How to make the most of your energy system
I didn't know how our energy system worked until I studied for my professional diploma in sports nutrition.
It's helpful to know, as knowing equips you to better match your exercise intensity with your energy capacity.
We've all had the experience of having to move quickly, and after a short time, our legs feel like lead.
Perhaps we've had to run to grab one of our children who has made off down the road. Perhaps after our dog who has got off the lead.
We run strongly for about 10 seconds - feeling pleased with our pace - then find ourselves slowing for about 10 seconds. At this point, we suddenly feel our legs to be heavy and unresponsive.
The pleasure of our initial pace evaporates, and we feel older. We have to slow right down before we can find a sustainable rhythm to get us to our destination.
It happens to me every time I go to gym, because I ride my bicycle.
I race out of my house and head up the street like I am on fire. Feeling good! At 200m I start to feel like I am riding into a headwind. At 300m I am slowing and pushing and catching my breath. It then takes another 100 metres for my energy to catch up and power me onwards.
This ability to flee, and then find ourselves weakening, and then recovering to be able to maintain a continuous output, is an outcome of our complex energy system.
Every movement we make requires energy for our muscles to contract and produce force.
Our three energy pathways
Our energy system has three pathways:
I will call the three pathways the Power, Strength and Endurance pathways.
There are three key things that you need to know to benefit from this knowledge:
Duration of each pathway
The fast pathways can only provide about 10 to 20 seconds of energy. The first 3 or 4 seconds are the Power phase, the rest the Strength phase. These phases don't require oxygen (don't require heavy breathing).
The Power phase is the first 3 seconds of 100m sprinters coming out of the blocks. The sprinters have exhausted their Strength phase by 90 metres, and even the strongest are visibly unable to accelerate.
Just after 10 seconds, the Endurance pathway has been cued to get ready to take over. The 100m sprinters don't reach this point, but the 400m runners and all the others do.
If you don't overtax your Strength phase, the Endurance pathway will spin up to carry you forward - like the smooth change of an automatic transmission.
However, if you push your Strength phase too hard, then you create an energy deficit which has to be backfilled before your muscles will kick smoothly into action. This is when your muscles have gone to lead, and you feel weak.
You will be forced to breathe heavily because the Endurance pathway has to suck in oxygen to create energy.
After another 10 seconds - and heavy breathing - the Endurance pathways will have replenished the supply of energy to your muscles. You'll then be able to find a sustainable level of effort.
The Endurance pathways produce the most energy needed by our muscles but at a much slower rate than the other pathways.
Watch the energy cycles play out in this Sumo contest
A 10km Olympic runner has trained their Endurance pathway to be incredibly efficient and to provide a huge amount of energy for a long time. Same goes for professional cyclists.
Theirs is the same Endurance pathway as yours and mine, just 10X more efficient.
If you watch this video below of a Sumo tournament, you will see how the Power, Strength and Endurance energy pathways play out.
We can time out the energy pathways across the video:
A fantastic illustration of the our three energy pathways in action. No doubt you recognise this pattern from many other activities and sports.
Recovery times are very different
Understanding the recovery times is important, as it helps you plan your effort.
The Power pathway is rapidly replenished during recovery; in fact, it requires only about 30 seconds to replenish about 70% of the energy for a reasonable fit person.
The Power pathway and the Strength pathway can recharge fully in 3 to 5 minutes. That's why powerlifters wait for this time between heavy sets.
The Endurance pathway can produce enough energy to exercise indefinitely by breaking down carbohydrates and fats with the aid of oxygen.
How to feed the beast
Nutrition recovery strategies vary for the different energy systems.
The Endurance pathways, after exhaustive endurance-related exercises, need carbohydrates to stimulate muscle energy replenishment. This is best done within 30 to 60 minutes of completing the training.
If you have stressed the Power and Strength pathways, add protein. The repair of exercise-induced muscle damage and skeletal muscle reconditioning requires extra protein.
How much? Most of us ordinary folk doing a bit of exercise all the above can be satisfied with a glass of milk with a touch of salt added. Your favourite protein powder will also do the job.
Add a litre of carb drink - water with electrolyte powder - if you've exercised continuously for more than an hour e.g. running.
Before exercise - for us - just a banana will do the job, or any other piece of fruit, about 30 minutes before.
Time your power output
The final take-away is to use this knowledge to time your energy output.
If you are training for power and strength, then you have to allow rest between exercises for those pathways to refresh. If for endurance, then you have to go longer and harder to improve the efficiency of that pathway.
If you explode into an activity that has a duration of more than 20 seconds then you are going to hit the wall when the Power and Strength pathways are exhausted. The Endurance pathway will struggle to catch up. In simple terms, don’t go out too hard if you want to stay in front.
If you want to train your Endurance pathway to produce and to efficiently use more energy, then you need to increase the volume of mitochondria in your muscles, and train them to be efficient. As a runner, you apply stamina training to do this.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter