gut microbiome

How Your Gut Microbiome Affects Athletic Performance

This article was produced by Dr. Rick Cohen, M.D., CEO of PureClean Performance. CTS has a product partnership with PureClean Performance. Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position or recommendations of CTS.


By Dr. Rick Cohen, M.D
CEO of PureClean Performance

What if one day athletes could inoculate themselves with microscopic organisms that made them run faster, jump higher, and recover like wolverine? Sounds like a Marvel movie doesn’t it?

What if I were to tell you that every athlete is already covered in microbes living in and on them that can give them an edge over their competition? 

Well, there are – there are actually trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living inside and on every living person in multiple microbial ecosystems throughout the body, called microbiomes. And when it comes to athletes, their gut bacteria significantly influences how well they perform and how fast they recover. 

Not only are the microbes in our gut are responsible for the way in which we break down fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and regulate energy.(1) They influence inflammation, stress resilience, and neurological function, even impacting mental toughness – all of which are incredibly important to athletic performance.(2)  

Athletic performance, recovery, and even the type of sports athlete’s play have all been linked to certain microbes. These findings now have researchers looking for ways to increase the good guys for better performance and faster recovery.

These fundamental roles our microbes play in energy regulation and athletic recovery have researchers exploring questions like:

Could microbiome genomics help us predict the next great athlete?

Could we harvest the microbes of elite athletes to pass on high performing microbial capabilities?

Will we one day be able to purchase “performance probiotics?”

While no one can possibly predict the end result of these findings, the implications are quite intellectually thrilling. 

I want to first share with you some recent gut microbiome research and then follow this up by 9 ways the gut microbiome impacts athletic performance. 

Harvard Researchers Find ‘Elite Gut Microbiota’

In one study, a group of Harvard researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of athletes training for the Boston Marathon. After the marathon, they found a spike in one type of bacteria needed by the body to break down lactic acid. These scientists believe the bloom in this particular bacteria is a response to the increased lactic acid levels in the body because it’s their food source.(3) 

Which begged the question – could these species be used to reduce lactic acid build-up and speed up recovery time?

In another study, Harvard researchers compared the gut microbiomes of rowers and ultramarathoners. They found differences in composition, which suggests that certain sports might foster certain microbial ecosystems.(2) 

Clearly, the gut microbiome has an impact on athletic ability. But we now know it is a two-way street as exercise also has the ability to affect the gut microbiome.(4) 

Exercise Can Strengthen the Gut Microbiome

Though diet is the most influential factor in determining which microbes are in your gut, environmental factors play a role too. Exercise is an important environmental factor shown to positively affect the gut microbiome – but only if it’s not excessive. 

Specifically, moderate exercise can:(4)

  1. Enrich microbiota diversity – which is important for signaling along with the brain-gut access and body homeostasis.
  2. Improve the Bacteroides to Firmicutes ratio – which helps healthy weight maintenance and reduces risk for obesity-related conditions.
  3. Stimulate bacteria known to improve the gastrointestinal lining barrier functions –  which can help fight obesity and metabolic diseases.
  4. Stimulate bacteria activities beneficial to human health – which can protect against gastrointestinal disorders and colon cancer.

The upshot is a healthy gut microbiome make being healthy overall easier. When you exercise, you improve the health of your gut microbiome, which makes it easier for you to stay lean and healthy overall. 

However, just like so many things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. In the case of exercise, overtraining appears to hurt the health of the gut microbiome – so, it’s all about finding balance. 

Extreme Exercise Can Wreck the Gut Microbiome

Ultra athletes put incredible demands on their body when they train, both physiologically and biochemically. The demand not only elicits responses from the muscles, but across the entire body and can result in systemic reactions. When an elite athlete repeatedly exposes their body to these drastic physiological circumstances, it can disrupt the body’s homeostasis, overwhelm the organs, and affect normal function.(5)

Extreme physical exercise can cause dysbiosis – an imbalance of the gut microbiome – which is a major underlying cause of many diseases. It is becoming clear that the gut microbiome composition lies on a spectrum, with sedentary microbes at one end and ultra athlete’s microbes at the other end. The key is to determine what is ideal for your health. Finding this takes personal experimentation. 

Fortunately, unless you are an extreme endurance or professional athlete, chances are your workouts are only benefiting and not having a negative impact on your gut microbiome. 

How does the gut microbiome actually impact athletic performance? 

Read on to learn the 9 ways the gut microbiome impacts athletic performance and then learn how you can assess and optimize your own personal gut microbiome. I’ll also share with you how this assessment helped me determine my super and kryptonite foods. 

1. Reducing Inflammation
The gut microbiome plays a significant role in inflammation – either increasing or decreasing levels. Inflammation interferes with athletic performance, slows recovery, and is the root cause of many chronic diseases.

While dysbiosis is associated with inflammatory conditions, research shows that improving your microbiome balance reduces systemic inflammation, which provides both short term relief and long term risk reduction.6 Improving microbiome balance and diversity also provides a more stable environment, which reduces the impact of repeated stress athletes place on their bodies.

When it comes to inflammation, the gut microbiome can either work for you or against you. In the case of ultra athletes, they may be unknowingly optimizing their gut microbiome through experimentation OR causing chaos when they overtrain.

2. Boosting Energy Levels

When your gut microbiome is balanced and diverse it helps boost energy levels, which can translate into better performance by:

  • Reducing fatigue through better lactic acid breakdown.(7)
  • Controlling redox function, which can delay fatigue symptoms.(8)
  • Increasing ATP levels, your molecular energy.(9)
  • Modulating metabolism.(4)
  • Supplying essential metabolites to your mitochondria – your cell’s powerhouse.(9)
  • Regulating energy harvest, storage, and expenditure.(4)

Enough said.

3. Improving Mental Strength

Because your gut microbes talks to your brain along the vagus nerve, they have a huge role in the state of your mental health. Dysbiosis has been linked to both mood disorders as well as mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression

On the flip side, a healthy gut microbiome can contribute to mental strength and significantly affect:(3)

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  • Mood
  • Pain tolerance
  • Cognitive performance
  • Behavior
  • Mental clarity
  • Attitude
  • Brain function

The gut-brain axis is now understood to be an invisible hand that shapes mental fortitude, which is essential for optimal performance.

4. Shaping Ideal Body Composition

When it’s an activity that relies on strength and speed, the gut microbiome helps the body run more efficiently. So, when the gut microbiome is in balance it makes being healthy and lean easier. This is because the gut microbiome influences:(10)

  • Body mass composition (muscle vs. fat)
  • White vs. brown fat
  • Blood glucose response to meals

Everyone knows just how important these factors are to overall performance. Now we know that the gut microbiome plays a huge role in each, making it a new focus of forward-thinking training regimens.

5. Strengthening Bones

The microbiome helps build bone mass and strength through hormone and immune system regulation. Balanced gut microbiota can also increase mineral absorption of calcium and magnesium. This is especially good news in times of injury because a properly functioning microbiome can speed up bone healing during sport-related trauma.(11)

So, forget about drinking enough milk for stronger bones – you’d be much better off making sure you’re eating the right foods for your gut microbiome to support optimal bone metabolism.

6. Nutrient Absorption & Use

One of the main takeaways about the gut microbiome should be that when it runs efficiently, the whole body runs efficiently. This is why scientists are so interested in mapping athletic gut microbiomes and using them to improve the health of others. 

A healthy gut microbiome is essential to any athlete interested in getting the most out of their food. Due to this fact, it’s no surprise that a balanced microbiome is essential to proper absorption and nutrient use.12  If you have a toxic gut microbiome, then the microbes are fighting just to survive and don’t have time to pull out important vitamins, proteins, and enzymes.

What’s more, the gut microflora actually provides a lot of your nutrients. They take food your digestive tract can’t process and make it into nutrients you need to survive.(12)

7. Elevating Hydration Status

The gut microbiome has also been linked to proper hydration and more efficient use of water during exercise. In addition, a healthy gut microbiome also helps maintain.the integrity of the gut lining which is key factor in proper hydration.(13)

8. Improving Sleep

Dysbiosis is also associated with poor sleep quality and lowered cognitive flexibility. This is because the gut microbiome controls levels of various hormones such as cortisol, serotonin, and GABA – all of which affect sleep quality.(14) The microbiome also affects the production of melatonin – essential for proper sleep-wake cycles.(15)

Quality sleep, good gut health, energy levels, and performance all exist in a reinforcing cycle that can either compound on one another and builds you up – or drag you down. Deep sleep is critical to perform well and now you know there’s a pharmacy of sleep-promoting neurotransmitters generated by their gut.

9. Antioxidant Defense System 

You have an impressive system in your body called the antioxidant defense system or redox signaling, that uses antioxidant enzymes to keep you healthy.16 Athletes need this system to consistently perform well to recover in record time, keeping them at the top of their game. 

A healthy redox status is associated with a balanced gut microbiome. This gut microbiome-regulated antioxidant enzyme system:(8,16)

  • Prevents tissue damage from exercise
  • Protects against intense exercise-induced oxidative damage
  • Is associated with the physical status of athletes
  • Reduces physical fatigue
  • Improve exercise performance

In general, intensive and sustained exercise training and high-level competition generate large amounts of free radicals that likely exceed the buffering capacity of a typical body. This makes  athletes susceptible to oxidative stress and more likely to build up damaging inflammation.

So what can you do to improve the health of your gut microbiome and gain an edge on your competition…

One of the best steps you can take right now is working to improve your gut microbiome diversity. A diverse gut microbiome is a healthy gut microbiome. Eating a healthy diet diverse in foods is a good start. But you can take this to the next level when you eat a diet individualized to your gut microbiome. 

This is where Viome comes in – Viome uses metatranscriptomic sequencing technology and artificial intelligence to develop your personalized food recommendations that will optimize your got microbiome.

I strongly recommend you regularly assess your gut microbiome with a kit from Viome. Costs have come way down ($399 to $149) over the past year allowing for assessments to be performed 2 to 3 times a year to track and continue to improve your gut health by adjusting your diet and lifestyle.

As with most lab assessments these days, This is no doctor required. 🙂  You can grab a kit here.

By the way, my superfoods are sweet potatoes, kale, dark turkey, salmon, olives, cranberry, watermelon, and bone broth. While I the foods I need to avoid include cucumber, banana, hemp, rice, prunes, dates, millet, and barley. 

With this information, I have been able to fine-tune the function of my gut microbiome to minimize the production of harmful metabolites and maximize the production of beneficial ones. The upshot is lower blood sugar levels, deeper sleep, increased energy and reduction in inflammation. 

I am anxiously awaiting our family’s repeat assessment coming to us on our cell phone ap any day now.

Feel free to reach out with any questions or support at 




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