Coenzyme Q10 and the Athlete

What do you know about this important antioxidant? Does your current nutritional supplement contain CoQ10? Why do some young and seemingly fit athletes develop heart disease and cancer? Haven’t we all heard of exceptional athletes, even marathon runners, dying suddenly of heart attacks?

This is not hard to explain if you consider what occurs inside the body with rigorous and intense exercise. Competitive athletes and even weekend warriors undergo tissue and cellular stress. Tissues are undergoing wear and tear and this damage leads to increased oxygen consumption and an increase in the production of free radicals. Free radicals in the body lead to tissue and cellular damage. This free radical theory is felt to be one of the causes of the degenerative diseases of aging.

Antioxidants are the body’s natural defense to neutralizing these free radicals before they cause damage. However, many athletes are on vitamin E-deficient, low-fat diets. These type of diets are often low in antioxidants. According to Stephen Sinatra, MD (author, The Coenzyme Q10 Phenomenon), a leading researcher in Coenzyme Q10 and disease, this explains why some marathon runners, in apparently peak physical condition, develop early and premature coronary heart disease. These athletes are at risk of antioxidant insufficiency.

Exercise-induced free radicals can contribute to the development of arterial blockage. These excess free radicals oxidize the LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is the basis of heart disease. Autopsies performed on some marathon runners revealed a heart suffering from severe atherosclerotic heart disease. Here is a summary of a few studies in the medical research about CoQ10 and athletes:

  • CoQ10 and vitamin E levels were found to be lower in endurance-trained athletes than in sedentary males.
  • A study in rats showed that those receiving CoQ10 had a decrease in the initial release of muscle breakdown products. 
  • Marathon runners pretreated with CoQ10 had lower plasma levels of tissue breakdown products and enzymes compared to their controlled counterparts.

Can CoQ10 increase performance and endurance for athletes?  The data here is more controversial. Because CoQ10 is a potent antioxidant and is involved in energy production, it has been postulated that it may enhance aerobic capacity and improve muscle performance. Here are just two studies that point out the conflicts:

  • A Finnish study of 25 top cross-country skiers found that after supplementation with CoQ10, 94% of the athletes felt that performance and recovery time were improved when compared to 33% of the skiers who received placebo. Measures of physical performance with VO2Max (a measure of oxygen capacity at maximum exertion) improved significantly in those on CoQ10. Skiers on the supplement also had a threefold increase in blood levels of CoQ10. 
  • A different study showed that endurance athletes did not show changes in oxygen uptake, aerobic capacity after cycling to exhaustion after CoQ10 supplementation. Of note, the blood levels of CoQ10 were only two times above baseline levels.
  • It seems that some of the mixed results from studies may be based on what levels of CoQ10 are obtained. Dr. Sinatra recognizes that using CoQ10 to treat diseases, like congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy (a weakening of the heart muscle), need high doses of CoQ10 to show improvement in symptoms.

What Type of CoQ10 Formulation is Ideal? 
In his book, Dr. Sinatra presents laboratory research that shows that all CoQ10 is not the same. Bulk CoQ10 is made in Japan and sold throughout the world, but the packaging and preparations differ widely. He showed that CoQ10 in soft-gel capsules is superior to the dry form as in cap-tabs or powder-filled capsules. Bioavailablity can vary between products. This is the ability for the product to be absorbed and utilized by the cell’s of the body. Search for products that follow pharmaceutical-grade production techniques and Good Manufacturing Practices (set by the FDA).

Athletes must be aware of the health issues of excess exercise. Although we promote exercise as a healthy lifestyle, adding extra antioxidant protection with a balance of antioxidants and in addition, with CoQ10 makes sense.