When you’re an athlete on the move, somebody is bound to ask where you get all your stamina and energy. Do your part to increase our society’s biological IQ—tell ’em that your body gets its energy from the same place theirs does: mitochondria.
Mitochondria, which you may remember from biology class, convert nutrients from the food you eat into energy your body uses. You have hundreds of mitochondria in each cell in your body. (And for those of you keeping score at home, your body consists of about 37.2 trillion cells. So there are a LOT of these things inside you.)
What Mitochondria Do in the Body
Mitochondria enable every part of your body to perform the functions they need to. The only problem is that mitochondria can also produce oxygen free radicals—molecules that, in excess, can cause dangerous inflammation, which can damage your mitochondrial DNA, which decreases your ability to convert food to energy. A vicious cycle ensues: less efficient mitochondria produce more free radicals. More free radicals cause more damage to the mitochondrial DNA. And so on.
What does this mean for you as a student-athlete? Mitochondrial inefficiency means you’re not getting the most energy out of the oxygen and sugar you consume. Even if you follow a great nutrition plan, an inefficient body will produce lower levels of the energy-carrying adenosine triphosphate (ATP), so you won’t run as fast, jump as high, or learn as well as you could. (Yes, mitochondria affect your brain cells too.)
To prevent damage from free radicals, you have “in-the-cell” antioxidants. These are distinctly different from the antioxidants you take in from most foods, which float around in your bloodstream. While those may be helpful, the free radicals that can damage you are largely produced in your cell’s energy factories, causing damage mainly inside the cell. The only way to remove them is to increase your in-the-cell antioxidants, which latch on to and escort the free radicals out of your body, like any good protector.
The three major in-the-cell antioxidants are glutathione, superoxide oxide dismutase (abbreviated SOD), and catalase. There are two primary ways to increase the production of these substances inside your cells: 1) exercise regularly and 2) eat foods like blueberries, tomatoes and tart cherries (see Sidebar).
Mitochondrial damage and inefficiency are natural side effects of the body’s energy production, and tend to increase with age. While you’re young, these inefficiencies might cause just a slight degradation in your performance—say, not feeling as strong as you’d like in the fourth quarter or final mile. But do you want to say you couldn’t outkick the pack in the final sprint because you forgot to eat fruit?
Sidebar: Get a Quick Antioxidant Boost
Feeling thirsty after a long run or workout? Reach for some tart cherry juice. Tart cherries are one of the best foods for fighting the oxidative damage exercise can cause. A recent study found that tart cherry juice increased total antioxidative capacity (basically, the ability to fight inflammation) and aided in muscle recovery for marathon runners. So try some cherry juice instead of a sugary recovery drink. Every cell in your body will perform better.