And when we say a small tweak, we mean teeny tiny. Even a 1 per cent gain can make a huge impact. Want evidence? It was this idea of making 1 per cent improvements in all areas that effect training – from nutrition, recovery and even handwashing technique – that saw the cycling team in Britain go from so-embarrassing-that-European-manufacturers-wouldn’t-sell-them-bikes to world-record-breaking-and-gold-medal-dominating in five years. (It’s pretty impressive. Read more about their transformation here).
The latest 1 per cent improvement that has the sports world excited revolves around gut health. The 100 trillion bacteria, made up of 200 to 1,000 species, that reside in your colon could be key to boosting performance. It’s important to note that research into the microbiome is still in very early days, but research is promising. For those wanting an edge, APC Microbiome Ireland researcher Dr Orla O’Sullivan told the Irish Times, that “Diversity is key: the more different types of microbes you have in your gut the better for your health.”
“Having a healthy gut microbiome can positively influence other areas of health and wellbeing which is a win for anyone – not just athletes,” adds Microba Microbiome Coach Christine Stewart, a registered nurse and nutritionist. “However, for athletes, performing at their best is key, and some studies have shown there may be a link between your gut bacteria and athletic performance. Exercise has [also] been shown to positively impact your gut bacteria as it can increase the overall diversity level, which is how many different types of bacteria you have and how evenly spread they are.”
How diverse is your gut microbiome?
That’s the question NRL elite performance manager Troy Thomson wanted answered for our national women’s team, the Jillaroos. As Thomson told nrl.com, he looked into microbiome testing as “The NRL clubs look after their players so well these days that trying to find something a little bit different that might help them becomes harder and harder each year.”
Jillaroos player Corban McGregor hadn’t considered looking into her microbiome before it was introduced by Thomson. She says, “I understand how important your gut health is to your overall wellbeing and I was keen to learn more about what was happening inside my gut, especially being a semi-professional rugby league athlete. Any little edge I can get, I will take.”
The NRL partnered with Microba, a company that provides research-quality microbiome analysis with tests you can do at home, to find out what was going on inside their players. The test kit involves sending a sample of your faeces which is then tested in their laboratory. Grossed out about the idea? Jillaroos player Kezie Apps was too. She says, “I was a bit nervous and grossed out about doing the sample, but it was actually better than I thought and super easy and quick.”
What can you learn from microbiome tests?
It takes about four to six weeks to get the results once you’ve sent the sample across. What can you then expect? “In a nutshell, you can gain an understanding of what’s happening with your resident gut bacteria,” Stewart explains. “Using DNA sequencing, you can see how well the bacteria in your gut are at performing key functions that may influence health, and if you need to tweak your bacteria to optimise their balance. This can be done largely through food.”
Corban learnt her microbiome’s potential to protect her nervous system is high which is great in her sport. She also learnt she needs to avoid excessive consumption of saturated fat as her microbiome’s potential to promote inflammation is a little high.
“Overall, I need to boost the growth of good bacteria in my gut. My results showed that I'm just outside the ‘healthy comparison group’ in the Microba database. I think there’s a lot more research needed to be done on females, so it’s a little hard to compare, however, I have taken away some really interesting insights that I wish to improve on,” Corban says.
Fellow Jillaroos star Ali Brigginshaw “noticed I had very poor gut health and I’ve really tried to make changes by adding more greens to my diet and less sugar.”
Ali, who’s been playing rugby league for 19 years, is keen to do “the extras” like improving her gut health in order to keep training hard as she gets older. “My diet isn’t great trying to cook for two kids who don’t eat much variety and then make a healthy meal for myself and [fiancée] Kate. I’m struggling,” she admits.
And what can’t you learn from microbiome tests?
If you’d like to find out if a health condition, food intolerance or parasite is affecting your performance, this isn’t the way to do it. “At this stage, diagnostic tests [for health conditions and parasites] are different from gut microbiome analysis and must be ordered through a medical professional, such as a GP or specialist,” says Stewart. “The test also does not show signs of food intolerances and/or allergies or conditions of the small intestine – these must be diagnosed by an experienced health care practitioner.”
Doing the extra 1 per cent
Since getting their results back and having the data explained, the Jillaroos have been making their 1 per cent tweaks. Corban’s adjusted her diet slightly: “I like to think I usually eat reasonably well, however, I have included more vegetables into my diet, more prebiotic food sources into my meals and I also take a probiotic supplement to support my gut health.”
Kezie has been mixing up the types of veggies she has for lunch and dinner to help increase the diversity of her microbiome. Her big goal for 2020 is to make the NRLW Dragons, NSW and Jillaroos teams so focusing on her diet is key to helping her do that. “My diet is the big focus, ensuring I’m fuelling my body with the right foods to help with recovery and performance. The test has really helped me with knowing what foods I need to put into my diet.”
So what’s an ideal gut-friendly day on a plate?
“An average day – not taking into account training or game days – of gut-friendly eating would include plenty of gut fuel aka prebiotics,” Stewart says. “Prebiotics are really just parts of our food that can’t be broken down by human enzymes and so make it all the way through to your gut microbiome which is in the lower part of the large intestine. These foods fuel your gut.
“Ideally on a perfect day, we’d like to see a diverse range of grains such as wheat, rye or oats; colourful fruits and vegetables; cooked and cooled rice or potatoes, a mix of different nuts, seeds and legumes. If you think of eating the rainbow, eating whole foods and mixing up your wholegrains, you’re on the right track.”
Need some inspo? Try this gut-friendly meal from Stewart:
Orange Cranberry Salmon
4 fillet portions of wild salmon
Juice from one orange
Zest of one orange
4 slices of orange, cut in half circles
2 star anise
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees.
2. Rinse the salmon fillets and pat dry with a paper towel. Arrange fillets in a baking dish. Lay orange slices over each fillet to cover the top. Drizzle orange juice over them and sprinkle each with a little grated orange zest.
3. Add cloves and star anise to the dish. Then sprinkle with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
4. Bake for about 20 minutes. Top each fillet with a serving of cranberry sauce (see recipe below)
To make the cranberry sauce:
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup water
Juice from one orange
Zest of one orange
1. Place all ingredients into a medium-sized pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.
2. Cook for about 10 mins while using a large spoon to mash the berries as they cook. The sauce will begin to thicken as the berries cook. The sauce is ready to use hot.