Does Probiotic Supplementation Improve Athletic Performance & Recovery?

Probiotics benefits have been shown to improve athletic performance and enhance recovery. Are they the missing ingredient in your nutrition plan?

The International Olympic Committee has stated that “Probiotics are live microorganisms that can increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut when administered orally for several weeks. These have been associated with a range of potential benefits to gut health, as well as the modulation of immune function.” 

animation of bacteria

Probiotics are available commercially in many forms, including oral supplements and yogurt, and fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, contain live microbes. In addition, probiotic research in recreational and competitive athletes is growing, including their effects on gastrointestinal (GI) health, exercise performance, recovery, physical fatigue, immunity, and body composition.

 

Gi distress resulting from endurance and high-intensity exercise is in all likelihood caused by a variety of disruptive mechanisms taking place in the gut, including poor oxygen availability, increased temperature, mechanical stress on the tissues (running, for example), and poor carbohydrate absorption.

 

 

More and more, research shows the possible protective effects of probiotic supplementation on gut health and, subsequently, improved performance.

 

Roberts et al. (2016) noted that following 12 weeks of multi-strain probiotic, long-distance triathletes experienced significant improvements in gut health. Similar findings were recorded by Kekkonen et al. (2007) among runners, while Pugh et al. (2019) found that following only four weeks of probiotic supplementation by marathoners, running performance increased, particularly during the latter stages of the run.

probiotic benefits smelled out in letters

How Can This Be?

Although the exact mechanistic actions are not yet identified, improved performance and reduction in discomfort are related to more optimal carbohydrate absorption and utilization.

 

Probiotics appear to protect the gut’s cellular wall, thereby reducing permeability and securing gut barrier integrity during and following high intensity or endurance exercise. In turn, this allowed for improved carbohydrate absorption and reduced GI symptoms such as bloating, gas, and that annoying sloshing feeling.

Probiotics Allow Us to Perform Better for Longer

With better carbohydrate absorption, the body can maintain a high level of performance for more extended periods. Thus the increased running speed during the latter stages of a race, as noted earlier.  

 

Further, because of increased carbohydrate utilization, it has been noted that there is also a protective effect on the muscles following probiotic supplementation.

 

As your exercise bout becomes longer and longer, the body, more often than not, needs to produce ‘new’ glucose (termed gluconeogenesis) to maintain high-intensity efforts. As we usually do, we fail to meet this need by ingesting carbohydrates to create new glucose from fat and protein.

Probiotics Decrease Muscle Breakdown

Research has indicated that endurance athletes, particularly runners and long-distance triathletes suffer from significant muscle protein breakdown following an event. The body is breaking down protein to meet the carbohydrate demand.

 

Probiotics, with the ability to improve carbohydrate absorption and, in turn, utilization, reduce the need for the muscle to contribute to blood glucose – thus, probiotics are said to be protein sparing. They spare protein (muscle protein) by increasing carbohydrate utilization.

athlete hold stomach in discomfort

Should You Take Probiotics?

You will have to make that personal decision (consult your health provider, of course). If you do, here are some things to keep in mind.

 

Look for a product containing between 25 – 45 billion CFU’s (colony forming units) per capsule with active strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

 

Consult the product’s directions, but generally, the capsules are to be taken daily, usually after your first meal of the day for at least 4-6 weeks.

Probiotic Supplementation May be a Sound Choice

Probiotics appear to be effective at minimizing the harmful effects of GI distress during long-duration, high-intensity exercise. Probiotic supplementation allows you to utilize the carbohydrates you have and those you ingest much more efficiently, leading to a decrease in muscle damage and GI distress.  It will undoubtedly lend itself to a more enjoyable and improved race effort.

Has probiotic supplementation worked for you?

Tell us about your experience.  Comment below!  Your fellow Zwifters want to know.

 

For more great expert nutrition advice from Dr. Upshaw check out the Nutrition page on The ZOM.

Bibliography

 “IOC consensus statement: dietary supplements and the high ….” 14 Mar. 2018, https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/7/439. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.

 

Pugh, J.N.; Sparks, A.S.; Doran, D.A.; Fleming, S.C.; Langan-Evans, C.; Kirk, B.; Fearn, R.; Morton, J.P.; Close, G.L. Four weeks of probiotic supplementation reduces GI symptoms during a marathon race. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 2019, 119, 1491–1501. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef] [PubMed]

 

Kekkonen, R.A.; Vasankari, T.J.; Vuorimaa, T.; Haahtela, T.; Julkunen, I.; Korpela, R. The effect of probiotics on respiratory infections and gastrointestinal symptoms during training in marathon runners. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 2007, 17, 352–363. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]

 

Roberts, J.D.; Suckling, C.A.; Peedle, G.Y.; Murphy, J.A.; Dawkins, T.G.; Roberts, M.G. An Exploratory Investigation of Endotoxin Levels in Novice Long Distance Triathletes, and the Effects of a Multi-Strain Probiotic/Prebiotic, Antioxidant Intervention. Nutrients 2016, 8, 733.

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