I started this blog back in 2014 to help educate people on fitness, health, and well being hence the name bfitsquared. My point being that it was never to be a blog on getting that beach body but instead on what you can do to live a healthy life. 2014 was also the year I became a certified personal trainer. Although for many years I researched fitness and health I thought it was time to become legit. My blogs at first focused on the physical, the workout side of health. I then thought about what could be my next goal. I decided to legitimize my passion for diet and how it affects us both in fitness and outside of fitness. After a lot of research, it only made sense to enroll in the online Cornell University certificate course on plant based nutrition. I thought it made sense that if I’m going to train people I should also have a solid understanding of how nutrition plays into performance. With over 20 experts (MDs, PhDs, RDs, RNs) and also having on the faculty Dr. T. Colin Campbell the co-author of the book The China Study it made sense to enroll in this course.
So, what is this post going to be about? It’s about how to help you to perform at your best. I want to take some time to talk about how our body performs from the basics of living (breathing, existing) to when we need to perform. How is it that our muscles contract, our breathing increases, and so on. What is it that facilitates these functions among others? Let’s look into the chemistry of fuel. I’m sure if you were to ask any of my students, ‘does Sensei ever say ‘It’s Science” you would get a resounding yes. I say that because it is science. When you break it down to the simplest form that is what it is. There’s this misconception about martial arts that it’s magic powder dust and old chants and when you become a black belt it’s all then magically bestowed upon you. Sorry to disappoint but it’s not. It’s actually science. But I digress. One of my goals here is that when you have finished reading this you will then understand scientifically why diets that restrict carbohydrates are not going to help you perform better. They actually do the opposite.
Alright, let’s get into it.
As I eluded to earlier, to do anything requires fuel. No matter how small it is, breathing, sleeping, etc. requires fuel. And ATP is the fuel for anything we do, anything. ATP is the energy currency of the body. Without ADP nothing happens, nothing.
Let’s get into this a little deeper. Our body uses 3 systems to form ATP:
- Lactic Acid or Glycolytic Energy System
- Aerobic or Oxidative Energy System
Let’s look at these in greater detail starting with ATP-CP. ATP-CP and glycolytic systems are both anaerobic systems meaning they do not use oxygen. Because of this, these systems are inefficient. These systems operate on a chemical reaction that does not use oxygen. The level of intensity is so high that there is not enough time for oxygen to get to the muscles. This also limits the duration of effort to a very short period when in these zones if you will.
So I’m going to break this down further. Of the two anaerobic systems, we then break it down to ATP-CP Phosphagen system. This provides fuel for up to 10 seconds at maximum intensity. Full out, 110 percent as they used to say. That’s it. A 10 whole seconds. If you have ever worked out with me when I’m running classes you know these 10 seconds well. So what about after 10 seconds? Let’s now look at the glycolytic system. This is the system that provides fuel from 10 seconds up to 2 minutes at maximum intensity. The glycolytic system uses reactions that cause the breakdown of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen stored in the muscle cells or glucose found in the blood (carbs, nothing but carbs). Because there isn’t any oxygen we are good for only up to 2 minutes and, we end up with a byproduct called lactic acid. Ahh, lactic acid, that chemical that causes muscles to feel like they are on fire!
As more glucose is metabolized more lactic acid is produced. Lactic acid gathers in the cells and begins to lower pH becoming more acidic and starts to slow contraction speed and strength. If the level of lactic acid becomes too high it can cause temporary muscle failure and no muscle contractions can occur. This is referred to as lactic acidosis. In other words, when intensity is high you are limited to approx. 2 minutes as you will be forced to stop due to failure. But it’s not all bad news. The muscle cells can be trained to improve this energy pathway resulting in muscle cells producing less lactic acid at the same intensity. That’s awesome news! This means we can exercise longer at the same intensity! This is where hard work pays off. Keep training at a highly intense level and ultimately you will then be able to perform at that high level much longer.
So, what then happens when we reach that threshold be it 2 minutes or a bit longer? We either cease to function or we slow down and that slowing down allows oxygen to come into play. Our intensity diminishes somewhat and we slip onto another process. Let’s now look at the 3rd process.
When sufficient oxygen is available for a given lower intensity of exercise an abundance of ATP is produced. This allows us to keep performing but, at a level lower than when we were in the anaerobic zone. Let’s now look at the 2 categories that fall under the aerobic or oxidative energy system.
The first is the aerobic glycolysis system. This provides fuel for beyond 2 minutes at a reduced effort. Again, glycogen or glucose is broken down for energy and because oxygen is present we don’t get the lactic acid problems like we did when in the anaerobic, or non-oxygen zone. With the continuous supply of oxygen, the muscle cells break down glucose to produce ATP. This chemical process is very efficient and produces large amounts of ATP. Because this process uses oxygen you are only limited in the amount of ATP created by how well your cardio system works. Have awesome cardio then you can produce ATP like nobodies business. Now, onto the next.
This is where fat comes into play. If you are doing something that is low on the intensity level your body will utilize fat as the product of choice to create ATP. Fatty acid oxidation is the process of creating ATP when the intensity level is low and there is enough oxygen for the chemical process to work. Fatty acid oxidation requires a large amount of oxygen but, it produces the most amount of ATP. Running a marathon, or some other event that has an extreme duration than the body will more likely be using fat and oxygen to create ATP.
Also, at rest, gardening, walking at a comfortable pace or any low intense activity will be utilizing fat for ATP. But, because energy demand is low the amount of fat needed is low. Remember, fatty acid oxidation produces the largest amount of ATP so less fat is needed to create the ATP needed when intensity is low. This is why the message of working out in the fat-burning zone a number of years ago didn’t do anyone good. Sure, work out in the fat-burning zone if you have 2 hours to kill every workout. Not many people have that amount of time 3 – 5 times a week.
Speaking of the fat-burning zone, let’s look into one more reason why working out intensely is beneficial to us. It’s called EPOC, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. EPOC is used for ATP replenishment, amongst other things, and resynthesis of a small portion of lactic acid to glycogen. But, most of the glycogen is restored from dietary carbohydrates. Yes, carbs. But what if you don’t eat carbs because you are on that Keto diet? I want you to think about that. Did you see any of the 3 processes our body uses to create energy, ATP, use protein as a fuel source? Did you see how these processes use carbs in the form of glucose and glycogen with respect to moderate and intense exercising? And if you think you’ll use fat for the fuel source then get ready to put aside at least 2 hours each time you work out to burn enough fat to make a difference. The more intense the workout the more time you are in EPOC. The reason there is EPOC is to get the body back to a level state. If your exertion during your workout was moderate to low, your body may only need several minutes to recover. But, if your workout was intense, a tough one, it may take up to 24 hours to get the body back to a steady-state due to a larger oxygen deficit. And during this 24 hour period, your resting metabolic rate is higher burning more calories at rest. It’s important for you to keep this in mind with respect to rest, recovery, and nutrition. The more you are on top of these things the better your body will recover.
Lastly, none of these systems are exclusive, all systems work together. But, the predominance of one system over the other depends on the intensity of the workout.
Why is it we look at carbs as bad? It’s evident our body needs carbs, complex carbs for fuel. To quote someone I know, ‘It’s science!’. You cannot deny the scientific evidence on how our body creates fuel, ATP, to do the simplest things like exist!
I hope this helps you in your journey in becoming fitter, healthier, and basically enjoying life. Now, the next time someone espouses to you the benefit of the keto diet, refer them to this post. Then let them argue against science if they dare.
Yours in health,