The Chemistry of Life – and Running!

I recently retired from a career in finance and accounting and moved back to Vermont. I have been doing personal training and run coaching on a very part-time basis but now have the time to be a full-fledged exercise science professional. To facilitate this, I’m looking at a course in exercise physiology offered at UVM next semester. In case this proves a viable option, I am self-studying the prerequisite, Human Anatomy and Physiology by Elaine Marieb, a yearlong course covering the gamut of all that happens inside us.

I figured this would be a cursory overview, which I could skim and be ready for class in January. Wrong! Right off the bat this book went into fascinating detail of how our bodies work. Fortunately, many of the terms were familiar — graduate studies in food science and nutrition years ago had not permanently eluded me. But the context is quite different. Before I was trying to memorize things without a use in mind. Now, I look at this from the perspective of running and coaching.   It’s like walking into a previously dark room now full of color and bright lights!

Take for example the section on “Factors Influencing the Rate of Chemical Reactions.” We know it helps to warm up, dress for the weather, and eat and sleep well. But why? It took me an hour to read one page describing how temperature, concentration, particle size, and catalysts affect how fast we produce the energy (ATP) we need to propel ourselves.  Most of these activities involve chemical reactions that create or break chemical bonds. Then Marieb describes how intricate feedback mechanisms keep things on track with enzymes being the magic elixir, suggesting enzymes are catalytic “chemical traffic cops that keep our metabolic pathways flowing.” They reduce the amount of “activation energy” required for a chemical reaction resulting in speeding up our internal workings hundreds and even thousands of times. This allows us to ramp up our speed on demand, regulate temperature, replenish oxygen, and then rid ourselves of waste products.   These enzymes are reused time and again – we are essentially biological recycling machines!

The in-depth section on ATP was riveting, if not mind-boggling. Through several chemical reactions ATP provides the energy we need to live and perform. Every runner knows when we step on the pedal, sometimes there’s gas, sometimes not. The obvious question is why?   Other chapters may get into this. But on the surface it seems we can’t rig the system and that systematic training pays off.

My takeaway and point of this blog post, is that we have much to be in awe of as it relates to our running bodies. And we should take none of it for granted. We need to build and protect our capacities as best we can. We don’t need to know the nitty-gritty to understand our bodies operate in a very limited temperature range. If core temperature varies more than several degrees for long, it’s fatal. So we hydrate incessantly in hot weather. Let’s keep doing that, eating well, and so forth! And I’ll keep posting about things I learn in the course of my review.



Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.