by Thomas Wrona May 10, 2024 5 min read


The Wolves In Your Gut

The wolves of Yellowstone were hunted to near extinction last century. This is related to your gut, I promise. Because they killed livestock, the ranchers killed the wolves, which created an environment where the elk and deer (usually thinned out by the wolves) became overpopulated and over-grazed the pastures. Over-grazing created mass erosion in the soil and riverbeds and so started an ecological doom loop. The less diverse the environment became, the more vulnerable it became, accelerating the downward cycle. You’ll be happy to know (in case you don’t already) the wolves of Yellowstone are being repopulated and the original ecosystem is reconstituting itself. I tell this story because the ecosystem in the gut, your microbiome, is ultimately no different.

Your Gut Microbiome

Within your gastrointestinal (GI) tract lies a complex ecosystem of trillions of beneficial bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites known as the gut microbiome. Hopefully, anyway. What’s become increasingly clear in recent years is how important this city of microbes in the intestine is to the digestion process. No different from any thriving ecosystem in nature, diversity and balance promote its high function. The more diverse and balanced your microbiome, the more effectively and efficiently nutrients are broken down into the compounds your body needs to thrive. Not to mention it’s more adaptable and resilient to change. The food you ingest (if not routed directly into your bloodstream) is pushed through the GI tract where your city of microorganisms is high-functioning, or not. If endurance athletes want to make the most of their carefully calibrated diet, it’s not only the quality of the food (among other factors) but how productively your microbiome can break the food apart.

A Healthy vs Unhealthy Gut

A healthy, thriving microbiome resembles a lush rainforest. An unhealthy, deteriorating microbiome resembles a thinly populated desert and where you fall on the spectrum has implications for your health and by extension, performance. A rich microbiome, abundant with a variety of beneficial microbes, is generally associated with a strong immune system, heart health, optimal brain function, mood regulation, restful sleep, digestive health, and protection against certain diseases - all foundational descriptions of ‘good health.’ The rich complex of microbes work in concert to support the larger operation of breaking down the complex-carbohydrates and fiber, synthesizing vitamins, and metabolizing bile, to name a few of the core functions. The good microbes are abundant with sufficient energy to accomplish their specialized jobs. On the other hand, a less diverse and imbalanced microbiome can lead to compromised digestion, leaving the body unable to extract the nutrition required. The microbes available are insufficient to do the work required of them and, worse yet, allow the harmful bacteria and viruses to move into the vacuum and thrive. The negative health outcomes include auto-immune disorders, thyroid conditions, crohn’s disease, heartburn, bloating, and constipation to name a few.

Endurance Athletes And The Gut

If our microbiomes play as large a role as suggested in vital functions such as nutrient absorption, energy production, hydration regulation, and gastrointestinal comfort—critical aspects for endurance athletes—then improving our microbiome has performance implications. Furthermore, if the microbiome is central to modulating inflammation, tissue repair, and immune function during periods of rest and recovery, then it’s also central to combating fatigue and expediting recovery. The gut microbiome seems to be at the core of what endurance athletes are trying to accomplish—efficiently fueling working muscles and recovering as quickly as possible. Recognizing the importance of the gut microbiome and optimizing its health is shifting to a top priority.

As endurance athletes, we sweat the details of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, hydration, electrolytes, and supplements—understandably, these are all crucial considerations. However, the latest understanding of gut health is urging us to expand these considerations and eat for the gut as well. I’m finding it helpful to reframe nutrition as both fuel and engine rather than just fuel for the engine. Our diet now serves two purposes: it provides the fuel necessary for physical exertion and recovery as well as constructing and maintaining the intricate ecosystem through which that fuel is processed, the microbiome. While it may have been logical to concentrate solely on the fuel we consume, we now realize that we were only tending half of the garden. I’ve expanded my definition of healthy nutrition to now include foods that specifically enrich the biodiversity of my microbiome.

Here are foods summarized into three key categories that can improve your gut health (items listed are by no means exhaustive):

Probiotic-Rich Foods: The good bacteria - mostly lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, saccharomyces boulardii

  • Kefir
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso
  • Tempeh

Prebiotic-Rich Foods: Food the good bacteria eat to grow

  • Bananas
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Asparagus
  • Chicory root
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Oats

Polyphenol-Rich Foods: Help the good bacteria grow and stave-off bad bacteria

  • Berries (such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Green tea
  • Apples
  • Spinach
  • Almonds

Personally, I’ve added more ‘living’ or fermented food to my diet as a result of this research. While better and better foods will be identified and refined for fostering gut health, given the stakes, it remains essential to use the best information today to bring your gut up to the highest baseline.

You Already Know What’s Bad For Your Gut

It's no surprise that ultra-processed junk foods with gums, emulsifiers, and additives are the biggest culprit. But fatty foods like fried meats, refined grains, and alcohol disrupt the balance too. It’s good to have yet another reason to phase out or minimize these harmful choices; they are toxic to the gut. Also, poor sleep and chronic stress don’t help much either. Lifestyle choices have a direct relationship to the health of our guts with consequences not only for our performance but physical and mental health generally.

To Conclude

Nurturing a healthy gut microbiome is essential for overall health and well-being and its functions are at the center of what enables greater performance for endurance athletes. So, load up on fermented foods, eat your greens, and indulge in plenty of fruits and vegetables as a part of your nutrition plan. While these recommendations may seem common sense, we now know they are the elements that diversify and balance your gut microbiome, potentially leading to improved happiness, health, and hopefully a better performance at the next race. If you’re ever in Yellowstone, I hope you see a wolf (from a safe distance of course.) It’s heartening to know that with the right knowledge and care, ecosystems can be restored and thrive again, even the one in your gut.



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