20 The Cardiorespiratory System and Energy Production

Diane Peterson and Dawn Markell

In a later chapter, we are going to explore the components and importance of the cardiorespiratory system and how we can develop cardiorespiratory fitness, but before we get into the weeds of developing this particular type of fitness it’s important that we explore it’s connection to energy production. One of the main functions of the the cardiorespiratory system is nutrient and oxygen distribution to the body’s cells. What makes the distribution of oxygen throughout the body so vital to existence? The answer is simple: ENERGY. While oxygen in and of itself does not contain any energy (calories), it does combine with fuel extracted from food once it has been introduced into the cell to help produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the basic form of cellular energy found in the body. Because the body stores very little ATP, it must constantly be regenerated. For this reason, people must continue eating and breathing to live.

Within the context of fitness, the purpose of the cardiorespiratory system is not only to produce energy but to also adapt in a way so that energy production can be optimized. For example, a high school cross country runner wants to be fit enough to compete in the state cross country meet. Unfortunately, this athlete’s current mile time is 6 minutes per mile. In other words, that is the maximum work rate possible for this athlete. However, the goal is to improve to 5 minutes per mile, or improve the maximum work rate. To do so, more energy must be produced. According to the principles of adaptation, it is possible for this athlete to become more efficient at producing energy, enabling him to run a mile in less time. An example of this adaptation comes from the world record mile time of 3 minutes and 43 seconds. The world record marathon time (26.2 miles) is 2 hours, 1 minutes, and 39 seconds. That equates to 4 minutes and 38 seconds per mile over the 26-mile course. That is some serious ATP production!

Oxidative Energy System (Aerobic)

As oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the cells, they are utilized to produce ATP. The workhorses of the cell for oxidative metabolism are the mitochondria. This form of energy production is contingent on the ability of the CR system to deliver oxygen and nutrients and the cell’s ability to process that oxygen. Because of the importance of oxygen in this particular energy-producing pathway, it is called the oxidative energy system, or aerobic system.

Oxidative energy production is the primary means of ATP production during rest and for activities that last for 2 minutes or longer. Although other forms of energy production assist in ATP production at any given time, long duration exercise sessions rely on this aerobic pathway. Also, in contrast to other forms of ATP production, the oxidative energy system uses both carbohydrates and fats for fuel sources.

To consider: What activities would emphasize development of this energy pathway?

Immediate/Explosive Energy System

While the oxidative system is the primary source of ATP production, it does require a few minutes for the system to begin operating at full capacity during exercise. How then could the body immediately produce enough energy to perform a strenuous activity, such as sprinting 50 meters? Clearly, another energy system must drive ATP production. The immediate or explosive energy system utilizes the storage of creatine phosphate (CP) and the storage of adenosine diphosphate, which is stored in very small amounts, to generate ATP. When needed, this energy system provides enough ATP to sustain a short-duration, explosive activity, approximately 10–20 seconds or less. Once CP is depleted, other energy systems must assist in the ATP generating process.

Non-Oxidative or Anaerobic Energy System

As the name implies, the non-oxidative energy system does not require oxygen to generate ATP. Instead, the cells where the ATP is produced require glucose (carbohydrates that have been broken down) as the fuel source. Like the immediate energy system, this system is associated with high intensity and short duration movements. While it is possible for some elite athletes to maintain exercise at “anaerobic” levels for several minutes, even they will eventually fatigue as a result of the non-oxidative system’s ability to sustain ATP production for events lasting longer than approximately 2 minutes.

As glucose is processed to produce ATP, the natural byproduct of this process, lactic acid, also begins to accumulate. The result of excessive lactic acid accumulation contributes to muscle fatigue, making it impossible to continue exercise at a high intensity.

Energy Systems Combine

It is important to understand that energy systems do not operate in a compartmental fashion, but rather operate simultaneously, each carrying some of the burden of ATP production. For example, a professional soccer player would spend most of the match “cruising” at a light/moderate intensity level, thus primarily utilizing the oxidative energy system. However, during the match, he or she may sprint for several hundred meters, utilizing the explosive and non-oxidative system, or he or she may jump, requiring use of the explosive system. Thus, both energy systems are utilized simultaneously throughout the match. To improve performance, this player would need to develop the energy system which is utilized the most during the match.

Here’s a video that goes over all 3 systems, but with a slightly different nomenclature for the Immediate Energy System (ATP-PCR Sytem) and the Non-Oxidative System (Glycolitic System): Energy Systems

Dawn Markell & Diane Peterson, Health and Fitness for Life. MHCC Library Press. Sept 4, 2019. https://mhcc.pressbooks.pub/hpe295



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Introduction to Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals Copyright © 2021 by Diane Peterson and Dawn Markell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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