The Gut Microbe Of Elite Runners Might Hold The Key To Improving Athletic Performance

25 June 2019
Athletes, Marathon Runners
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Scientists discovered bacteria that might just hold the answer to improved performance

In the world of sport, athletes will do anything in the hope of seeing improvement. PB’s don’t come easily, and in races where the difference between first and second place is merely how much someone can stick their nose out, well – it goes without saying that even the milliseconds count.

To get the superior advantage, some will spend hours with various patches and chords strapped to their limbs in the lab. Others travel to find dirt roads and mountains at altitude that they can then run up. For most however, it's just a case of sticking to various juices and a protein-heavy diet.  Whatever the poison, the quest is the same: be faster, be stronger, be more powerful.

There could be an easier solution, though.

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Medicine, scientists have identified a group of bacteria that are more common in athletes, especially after exercise, which may play a role in enhancing athletic performance.

The researchers isolated this bacterial strain from elite runners, before later inserting it into the colons of lab mice. The results suggest that these human-derived bacteria boost performance, as the performance of mice on a treadmill exertion test increased by 13 per cent.

Morgan Langille, a microbiome researcher at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, was not involved with the research but said in an interview with NPR, “This is a really impressive study. It’s the first study I’m aware of that goes beyond correlation to show that certain microbes that increase with exercise actually have an effect [on performance].”

It’s been well known that exercise subtly changes the makeup of our microbiome. Certain strains flourish in the post-workout gut, but until now it hadn’t been proven that exercise-loving microbes actually affect our health or performance.

Jonathan Scheiman, the co-founder and CEO of FitBiomics, who led the study while he was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, said, “If we could identify microbes that do contribute to the health and performance of super healthy people, then maybe we could develop a probiotic to help everyday people perform better.”

Basically, this could just be the best body-hack for legal doping we’ve ever seen. If only Lance Armstrong could see this now. And if you’re wondering how they discovered the correlation between gut bacteria and athletic performance, just you wait.

Yep, Scheiman did spend a good deal of time studying poop. But this wasn’t just your regular poop – this had to be the poop of the elite. So, Scheiman went around soliciting Boston Marathon runners for their poop.

“A good two weeks of my life was spent driving around Boston in a Zipcar collecting fecal samples from runners,” Scheiman said to NPR.

According to the research, there isn’t a huge difference between the microbiome of runners to non-runners. But in the group of runners, a bacteria called Veillonella does stand out. This bacteria became even more common in the guts of runners after they’d run the marathon. As Scheiman discovered, Veillonella eats lactate, a chemical byproduct of intense exercise that’s associated with fatigue.

When Veillonella was isolated from the stools and transferred into the guts of normal laboratory mice, the group of Veillonella-treated mice won in a series of races to exhaustion run on a mouse treadmill compared to a group of non-treated mice. On average, the treated mice lasted 13 per cent longer than the control mice.

Consequently, you might just be able to pop a Veillonella pill in the future to get a fitness boost. But as Langille suggests, “This research certainly opens the door to that possibility, but often it’s harder to replicate an effect you see in mice in human studies.”

Via GQ Australia