If you want to feel energised and on top form both before and after your workouts, the trick is to focus on your mitochondria, says Louise Pyne.

It’s normal to lack a bit of bounce every so often. And during winter, when it feels as if there’s no end to the grey skies and plummeting temperatures, going into hibernation mode can feel more alluring than sweating it out at a hardcore CrossFit session. But there’s a big difference between losing a little workout enthusiasm and feeling like you’re constantly running out of steam, so much so that it’s starting to interfere with everyday life.

If you’re tired all the time, with unrelenting fatigue affecting daily activities and causing your health to take a dip, the root cause may lie in the efficiency (or inefficiency should we say?) of your mitochondria – the tiny organelles inside your cells that generate most of the chemical energy needed to power biochemical reactions.

‘Often referred to as our cellular powerhouses, mitochondria are tiny structures nestled within our cells. Despite their small size, these organelles are able to process nutrients from our diet and the oxygen we breath, generating a high-energy molecule known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP fuels every bodily function, serving as the cornerstone of our vitality,’ explains Dr Kerry Aston, a sports medicine consultant and founder of The Movement Medic (themovementmedic.org).

Battery powered cells

An easy way to understand how these organelles work is to imagine the mitochondria as the batteries of your cells that power many cellular functions. This includes producing the energy ATP (as already mentioned) via a complex process called the Krebs cycle, along with metabolising fatty acids and amino acids. When your mitochondria are underperforming it triggers an array of symptoms that cast a shadow over daily lives, making it harder to perform everyday activities. ‘Excessive fatigue is the most common symptom. Dysfunctional mitochondria also leads to diminished energy reserves, which will impact your overall quality of life. ATP powers all bodily functions, including brain activity. This can lead to brain fog and reduced cognitive function. Additionally, compromised muscle recovery and function can pave the way for persistent aches and chronic pain,’ explains Dr Aston. And on an even more serious note, damaged mitochondria has been connected to the development of various chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and premature ageing.

Max out your mitochondria

These power plants of the cell obtain their energy from food, and some people’s mitochondria simply work better than others. Whilst this can sometimes be a result of genetic factors, tackling specific lifestyle factors can help make your mitochondria work better.

‘These microstructures are abundant in active organs such as the heart, brain and muscles. During exercise, your muscles need substantial energy to contract and perform at their best. Improved mitochondrial health means a better energy supply to muscle tissue, allowing you to work out more intensely and improving your endurance,’ adds Dr Aston.

5 ways to power up your cells

How to fuel your mitochondria for optimum wellness:

Go to bed earlier

Sleep allows your cells to renew and repair overnight so aim for around eight hours of quality sleep each night. ‘Remember the rule: avoid caffeine 10 hours before bedtime, abstain from alcohol three hours before, cease work-related tasks two hours before and eliminate screens (phones, TVs, computers) one hour before sleeping,’ says Dr Aston.






Eat a Mediterranean diet

Anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods will help to boost your mitochondrial function. ‘The Mediterranean-style diet’s antioxidant richness is a great place to start.

Include colourful fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, cold-water fish and flaxseed to optimise antioxidants and omega-3 intake,’ she adds.




Try box breathing

Chronic stress can deplete mitochondrial efficiency, so try to implement stress management strategies such as box breathing. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four and exhale for four, repeating until you feel calm. ‘While some stress is beneficial, chronic stress impacts numerous aspects of health. Help your mitochondria to relax by incorporating some deep breathing and regular breaks into your daily routine,’ advises Dr Aston.


Change your exercise

Exercising when you feel low in energy can seem counter-intuitive, but exercise naturally helps to improve mitochondrial health. ‘Regular exercise is a potent tool for improving mitochondrial health. Studies suggest that short bursts of high-intensity exercise (HIIT) could be particularly effective,’ says Dr Aston. Try to vary your exercise routine mixing up high-intensity days with low-intensity yoga and Pilates, and don’t forget to add rest days in between.


Top up your CoQ10 reserves

Supplements can offer mitochondrial support, so if you’re feeling sluggish, complementing a healthy balanced diet with an energy enhancing supplement could help. The antioxidant co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is naturally made in the mitochondria, and plays a role in a cell’s energy production system, known as the electron transport chain. Supplementing with a CoQ10 supplement (as well as eating CoQ10-rich foods such as fatty fish, tofu and meat) could naturally help to make this system work properly.