The microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract play a significant role in nutrient uptake, vitamin synthesis, energy harvest, inflammatory modulation, and host immune response, collectively contributing to human health. Important factors such as age, birth method, antibiotic use, and diet have been established as formative factors that shape the gut microbiota. Yet, less described is the role that exercise plays, particularly how associated factors and stressors, such as sport/exercise-specific diet, environment, and their interactions, may influence the gut microbiota. In particular, high-level athletes offer remarkable physiology and metabolism (including muscular strength/power, aerobic capacity, energy expenditure, and heat production) compared to sedentary individuals, and provide unique insight in gut microbiota research. In addition, the gut microbiota with its ability to harvest energy, modulate the immune system, and influence gastrointestinal health, likely plays an important role in athlete health, wellbeing, and sports performance. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms in which the gut microbiota could play in the role of influencing athletic performance is of considerable interest to athletes who work to improve their results in competition as well as reduce recovery time during training. Ultimately this research is expected to extend beyond athletics as understanding optimal fitness has applications for overall health and wellness in larger communities. Therefore, the purpose of this narrative review is to summarize current knowledge of the athletic gut microbiota and the factors that shape it. Exercise, associated dietary factors, and the athletic classification promote a more "health-associated" gut microbiota. Such features include a higher abundance of health-promoting bacterial species, increased microbial diversity, functional metabolic capacity, and microbial-associated metabolites, stimulation of bacterial abundance that can modulate mucosal immunity, and improved gastrointestinal barrier function.
Keywords: Athletes; Exercise; Gut health; Gut microbiome; Metagenome; Microbial ecology; Physical activity; Short-chain fatty acids; Sport performance; Sports nutrition.