Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Energy...A Key Ingredient for Success

The story of energy production...

(photo credit - Doug Stephen)

I've been doing some reading lately about energy - wanting to find a way to explain to kids how energy systems work.  Its complex stuff, and the average coach might be hard pressed to explain in a few words how energy is created and through what processes, and the role of our muscles, our breathing, our circulatory system all play in creating the energy we need to move our bodies.  In a sport like cross country skiing energy systems are hugely important, as we create much of our own propulsion.  We spend many hours engaged in physical training aimed at improving efficiency in cellular processes of using stored energy and oxygen to create 'energy molecules' (adenosine triphosphate) that explode, reform and resplit countless times in every muscle cell used in our activity.  Some of my reading has come from a couple of textbooks from my undergraduate and graduate study days (Human Physiology by Stuart Ira Fox, and online textbooks such as ).  My reading has made me think about how to share out this information in manageable bytes to adolescent athletes.  Here is my attempt.

Energy is an essential part of success at anything.  Success as an athlete, success as a coach, success as a parent  - it takes energy to achieve.  Energy at a physiological level, and energy at a mental level.  Energy literally is the capacity to do work.  Energy takes many shapes - it can be chemical, solar, mechanical, electrical, nuclear or heat energy.  For humans, chemical energy is a prime source of the materials we need for muscular activity, cellular regeneration, or creating electrical impulses through our nervous system.  Energy is measured by a unit called a calorie or in the metric system, a joule.

When we eat something, we transfer the energy stored in that plant or animal tissue and use it in our body.  One of the jobs of our cells is to transform the chemical energy stored in this plant or animal tissue into another form that our body can use more easily.  Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is that easily usable molecule that the cells produce from the chemical energy stored in the food we eat.  During cellular metabolism, ATP molecules are split by enzymes.  The splitting of ATP molecules, creates a highly usable form of energy for things like muscle contractions.

ATP is considered a high energy compound that is stored in muscles in small amounts.  Because there are only small amounts of ATP stored in cells, there need to be other ways of replenishing this important compound.  Phospho-Creatine is another phosphorus based compound that is found in our cells in small amounts in our muscle tissue.  It is used to rapidly replenish supplies of ATP in muscle cells.

When we eat carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, our body stores some of that energy to be used when needed.  Energy is stored in body fat, our blood (in the form of blood glucose), our muscles (in the form of glycogen), and in our liver.  In an average adult huge stores of energy are found in various tissues.  There is enough energy in the form of muscle glycogen stored in the average adult's muscle tissue for him/her to run for 25 km. There is enough energy stored in adipose tissue (body fat) for an average adult to run for several hundred kilometers if it was possible.  And there is enough energy stored in muscle protein for an average adult to run for more several hundred kilometers.  That is a lot of stored energy.  The challenge is for our bodies to become efficient at converting that stored energy to ATP - this efficiency happens with lots of practice.  Which is one of the reasons why your fitness improves with physical training.  Training on an energy level, is about your muscle cells becoming efficient transformers of carbohydrates to glucose to ATP, proteins to amino acids to ATP, or fats to fatty acids to ATP.

So what is really important to share with kids about energy production - maybe it comes down to this:

- we have alot of stored energy in our bodies
- we do physical training to create efficiencies in the transforming of this stored energy into more usable forms of energy
- energy is created by the breaking of an important molecule called ATP
- ATP is created from stored energy
- what we eat is important to help our bodies optimally convert stored energy to ATP

There it is, Roy's energy lesson.  Go ahead and use it if you want.  At a certain point this is really interesting and useful information for young athletes.  The trick is knowing when it to pull it out and how to make it relevant.  In the end one of our important jobs as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers is to help kids learn about how their bodies work.  Good luck with that.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

1 comment:

  1. what is also important to note is that note everyone metabolizes equally, or some foods actually cause energy problems as a result of the inability to process or absorb that particular food and possibly causing non-reactive foods to be unprocessed. For example: dairy and gluten sensitivities. Once off dairy & gluten I have loads of long-lasting high and medium-effort output... if regularly consuming these 2 items there is a substantial decrease. Long story short - I keep these out of my diet and hence happily ski or bike for hours.