stress can be achieved by: (30)
Increasing levels of antioxidants
Lowering exposure to environmental pollutants
Supporting mitochondrial energy production and efficiency
Parasites are a more common problem than most people think. The worst part? Anyone can get a parasite, even a healthy athlete. These critters can disrupt high sports performance, especially because they leech nutrients and energy from the host's body. (31)
Athletes have the risk of transmitting intestinal parasites because of poor environmental hygiene conditions in sports settings. Transmission of these parasites mainly happens through public areas that athletes use constantly. Plus, they are always in close contact with team members and other athletes, which can lead to a higher rate of infection. (32)
NHL hockey player Carson Meyer had his 2017-2018 season derailed because of a 25-inch tapeworm. This parasite was draining his energy. He had no appetite, lost weight, and kept falling asleep during practice. The test results showed that he did not have mononucleosis or anything similar, so no one knew what was wrong with him until the parasite came out in his stools. (33)
One of the most prevalent parasites in humans is Toxoplasma gondii. You can get this microscopic parasite from cats when you touch their feces contaminated from eating infected prey. (34)
Toxoplasma gondii messes with the neurotransmitters in your brain, which can affect how you feel, think, and respond to outside stressors. This can negatively affect athletic performance because the parasite could decrease your reaction times and change your ability to function under highly stressful situations, such as in competitions. (35)
More research needs to be conducted regarding how parasites affect sports performance. Parasites could be a factor in decreased anaerobic performance and muscle strength, iron deficiency, and poor performance overall. However, this depends on the level of infection. (32)
In today's environment, people are exposed to pesticides daily. Yet, these pesticides could be harmful to the mitochondria. (36)
Athletic fields are used for many different sports. However, these fields could be sprayed with pesticides, which can harm an athlete's mitochondria and long-term health. (37)
A big component of pesticide exposure is from food. When you eat food with pesticide residue, you consume the toxins as well. Because physical activity, athletic performance, and recovery are enhanced by optimal nutrition, toxins from pesticides can damage the body’s metabolites. (38)
Athletes can also be exposed to pesticides from home pest management, so it is important to try to reduce this type of exposure for the health of the mitochondria. (37)
Although you can’t always avoid pesticides, you can help your mitochondria with certain dietary and lifestyle changes. Looking for organic, whole food options can help lessen exposure from food consumption.
Radioactive elements affect the body on a deep cellular level by compromising your mitochondrial function. And when you can’t function at the lowest level, you will certainly not function at the highest levels for sports performance. Radioactive elements can affect you for a long time and damage your tissues all the way down to your DNA.(39)
You may be exposed without even knowing it. Radioactive elements can be in your home and drinking water. Radioactive elements in rocks and soil can leach out and contaminate water supplies. Glyphosate, a common pesticide, may even increase the amount of radioactive elements plants absorb from the soil — making pesticides and radioactive elements a dangerous double whammy. (40, 41, 42)
To help counteract these radioactive elements, most food and water has essential minerals your body needs to function. To avoid ingesting radioactive elements in the first place, drink safe water. Distilled water is currently the safest method for avoiding these toxins, so consider getting a water distiller. And, as an athlete, you may also consider additional support to ensure you get the essential minerals your cells need for optimal athletic performance. (43)
Supporting the Body for Peak Performance
Now that we’ve established the basis of what the body needs — and what it needs to avoid — at the cellular level to function at the highest level, let’s dive into how to make sure your cells have what they need.
Increase Mitochondrial Density
One of the best ways to increase your energy is by increasing your mitochondria themselves. You can increase your mitochondrial density via athletic exercises, such as endurance training, high intensity interval training (HIIT), and strength training. Mitochondrial density is the percentage of muscle fiber volume occupied by mitochondria. (44)
As athletes, you are probably already doing this according to your particular sport, since each sport requires unique training programs. If not, it can be helpful to mix it up. (45)
Although there is research showing how certain genes are predisposed to certain athletic abilities (i.e. endurance sports), more studies need to be conducted to determine to what extent the mitochondrion-related phenotypes (individual characteristics) of elite endurance athletes are genetically determined. (46)
Regardless, no matter your genes, consistent training at high levels, plus appropriate lengths of recovery, increases lean muscle mass in skeletal muscle and helps with athletic performance. (47)
Eat Nutritious Food and Beverages
Food nutrition in sports performance is key because cellular respiration breaks down the food we eat and the beverages we drink.
As an athlete, it’s necessary to ingest high-quality whole foods and fluids to make sure what your body is breaking down can be used by your cells for optimum energy production.
Try to avoid added sugar and refined carbohydrates in your food and beverages to lower your production of free radicals that are the byproduct of oxidative metabolism. Of course, you should be drinking plenty of water. Because you are losing water and electrolytes when training hard, it’s important to replenish those fluids. (48)
Sports drinks and athletic performance usually go hand-in-hand because they are commonly marketed to boost athleticism. But take care that the “sports drinks” you consume are not filled with high doses of caffeine and/or sugar. The main components of sports drinks are water, carbs, and electrolytes, which are necessary for an athlete's metabolism. (49)
You can also look into chocolate milk and coconut water for rehydration and recovery after strenuous physical activity. Chocolate milk contains carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, as well as electrolytes and water, which is great for recovery. Coconut water can also help with exercise-induced dehydration. (50, 51)
Vitamins and Minerals
Many athletes take dietary support to aid them in all aspects of their sport. Multiple types of vitamins and minerals are available to make them easy to digest and get you ready for training and competition.
Some vitamins and minerals that are helpful include: (52)
Antioxidants: vitamins C and E, and coenzyme Q10 (53)
Minimize free-radical damage to skeletal muscle, thereby reducing muscle fatigue, inflammation, and soreness
Branched-chain amino acids: (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) (54)
Can be metabolized by mitochondria in skeletal muscle to provide energy during exercise
Decreases lactate concentrations during exercise, increases oxygen uptake, and reduces heart rate
To train and compete at high levels, many athletes will take some combination of these beneficial nutrients to perform at their best.
Take Carbon-Driven Nutrients
Another way to make sure you get the vitamins and minerals you need as an athlete is to take carbon-driven nutrients packed with polyelectrolytes. (57)
These specialized carbons conduct electricity through charged particles when mixed with water. These molecules then convert the energy states of trace minerals from inactive to bioavailable, which is essential for effective cellular respiration. (58, 59, 60, 61)
The added benefits of these carbon-driven nutrients is that they contribute to metabolites so that the body does not have to utilize any ATP to make more ATP. (62, 63)
You can also help your body remove toxins with binders. This will definitely help with the toxins that inhibit sports performance. Binders can help bind chemicals, heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, radioactive elements, and other unwanted microbial byproducts. (64, 65)
Be the Athlete You Are Meant to Be
Ultimately, as an athlete, you know your body best. So when it comes to your physical performance, you know what your body needs for training and competition.
But most importantly, knowing how to utilize the energy that your body makes daily can be the game-changer for your athletic goals. Enhance your body’s natural capabilities to perform at its best by supporting your mitochondria to get that energy you need to be a champion.
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