The Unique Microbiome of Endurance Athletes
Over the past several years the health and fitness community has become increasingly aware of something amazing: we are not alone. But no… this has nothing to do with bodybuilding extra-terrestrials. Instead, the foreign lifeforms inhabit the human body. As it turns out, trillions of microorganisms – including thousands of different species – live within in the human digestive tract.
In fact, according to some experts, this gut microbiome is so integral to the function of the human body that some experts have suggested that humans should be classified as “superorganisms.” But what, exactly are those bugs doing? More specifically, how do they influence athletic performance?
It Takes A Village
Besides just sounding majestic, the term “superorganism” describes a really remarkable society – like ant colonies – where many different living things unitedly contribute to the function of the whole. Applying this word to humanity, then, suggests a very different image of the human body than most people have. While counts vary, estimates claim that human cells are actually outnumbered – or at least matched in quantity – by these microorganisms.
So what function do these bugs fulfill in the human superorganism? To a large extent, that’s still an area of active research. Again, there are thousands of different species all contributing in their own way to your overall health. Identifying what each one of these bugs does will doubtlessly take some time. Still, it is known that your microbiome influences your immune system, the balance of various hormones, your mood, your sleep patterns, your ability to digest certain foods and your metabolism. The gut microbiome is also responsible for producing certain micronutrients for you, including vitamin K.
Building The Biome
Interestingly, the precise make-up of your microbiome is a highly individual thing. While you do inherit your first collection of gut bugs from your mother at birth, your diet, lifestyle and environment will all impact the health of your microbiome. There is also significant evidence to suggest that certain artificial food additives, including emulsifiers and sweeteners, can all have a negative effect on your microbiome.
Somewhat famously, many antibiotics will kill off these beneficial microbes as collateral damage while knocking out the harmful bacteria.
Thankfully, it’s possible for you to boost the health of your microbiome by making certain lifestyle choices. Regular exercise, proper sleep and other health habit will support the growth of beneficial bugs. You can also use probiotic foods or supplements to directly introduce healthful bacteria into your body. Other foods, known as prebiotics, support the health of the bacteria that you already have.
The Athletic Application
What, specifically, does this have to do with runners and other athletes, though? Looking at some of the functions listed in the previous section, there are some clear – if indirect – athletic applications of the gut microbiome.
For example, by increasing the speed and efficiency of your metabolism, these microbes can ensure that you’re both maintaining a healthy weight and getting as much nutrition out of your meals as possible. Maintaining proper levels of hormones will also improve your body composition and energy levels. The same can be said for improving the quality of your sleep. Essentially, then, a health gut microbiome can improve the overall function of your body. As a result, you’re going to be able to perform your best when you hit the gym.
But if your lifestyle, health and microbiome are so interconnected, it’s worth examining what these bacterial colonies look like in athletes. Which is exactly what a group of researchers at the Harvard Medical School did in a study – consisting of two experiments – that they presented at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.
For the first experiment, fecal samples from 20 runners were collected both before and after they participated in the Boston Marathon. When the before and after samples were compared, the team saw a dramatic spike in the concentration of a specific bacteria that’s incredibly efficient at breaking down lactic acid. The fact that this bacteria increased during the actual race, suggests that the runners’ microbiome adapted to the needs of the race. And that’s pretty amazing.
In a second experiment, though, the team of researchers wanted to see if the microbiome could be sport-specific. That lactic acid eating bacteria that’s so useful to marathon runners, for example, may not be as valuable to other athletes. So, the team compared the microbiome of ultramarathon runners with that of elite-level rowers. The ultramarathoners had a specialized type of bacteria present that is incredibly good at breaking down carbohydrates and fiber that was simply missing from the rowers. Considering, the very different needs of those two groups of athletes, this makes a lot of sense.
But what’s the point of all this research? There’s actually a few lessons here. First, your training can impact the health, composition and function of your gut microbiome. As a result, that microbiome can improve your athletic performance, even specializing itself to meet the needs of your sport.
But this also highlights the need to take care of your microbiome. If that bacterial colony is not healthy or balanced, it will not be able to adapt to the stimulus that your workouts provides. To keep your microbiome healthy and functioning properly, avoid artificial additives in your foods. Instead, focus your diet on whole, fiber-rich foods that will provide the nutrients that those bugs need to get big and strong. Eating yogurt and other probiotic foods will also introduce beneficial bacteria into your microbiome, keeping the society diverse and healthy.