If you’ve been training for marathon after marathon only to find that you struggle to keep up with the rest of the pack, it could be that you lack a certain gut bacteria that is giving the winners an edge.
High-profile athletes across a wide range of disciplines, from Usain Bolt to Roger Federer to Michael Jordan, seem to have that special something that goes far beyond natural skill and training. What if you could bottle up some of that magic for yourself? It could soon be a possibility thanks to Harvard University researchers.
The researchers at the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering set out to identify the bacteria in our bodies that support athletic performance by collecting daily fecal samples from 20 athletes who were training for the Boston marathon in 2015. They followed the athletes longitudinally in the weeks before and after the race to see how their microbiomes changed between their performance and the subsequent recovery.
After sequencing the genomes of the bacteria they sampled and comparing the results before and after the race, they found a sharp spike in the amount of one bacteria in the gut in particular following the marathon. The bug in question serves to break down the lactic acid produced in the body during the intense exercise, potentially helping to reduce soreness and muscle fatigue.
The researchers are now evaluating the properties of the bacteria. They have also started giving it to mice to measure how it affects their fatigue and levels of lactic acid. So far, they report that the microbes have been passing through the mice’s digestive systems quickly and have not shown any signs of persisting in undesired ways.
Participating in different sports could spur niche microbiomes
In separate experiments, researchers are comparing bacteria found in ultra-marathoners with that of rowers who are training to participate in the Olympics. They have found that the ultra-marathoners have a type of bacteria that can break down fiber and carbohydrates that rowers do not have, which could imply that participating in different sports can actually lead to the development of niche microbiomes.
A study out of Ireland from the University College Cork, meanwhile, has isolated critical microbes from Irish rugby players’ fecal samples that are believed to be linked to a lower risk of systemic inflammation and obesity.
Researchers hoping to develop probiotics to help boost athletic performance
The researchers are hoping to use their results to create probiotics that can be tailored to a specific sport to help people get that all-important edge. They are aiming to enlist 100 elite athletes from around the world in order to create a bank of bacteria samples and data, which they will use to single out and isolate any bacterial species that show promise for certain types of athletes and then market products containing these bacteria to them.
Researcher Jonathan Scheiman summarized the process: “Recruit elite athletes, sequence athlete microbiome, identify candidate probiotics, isolate novel beneficial strains and add to food.” The team presented their findings at the American Chemical Society’s 254th national meeting.
Scheiman pointed out that the beneficial bacteria could be added to supplements, yogurts, capsules, teas, or beverages to help people improve their athletic performance and recovery. He says that 90 percent of the $60-million probiotics market is currently derived from just two kinds of bacteria, and he believes that the gut has trillion of bugs that are just waiting to be discovered and could cause a huge shakeup in the industry. However, it remains to be seen whether people will be willing to down a drink of their favorite athletes’ gut microbes.