Can Gut Microbes Improve Athletic Performance?

June 2, 2023

Could FMTs be used to boost athletic performance one day? Perhaps, suggests a new study that examined the gut microbiome of 15 elite runners participating in the Boston marathon.  The study revealed there are microbial distinctions in the guts of elite athletes.

Published June 24, 2019, the study has since garnered a lot of attention. And though the news has been inundated with eye catching and definitive headlines like, “Performance-enhancing bacteria found in the microbiomes of elite athletes”, the results are only a very early look into what could be a major new insight into the world of the microbiome.

  • Microbial differences in elite athletes
  • Harnessing the microbiome for athletic performance
  • Will athletes start microbe doping?

Let’s start with the key microbes present in the gut of these marathon running athletes.

Microbial differences in elite athletes

The study authored by George Church and his colleagues at Harvard University studied 15 Boston marathon runners. They collected stool samples from the runners both before and after their race performance. They then examined the stool to check for any differences in their microbiomes pre and post race.

The study found a higher abundance of a bacteria known as Veillonella in the guts of the runners post race. Veillonella is a bacteria that uses lactate, breaking it down into propionate.  Lactate build up is the stuff that gives you shaky legs after a long run or bike ride. So, if harnessed correctly this information and bacteria could mean a whole new way of boosting athletic performance.

Aside from just the Veillonella (and more specifically Veillonella atypica) the researchers further noted that the athletes showed higher levels of every kind of bacteria strain that is involved in the breakdown of lactate.

Harnessing the microbiome for athletic performance

Along with assessing the microbial differences in human subjects pre and post marathon running, the study also looked to test what effect manipulating the microbiome might have on athletic performance.To do so they inoculated mice with the very same bacteria they found in those marathon running humans - then they started them running on a wheel.

What they found was that when the mice were given the Veillonella bacteria, they were able to run for 13%  longer than without the bacterial inoculation. This means that not only does the microbiome change with exercise but that it can also be changed for the purpose of exercise.

Now this is not to say athletes are going to start doping with microbes, at least not yet. Mice have less complicated and smaller microbiomes than their human counterparts and though giving them microbes may make a difference, there is no knowing what the effect will be on humans. For that more research will need to be done.

Will athletes start microbe doping?

Even though more research is needed, the study still begs the question - could FMTs and probiotics be the new thing in performance enhancing doping? Maybe one day, but not anytime soon. The study and understanding of the microbiome is still in its relatively early stages and knowing what it can and can’t be manipulated to do is still a big question for researchers. Many studies into microbiome manipulation has shown promising results in mice that don’t necessarily transfer to humans.

To boot, each individual microbiome is so distinct there is no knowing whether one method of microbe inoculation could even be applied from human to human.  Like the many conditions with which the microbiome has been associated and results in treating them through the microbiome can tend to be hit or miss. All that to say, once more, that more research is needed to understand the individual and communal functions of the millions of microbes that are living in each and every one of us.