The gut might hold a key to better athletic performance

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One route to becoming a better athlete could be to start with your gut. That’s what research from a college athlete turned microbiologist suggests.

Jonathan Scheiman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, and his team have identified bacteria in the microbiome of exceptional runners that could help with athletic performance and recovery.

They hope to use this to develop probiotics that may help even amateur athletes recover faster from a tough workout and convert more nutrients from food into energy.

Researchers collected daily fecal samples from 20 runners training for the 2015 Boston marathon, one week before and one week after the race. “In essence, we’re mining the biology of the most fit and healthy people in the world and then extracting that information to help them and others,” Scheiman said in a news release.

The researchers compared the pre- and post-race samples and found a sudden spike in one particular type of bacteria. “This bug’s natural function is to break down lactic acid,” Scheiman said. Intense exercise leads to more lactic acid than usual, which can cause muscle fatigue and soreness. This bacteria could potentially help with that. They also found another type of bacteria in ultramarathoners that helps break down fiber and carbs.

Scheiman and some colleagues are launching a company this fall called Fitbiomics hoping to “disrupt the sports nutrition market,” according to its site. The endeavor flows from what Scheiman, a member of St. John’s University’s 2003 NIT champion team, says was a bit of a plan B. “I wanted to play in the NBA. I didn’t make it,” he said on WBUR’s “Only a Game” radio show. “So my backup plan was getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology.”

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