in the Zone

SPORTS ROUNDUP: HANDCYCLING

The chemistry behind keeping going

Our live broadcast team has been catching up with a group of handcyclists to reveal the reactions that take place in our cells

In order to do any kind of work you need energy. Whether you are running, skipping or just staying alive the cells of your body are busy converting fuel into energy.

The primary fuel for the body is blood sugar, or glucose. Energy is released when glucose is combined with oxygen in a chemical reaction we call aerobic respiration.

This reaction takes place in our cells and produces energy, water and carbon dioxide.

glucose + oxygen = energy, water + carbon dioxide

If you are active for a sustained period of time your working muscles demand more oxygen, causing you to breathe deeper and faster. Your heart rate also increases to deliver the oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide via the bloodstream.

If you keep pushing your body harder eventually your heart and lungs will be unable to deliver enough oxygen and your cells will switch over to a chemical reaction called anaerobic respiration. The reaction still uses glucose but without oxygen, which produces energy and lactic acid. We cannot sustain activity at this level for long, the lactic acid will build up and exhaustion will occur forcing us to stop.

A gene for endurance?

Researchers have identified a gene which they believe may have a role to play in the natural talent of some elite endurance athletes.

They found that elite endurance athletes were more likely to have variations of the NRF2 gene than elite sprinters. Interestingly people who take part in endurance events at lower levels were also more likely to have the genetic variations to the gene, but the difference was not as significant.

The NRF2 gene was chosen for study as part of a wider project to uncover the genetics behind athletic performance. The gene is known to have a role in producing new mitochondria – the units within cells where energy is produced.

The study has revealed an association between variations of the gene and elite endurance but further research is needed to work out the direct effects of this genetic variation.