Protein, mitochondria, and muscle performance

Mitochondria, play a key role in longevity and athletic performance. Learn about mitochondrial function in muscle cells and how to optimize it.

person riding a bike
What to know
  • Bioenergetics and mitochondrial health are being recognized as one of the most important factors for longevity, but also for improving physical activity, including athlete training programs.

  • Mitochondria generate energy in the form of ATP to fuel your muscles and drive physical endurance. The more mitochondria in your cells that work efficiently, the greater capacity your body has to produce energy.

  • A healthy diet that includes omega-3 fatty acids, lean protein, polyphenols, and antioxidants can support mitochondrial health, as can calorie restriction and intermittent fasting.

  • Consistent exercise increases the number and quality of mitochondria in your muscle cells.

  • Urolithin A is a gut microbiome derived postbiotic that has been clinically shown to improve mitochondrial health and physiological endpoints, including muscle strength and endurance.* Mitopure is the first and only clinically tested, highly pure Urolithin A supplement.

person exercising

The Function of Mitochondria in Muscle Performance

Are you staying consistent with your workouts, but aren’t seeing your performance improve? Or you’re trying to work harder, but you’re not seeing any real physical change? It’s not necessarily something you’re doing wrong - the mitochondrial function in your muscle cells may not be optimal.

Unfortunately, as we age, the number and quality of mitochondria present in the body naturally starts to decline unless we actively try to stop it. But there is good news - we have the ability to slow down this decline through changes in diet, quality protein intake, exercise, and novel supplements.

In this article, we’ll share how you can support mitochondrial health to knock your athletic performance out of the park.

mitochondria

What are the mitochondria?

In the simplest of terms, the mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells. They are found in almost every cell in the body, but the cells in our muscle tissue have an exceptionally high amount of mitochondria.

Mitochondrial decline

The slow decline of mitochondria over time is thought to be one reason for the accelerated fatigue and lower muscle capacity that often occurs with age. But by fueling our mitochondria and optimizing their function, we have the opportunity to slow down and potentially even reverse this process.

The mitochondria work to convert nutrients from our food into usable energy. This energy is used for vital bodily functions, including muscle performance. Thus, by increasing the number of our mitochondria, we can support improved muscle function and endurance.[1]

atp molecule

ATP Molecule structure

How do the mitochondria produce energy?

The mitochondria have an efficient process for generating energy. It starts by converting nutrients from your food into a compound called adenosine triphosphate, commonly known as ATP. In order for mitochondria ATP production to occur, oxygen must be present.

According to research, ATP is designated as the sole fuel for muscle contraction. Once ATP is produced, energy is generated and oxygen is able to fill the cells. This has been seen to benefit both short, high-intensity bouts of energy like sprinting as well as longer endurance events.[2]

dna structure

Do mitochondria regulate protein synthesis?

Protein synthesis refers to the process by which our cells make proteins. Our cells piece together amino acids based on a set of instructions from our DNA. While most protein synthesis occurs in the nucleus of our cell, our mitochondrial DNA also codes for a specific set of proteins.

Protein synthesis rates can slow down with overtraining or aging, primarily because of poor mitochondrial health. One of the reasons why high-protein supplementation is prescribed is to increase muscle protein synthesis.

Some of the protein synthesis mitochondria generate include proteins that are encoded in their own genetic material, known as their genome. However, most of it is encoded in the cell nucleus, the center of the cell, particularly in a liquid portion called the cytoplasm.[3]

Their own genes code proteins for various metabolic processes and for DNA replication and transcription. They build their own RNA messenger proteins through a process called oxidative phosphorylation.[4]

As you can see, mitochondria play a crucial role in fueling the muscle. Let’s discuss how mitochondria specifically impact your athletic performance for the better.

Mitochondria function in muscle cells: how it impacts performance

The mitochondria play a fundamental role in muscle performance, specifically in the case of aerobic workouts that rely on oxygen for fuel. This is the case in terms of longer endurance workouts, but may be effective for shorter high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as well.[5]

As you engage in physical activity, your rate of muscle contraction increases. In response to this, your body boosts blood flow to the muscle tissue to supply it with dietary fats, carbohydrates, and oxygen. This process requires ATP, and mitochondria are a necessary part of the equation.

Nutrients are transferred to your mitochondria along with oxygen, where they are converted into ATP to fuel your working muscles. In order for this process to occur, your mitochondria must be in good working order.

The size and number of mitochondria in your muscle tissue can influence your aerobic performance. The more mitochondria that you have that work efficiently, the greater capacity your body has to produce aerobic energy and supply oxygen. This allows for more efficient respiration and energy production.

For shorter aerobic workouts, this translates to more power and speed. For endurance workouts, this can enable you to keep going for longer and have more stamina.

It is for this reason that the mitochondria are being recognized as one of the most important factors for athletic training plans across the world.

Optimizing your diet and exercise regimen and including specific supplements can support mitochondrial health and your physical performance.

3 Ways to enhance mitochondria function in the muscle

Mitochondria produce energy and promote athletic performance based on the nutrients in your food. In addition, there are certain types of exercise and supplements that can also improve your muscle mitochondria function.

food

Diet

Your diet and your weight play a role in mitochondria function, for better or for worse. For example, research shows having diet-induced obesity is associated with a higher incidence of mitochondrial dysfunction.[6]

However, regardless of weight, there are certain foods and nutrients that can be protective and others that can be damaging. In general, it is optimal to eat more:

Omega-3 fatty acids - Studies show consistent intake of these anti-inflammatory fats may improve skeletal muscle function. For example, one study that involved both EPA and DHA, two forms of omega-3 fats found in fish like salmon, trout, tuna, and sardines showed improvements in mitochondrial health in human skeletal muscle.[7]

Most studies involved the use of omega-3 supplements rather than food sources, but getting enough in the diet is usually the best way to get these nutrients.

Lean proteins - Certain proteins such as lean beef, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts can also support muscle mitochondria. Whey-based protein powder also offers these same benefits in a convenient way.

This is because these protein sources contain essential amino acids (protein-building blocks) such as methionine and cysteine to create a compound called L-carnitine.[8]

L-carnitine is involved in fat transport and thus helps fuel the mitochondria.

Antioxidant-containing foods - Foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, pomegranates, nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate, can support healthy mitochondria levels by protecting them from free radicals.

Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause damage to our mitochondria and, in turn, our cellular health in our muscle cells.

The digestive breakdown of pomegranates, in particular, produces a compound called Urolithin A (UA) that supports the regeneration of healthy mitochondria. Said differently, UA is not in the foods we eat, but is a postbiotic that is produced by our gut microbiome. Unfortunately, studies show that few people can naturally produce UA from diet alone and even if you can, the levels of UA people get from food vary greatly from person to person.

Limit these foods:

Refined carbs and sugars - Limiting refined carbs and sugars like white bread, pastries, bagels, sweets, and sugary beverages protects your muscle mitochondria from damage. This is one key reason why these types of foods don’t sustain your energy for longer workouts.

Research shows too much of these sugary, highly refined carbs can reduce mitochondria efficiency and function.[9]

In addition to these specific foods, there are a few other diet habits that may help:

Intermittent fasting - Research shows fasting can preserve mitochondrial health, including skeletal muscle mitochondria. More studies are needed to determine which type of fasting schedule is optimal, but it appears some level of time-restricted eating is advantageous.[10]

Reduce your calorie intake - Staying in a calorie deficit where you are consuming a bit below your needs can also increase the number of mitochondria in your muscles. One study showed those following a 30% calorie restriction for 3 months saw a large increase in their mitochondrial and ATP production.[11]

Keep in mind, everyone has their own calorie requirements, so always check with your doctor before starting a lower-calorie diet.

person exercising

Exercise

So while our mitochondria can fuel our workouts, it also works the other way around. In other words, every time you perform a tough workout, your body responds to this muscle mitochondria need by generating even larger numbers of mitochondria.

With consistent exercise, the number of mitochondria increases. With each exercise session, your mitochondria become divided during this process and therefore increase in total number. This process is known as mitochondrial biogenesis. So by staying consistent with exercise, you are improving your mitochondrial numbers and function in and of itself.[12]

This is seen time and time again in studies where endurance athletes are seen to have higher muscle mitochondria numbers. It’s also possible that this increased mitochondrial capacity is protective against inflammation and physical injury from endurance exercise.[13]

Mitochondria and aerobic exercise

When you have more mitochondria at a greater density, you can generate more energy during aerobic exercise like running. This allows you to run faster and for longer durations, decreasing fatigue and improving overall performance.

Mitochondria and resistance training

The mitochondria take sugar from carbohydrates and glycogen (stored carbs) and convert it to usable energy during resistance training. This glycogen is stored in our muscle tissue, helping to provide a form of fuel to perform strength exercises.

mitopure berry powder

Supplements

There are also supplements for mitochondrial health that can support optimal muscle performance. One of the most novel and effective ingredients for this purpose is supplements containing Urolithin A (UA).

As previously mentioned, UA is produced as a digestive byproduct of pomegranates, but a large majority of the population doesn’t have the gut bacteria to produce it.

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Mitopure® provides a clinically effective dose of UA in a direct way to ensure your body soaks up as much of it as possible. In several studies, Mitopure has been shown to improve muscle function and enhance mitochondrial gene expression.[14]

One important study found clinically meaningful improvements in aerobic endurance and physical performance in those taking Mitopure for 4 months.[15] And there are clinical trials underway looking at how Mitopure can impact the recovery and performance of elite athletes.

Role of Mitochondria in Sports Performance

This video provides a deep dive into the science behind Mitopure® and muscle health.

Furthermore, a pre-clinical study showed Mitopure® may also benefit joint health. This study looked at an experimental model of osteoarthritis and found that Mitopure reduced cartilage degradation and induced a mild anti-inflammatory effect.

Mitopure supports mitochondrial health by stimulating mitophagy, a process whereby the body removes damaged mitochondria through a recycling process. Through this process, the body is able to rid itself of defective mitochondria that can decrease your workout efficiency.

Not only does Mitopure alone support muscle mitochondrial health, but combining it with a quality protein powder may provide even further benefits for muscle protein synthesis.

Improve muscle performance with Urolithin A

One of the primary functions of mitochondria is its role in muscle performance, especially in regard to endurance training and exercise. While mitochondria levels tend to decline with age, you can optimize your muscle mitochondria function with simple lifestyle changes.

You can watch the conversation between Dr. Mark Hyman and Gabrielle Lyon on the benefits of Urolithin A and muscle health to learn more about the science and how it works.

Authors
Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

Writter

Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

Dietitian-Nutritionist, and Health Content Writer

References
  1. Zane AC, Reiter DA, Shardell M, Cameron D, Simonsick EM, Fishbein KW, Studenski SA, Spencer RG, Ferrucci L. Muscle strength mediates the relationship between mitochondrial energetics and walking performance. Aging Cell. 2017 Jun;16(3):461-468. doi: 10.1111/acel.12568. Epub 2017 Feb 9. PMID: 28181388; PMCID: PMC5418194.

  2. Crecelius AR, Kirby BS, Richards JC, Dinenno FA. Mechanical effects of muscle contraction increase intravascular ATP draining quiescent and active skeletal muscle in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2013 Apr;114(8):1085-93. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01465.2012. Epub 2013 Feb 21. PMID: 23429876; PMCID: PMC3633434.

    Hargreaves, M., Spriet, L.L. Skeletal muscle energy metabolism during exercise. Nat Metab 2, 817–828 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42255-020-0251-4

  3. Zhao, F. and Zou, M.-H. (2021) “Role of the mitochondrial protein import machinery and protein processing in heart disease,” Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, 8. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fcvm.2021.749756.

    Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. The Transport of Proteins into Mitochondria and Chloroplasts.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26828/

  4. Wang F, Zhang D, Zhang D, Li P, Gao Y. Mitochondrial Protein Translation: Emerging Roles and . - Frontiers. frontierin.org. www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcell.2021.675465/full. Published July 1, 2021. Accessed December 14, 2022.

  5. Zanini G, De Gaetano A, Selleri V, Savino G, Cossarizza A, Pinti M, Mattioli AV, Nasi M. Mitochondrial DNA and Exercise: Implications for Health and Injuries in Sports. Cells. 2021 Sep 28;10(10):2575. doi: 10.3390/cells10102575. PMID: 34685555; PMCID: PMC8533813.

  6. Putti R, Sica R, Migliaccio V, Lionetti L. Diet impact on mitochondrial bioenergetics and dynamics - Frontiers. www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2015.00109/full. Accessed December 14, 2022.

  7. Herbst EA, Paglialunga S, Gerling C, Whitfield J, Mukai K, Chabowski A, Heigenhauser GJ, Spriet LL, Holloway GP. Omega-3 supplementation alters mitochondrial membrane composition and respiration kinetics in human skeletal muscle. J Physiol. 2014 Mar 15;592(6):1341-52. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2013.267336. Epub 2014 Jan 6. PMID: 24396061; PMCID: PMC3961091.

  8. Valerio A, D'Antona G, Nisoli E. Branched-chain amino acids, mitochondrial biogenesis, and healthspan: an evolutionary perspective. Aging (Albany NY). 2011 May;3(5):464-78. doi: 10.18632/aging.100322. PMID: 21566257; PMCID: PMC3156598.

  9. Waldhart A, Muhire B, Johnson B, Pettinga D, Madaj Z, Wolfrum E, Dykstra H, Wegert V, Pospisilik A, Han X, Wu N. Excess dietary carbohydrate affects mitochondrial integrity as . www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211124721009153. Accessed December 14, 2022.

  10. Lettieri-Barbato D, Cannata SM, Casagrande V, Ciriolo MR, Aquilano K. Time-controlled fasting prevents aging-like mitochondrial changes induced by persistent dietary fat overload in skeletal muscle. PLoS One. 2018 May 9;13(5):e0195912. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0195912. PMID: 29742122; PMCID: PMC5942780.

  11. Hancock CR, Han DH, Higashida K, Kim SH, Holloszy JO. Does calorie restriction induce mitochondrial biogenesis? A reevaluation. FASEB J. 2011 Feb;25(2):785-91. doi: 10.1096/fj.10-170415. Epub 2010 Nov 3. PMID: 21048043; PMCID: PMC3023396.

  12. Bishop D, Botella J, Genders A, Lee M, Saner N, Kuang J, Yan X, Granata C. High-Intensity Exercise and Mitochondrial Biogenesis: Current . journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/physiol.00038.2018. Accessed December 14, 2022.

  13. Tonkonogi M, Walsh B, Svensson M, Sahlin K. Mitochondrial function and antioxidative defence in human muscle: effects of endurance training and oxidative stress. J Physiol. 2000 Oct 15;528 Pt 2(Pt 2):379-88. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7793.2000.00379.x. PMID: 11034627; PMCID: PMC2270128.

    Zanini G, De Gaetano A, Selleri V, Savino G, Cossarizza A, Pinti M, Mattioli AV, Nasi M. Mitochondrial DNA and Exercise: Implications for Health and Injuries in Sports. Cells. 2021 Sep 28;10(10):2575. doi: 10.3390/cells10102575. PMID: 34685555; PMCID: PMC8533813.

  14. Liu S, D’Amico D, Shankland E, et al. Effect of Urolithin A Supplementation on Muscle Endurance and Mitochondrial Health in Older Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(1):e2144279. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.44279

  15. Singh A, D'Amico D, Andreux PA, Fouassier AM, Blanco-Bose W, Evans M, Aebischer P, Auwerx J, Rinsch C. Urolithin A improves muscle strength, exercise performance, and biomarkers of mitochondrial health in a randomized trial in middle-aged adults. Cell Rep Med. 2022 May 17;3(5):100633. doi: 10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100633. PMID: 35584623; PMCID: PMC9133463.

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Table of contents
Authors
Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

Dietitian-Nutritionist, and Health Content Writer

Knowledge is power
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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. References: *Nutrition studies: 500mg Mitopure® have been shown to (1) induce gene expression related to mitochondria function and metabolism and (2) increase the strength of the hamstring leg muscle in measures of knee extension and flexion in overweight 40-65 year olds. Data from two randomized double-blind placebo-controlled human clinical trials. **Nutrition NOURISH Study: 500mg Mitopure® have been shown to deliver at least 6 times higher Urolithin A plasma levels over 24 hours (area under the curve) than 8 ounces (240ml) of pomegranate juice in a randomized human clinical trial.

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