As humans, we were forged in the fires of pain and suffering, it is what ultimately made us what we are today. The lessons we learned, the advancements we have made -- all of which have put us atop the food chain, were all based on our ability to learn from pain, and subsequently leverage our experience to make life a little less painful.
In that context, it is perplexing why some humans continue to seek out pain -- could it be a primal connection to the past that we seek -- a sharp, yet intentional prod to the side to remind us that we are still, in one form or another, animalistic at heart?
As modern society has evolved, the human experience has shifted from circumstantial to intentional. We now have the luxury to choose what we experience, pain included. So as humans compartmentalize and piece together their daily experience, it should come as no shock that some of us still thirst for a side of self inflicted pain.
In the context of human performance, two such examples of micro masochism may be more related than we once thought. Consumption of chili peppers and endurance training represent low risk, self-elected pain in the most modern of senses.
Eating peppers is about as dangerous as watching shark week or a Virtual POV bungee jump from the safety of your couch (unless you are ultra sensitive to lectins!). Endurance training poses a bit more of a threat, based on your particular taste for self inflicted misery and delayed gratification.
If you are one of those knee pounding, sun scorched, die hard endurance guys or gals, you’re doing yourself a disservice by shunning the power of the pepper. It could be your secret weapon to creating the ultimate metabolic environment to go harder, for longer.
Scientifically speaking, the magic compound in chili peppers is a phytochemical called capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes your mouth feel hot when you eat a pepper, and it also has quite a few downstream effects on the body that are highly beneficial for the endurance athlete.
CAPSAICIN AND OXYGEN
Successful endurance training comes down to building a rig that can withstand the storm. If your body can’t handle extended periods of exertion, your career as an endurance athlete will be short lived. At the core of every successful athlete is a hyper efficient metabolic system, and capsaicin may just be the missing ingredient required to take your performance to the next level.
The way in which your body utilizes oxygen has a direct effect on the type of fuel it will be using. This concept is linked to what is called the respiratory quotient, which is defined as the ratio of CO2 produced to O2 consumed while food is being metabolized. The lower your respiratory quotient is, the higher the ratio of fat to carbohydrate metabolism is (1). As an endurance athlete, primarily depending on stored body fat over carbohydrate as a fuel source is an equation for success. As your body burns fat in lieu of carbohydrate, you are able to hold onto your stored glycogen for bouts of higher anaerobic intensity, ie those big hills or the final leg of your race.
CAPSAICIN AND GLYCOGEN
As mentioned above, capsaicin’s effect on the human metabolic system makes it inherently glycogen sparing, particularly in the liver. In a 2016 study, it was show that capsaicin supplementation improved physical activities, such as grip strength and endurance performance by increasing liver glycogen content. In addition, “exercise-induced fatigue-related parameters, were positively modulated by CAP supplementation in a dosage-dependent manner” (2). Eat some peppers, and give your body the ability to keep a bit of extra rocketfuel in the tank.
It’s also important to point out that glycogen is required for efficient fatty acid metabolism. So as much of you may bleed for Team Keto, a bit of stored glycogen makes the world of difference when you’re pushing your body to extremes over extended periods of time.
CAPSAICIN AND MITOCHONDRIA
The mitochondria, so hot right now. Mitochondria based biohacks are all the rage, and for good reason -- without mitochondria, we’d share an existence similar to your pot smoking, couch potato friend from that late 2000’s anti-marijuana Public Service Announcement.
All jokes aside, you want the mitochondria you have firing on all cylinders -- and the only thing better than that is building more mitochondria. The more mitochondria you have, the higher your potential for energy production is. Capsaicin activates a receptor called transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 or TRPV1 for short.
Activation of the TRPV1 receptor is associated increased fatty acid oxidation, improved ATP production, increased mitochondrial biogenesis (more Mitochondira, weeee) all of which resulted in enhanced exercise endurance (3).
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As an endurance athlete you are constantly striving to make your energy systems more efficient. The way in which your mitochondria leverage oxygen to create ATP is directly affected by capsaicin. Capsaicin is an integral dietary factor in your quest to build metabolic flexibility and a higher anaerobic threshold. Eat some peppers, run/bike/swim farther and faster than you ever have. It's as simple as that.