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Probiotics can help maintain the balance of 'good' and 'bad' bacteria in the gut – collectively known as the microbiota.
Athletes have varying gut microbiota compositions that relate to their activity level compared to those who do only a little exercise. These differences appear to be linked primarily to the training volume and amount of protein an athlete consumes. Whether these differences in gut microbiota composition affect the efficacy of probiotics is still unknown.
Here are the top four areas where probiotics can help athletic performance.
"Athlete health can be affected by numerous factors such as intense and extensive training, lack of rest, frequent travel and compromised nutritional intake," says Wendy Martinson OBE, Registered Dietitian. "However, a study investigating the effect of probiotic supplementation compared to placebo, on the gastrointestinal symptoms of 141 marathon runners, found that there was a shortening in the duration of gastrointestinal symptom episodes."1
It may be beneficial to take a course of probiotics a couple of weeks before travelling overseas for a competition. The advice to athletes suspected to be immunosuppressed due to their heavy training schedule is to consider probiotic supplements.
Martinson agrees. "A study on elite rugby union players found that a probiotic mix containing three strains of bacteria at a dosage of 3 billion CFU significantly reduced the number of gastrointestinal episodes compared to placebo."2
Immunity seems to be the focus behind much of the recognised use of probiotics among athletes. Endurance athletes are more prone to upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) due to strenuous training sessions – these athletes are at greater risk of immunosuppression.
In terms of URTI, several well-designed clinical trials investigated the effects of probiotics in athletes. They showed that supplementation might lead to fewer days and reduced severity of URTI.3
The primary function of the gut is to digest food and absorb nutrients. Probiotics in the diet may help to increase the bioavailability of nutrients from food. In athletic populations, specific probiotic strains can increase the absorption of key nutrients such as amino acids from protein, and affect the pharmacology and physiological properties of multiple food components.4
Although probiotics will not improve sporting performance directly, studies have shown that there are multiple secondary benefits. Enhanced recovery from fatigue, improved immune function and the maintenance of a healthy gut can improve general wellbeing, which in turn could improve performance.
Probiotics may well be of benefit to athletes and in particular endurance athletes. The main benefit seems to lie in immunity, and it also seems the impact on overall health and wellbeing has a secondary effect on performance rather than directly influencing it.
Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is an award-winning registered nutritionist (AFN) and sports nutritionist (SENR) with over 15 years of experience. He founded London-based consultancy RH Nutrition, and has degrees in nutrition, public health nutrition and sports nutrition.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace
medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Kekkonen, R. A., Vasankari, T. J., Vuorimaa, T., Haahtela, T., Julkunen, I., & Korpela, R. (2007). The effect of probiotics on respiratory infections and gastrointestinal symptoms during training in marathon runners, International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 17(4), 352–363
2Haywood, B. A., Black, K. E., Baker, D., McGarvey, J., Healey, P., & Brown, R. C. (2014). Probiotic supplementation reduces the duration and incidence of infections but not severity in elite rugby union players, Journal of science and medicine in sport 356-360
3Heimer, M., Teschler, M., Schmitz, B. and Mooren, F.C. (2022). Health benefits of probiotics in sport and exercise–nonexistent or a matter of heterogeneity? A systematic review, Frontiers in nutrition p.218
4Wang, J. and Ji, H. (2019). Influence of probiotics on dietary protein digestion and utilization in the gastrointestinal tract, Current Protein and Peptide Science 20(2), pp.125-131