Sports Nutrition & ATP Creation: How to Create Cellular Energy for Sports

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This week in our Sports Nutrition series, we discuss ATP, cellular energy and how to optimize this energy. And who doesn’t want more energy? Please read on for more details. 

** Please note: If you want the longer more detailed version of this article, then please click here ** 


ATP is the main source of energy for the body. Every cell uses ATP. ATP captures chemical energy from the breakdown of food molecules and releases it to fuel other cellular processes.

All living things use ATP. We need it to fuel all activities and processes of the human body, including, of course, participating in sports.

How is ATP made and Why is this Important for Sports Nutrition? 

ATP is made in the cells by mitochondria, a cell organelle. Mitochondria are said to be ‘the powerhouse’ of the cell for this reason. Mitochondria use digested food to produce both adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and heat, which can be spent to maintain body temperature (Kramer P, 2017). Each body cell has on average 300 to 400 mitochondria (Kramer P, 2017). Therefore, sports nutrition requires nutrients that help the mitochondria produce the energy it needs for working out.

How is ATP used?

ATP is used for all cellular processes and all processes requiring energy. ATP is heavily used by the brain, reflected in the high rates of glucose and oxygen it requires (Rajendran M, 2016). The human adult brain uses up to 25% of the body’s energy (Kramer P, 2017).

ATP is necessary for muscle contraction (Bonora M, 2012). As an example, if you decided to go for a run (Science Hub, 2007):

  • In the first few seconds your muscle cells would use the ATP they already have stored within them.
  • For the next 8–10 seconds, your muscles would use creatine phosphate that is stored in the muscle to provide ATP. Via the ATP-PC system, ATP would be produced for short bursts required by weightlifters or short distance sprinters. ATP is produced quickly but lasts for only 8–10 seconds.
  • Next on your run, your body would use anaerobic glycolysis and glycogen for 1.3–1.6 minutes. This is the system used in the 100-meter swim or the 200 - 400-meter run.
  • Finally, as you are still running, the aerobic phosphorylation (i.e. ATP using oxygen) process kicks in. This can last for an unlimited time and is the system used in endurance events like marathon running, cycling, rowing, etc.

ATP and Sports Nutrition. 

ATP and athletic performance are closely linked. ATP provides energy for muscle contractions, blood circulation and cardiac function, as well as fuels the body for whatever it needs to do (Bonora M, 2012). An athlete accesses and uses ATP stores on a regular basis. ATP has to be replenished in order for the athlete to keep performing, otherwise he/she will run out of fuel, much like a car. In order to support ATP production, we need to look at supporting the mitochondria.

How to support ATP Production? 

For maximum ATP production, it is essential to support and optimize mitochondrial function. For example, stress, certain medications, pesticides and imbalanced gut bacteria composition can all impair ATP production (Kramer P, 2017).

Sufficient sleep, regular exercise, relaxation, diet and avoiding overeating are key ways to promote healthy mitochondria function (Kramer P, 2017). Exercise is a key method to stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis, or the growth of new mitochondria (Naoi M, 2019).

Sports Nutrition: Diet: 

For optimal function, mitochondria require vitamins, minerals, enzymes, cofactors, polyphenols and other nutrients (Kramer P, 2017). Adequate nutrition is essential for ATP production and mitochondrial function. Several specific micronutrients are required for energy metabolism and ATP production (Wesselink E, 2019). These include B vitamins, vitamin C, E, selenium, zinc, coenzyme Q10, melatonin, carnitine, nitrate, lipoic acid and taurine for mitochondrial function (Wesselink E, 2019). Vitamin D is also important. In people with low levels of serum vitamin D, vitamin D supplements make mitochondria work better (Kramer P, 2017). Vitamin B3 helps to stimulate mitochondrial function (Kramer P, 2017). Deficiencies in the micronutrients involved in mitochondrial metabolism are common in our modern diet (Wesselink E, 2019).

Sports Nutrition: Mitochondrial Support

For optimal mitochondrial function, get plenty of antioxidants and phytonutrients. These are found in vegetables and the importance of vegetables in the diet cannot be overemphasized.

Polyphenols, abundant in fruits and vegetables, are the largest group of phytochemicals. They are antioxidants which reduce free radicals and modulate mitochondrial processes (Dos Santos TW, 2018). They promote mitochondrial biogenesis (i.e. the creation of new mitochondria) and ATP synthesis and can restore mitochondrial function (Dos Santos TW, 2018). Increased biosynthesis of mitochondria improves their function (Naoi M, 2019).

The best way to approach diet for mitochondrial health is to eat a nutrient-dense whole foods diet. These essential nutrients are best found in whole unprocessed foods; fruit, vegetables, fish, shellfish, meats, organ meats, nuts, seeds and fermented foods. It is important to focus on high-quality protein (organic grass-fed meats and wild fish), omega 3 fatty acids (wild salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines, mackerel) and other good-quality fats (olives, olive oil, coconut, coconut oil, avocado, butter or ghee).

For a general template, we like both the gluten-free Mediterranean diet and the Paleo diet.

It is equally important to avoid the foods that harm the mitochondria: sugar, pesticides, alcohol, highly processed foods and refined carbohydrates.

There are some specific foods that support mitochondria and make more ATP:

  • Beetroot juice
  • EPA/DHA found in fatty fish and fish oil

Another way to support ATP production can be to take exogenous ATP or mitochondrial support supplements.

Exogenous ATP

The results are mixed; ATP supplements have beneficial effects on physical performance in some but not all studies (Arts ICW, 2012). They can improve blood flow to active tissue, boost physical performance and speed recovery (Arts ICW, 2012).

However, there are issues with the bioavailability of ATP supplements which explains why they do not appear to get consistent results. There have been beneficial findings, then equally, studies report no improvements in muscle strength, power output or endurance after supplementing ATP (Arts ICW, 2012).

For the recreational athlete, the first step should be to support the mitochondria and ATP production through diet and lifestyle modifications. Follow our tips above on diet and lifestyle (sleep, exercise and stress management).

There are mitochondrial support supplements which can be more effective than exogenous ATP. We will discuss these supplements, such as NAC, ALA, CoQ10, carnitine, creatine and others in detail in our blog next week. Please check back with us to find out more!

** Stay tuned for next week’s article on Sports Nutrition & Supplements for Mitochondrial Health **

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