Calcium Loss Explains Fatigue

Is the end of muscle fatigue upon us?

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Last month an intriguing article by Gina Kolata of the New York Times explained how scientists at Columbia University had discovered a connection between calcium loss in muscle tissue and muscle fatigue. That’s right; our exhausted and sore muscles may be the result of too much calcium leaching out of our quads, calves, abs, and even our hearts. But before you go grab a calcium supplement or pour yourself a glass of skim milk you have to understand that this news is just the birth of a whole new field of research, one that may take several more years to figure out.

Let me start with a short synopsis of story:

The article explains how researchers were originally looking for a better way to treat patients with congestive heart failure. The heart being a muscle, they broke down the process of muscle contractions at the molecular level. What they found was that when muscles were overworked they started leaking calcium out of the muscle cells. Follow up studies on the muscle tissue in cyclists found the same results. Armed with this insight, the Dr. Andrew Marks and his team developed and patented a drug that blocks the calcium leakage, and in testing with lab mice, the new drug allowed mice to run “10 to 20 percent longer.”

These numbers are gigantic in terms of human performance. To put into perspective what an extraordinary boost in stamina 10 to 20 percent delivers consider this: On average, the difference in total time between the winner of the Tour de France and the last rider to finish is about 5 percent. Ten percent off a 4-hour marathon time works out to a 3:26 finish. Knowing this, I would be shocked to know that no “coaches” contacted Dr. Marks after this story came out to inquire about the availability of his pills for “testing” among the coaches’ athletes. Such is my cynical nature about our sports-mad world.

I give credit to Ms. Kolata for finishing off her article with a quote from Dr. Steven Liggett, who works on heart-failure at the University of Maryland. Kolata quotes Liggett as saying, in effect, “You know, there may be a very good reason the muscles leak calcium during hard exercise. Like it prevents people from running until they keel over and die.”

Liggett’s quote gets to the heart of something I’ve observed in my years sussing out fitness and training stories for a variety of endurance sports. Namely, it’s that the body is already an extraordinarily balanced mechanism and pretty much everything that happens inside of it happens for a reason. In other words, if you’re healthy, don’t mess with it.

Grant Davis has spent the last decade writing and editing articles about health, fitness, and nutrition. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.