Better mitochondria help athletes make gains

The muscles of elite endurance athletes boast high numbers of extra-efficient mitochondria, the ‘energy’ powerhouse of muscle cells. Unlocking the secrets of these cellular components could yield gains for future Olympians.

Leading exercise biologist Professor John Hawley, director of ACU’s Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research, lends his expertise in this Nature Outlook: Sports science piece looking at whether better mitochondria can help athletes to make gains in performance.

Professor Hawley says elite endurance athletes pack many more of these aerobic power plants into muscle cells than the average person.

Usain Bolt won the men’s 100 metre final in the 2016 Olympic Games in 9.81 seconds and 42 strides. A few days later, Eliud Kipchoge ran 42 kilometres in 2 hours and 8 minutes to win the marathon. These extraordinary feats pose very different challenges for the human body, but the races began in much the same way.

As the starting pistol fired, Bolt and Kipchoge began to use creatine phosphate, an energy-rich molecule stored in muscle tissue, to generate the energy-carrying molecule ATP. In a few seconds, however, Bolt’s stores of creatine phosphate were almost depleted, forcing his muscle to break down glycogen to provide ATP to contracting muscle cells.

For Bolt and his fellow sprinters, a marathon seems like a race with no end! To reach the finish line, these endurance athletes rely on a slower, but more efficient way to generate ATP that uses oxygen to burn fats and carbohydrates, in structures inside the cell called mitochondria.

For decades, coaches and athletes have developed training techniques to try and make their muscles more efficient at burning fuel, largely through trial and error. Scientists have lagged behind, explaining why some techniques work only after the athlete has refined them in training.

“The athletes have taught the scientists more than scientists have taught athletes,” Professor Hawley says.

But now he and others think that the tables could turn, with basic research into mitochondria and various ‘omics technologies providing a scientific foundation for improving elite conditioning regimes.

Exercise scientists are working with basic scientists and utilising new exciting methods to try and better understand how these structures, found inside nearly all cells, adapt to exercise, and how to improve their delivery of oxygen and fuels. Their findings are beginning to inform training regimes and might also have some therapeutic uses for non-athletes.

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