Athletics encompass road, cross-country and trail running, track and field, and race walking. Athletics are some of the most participated in sporting disciplines in the world. Millions of races are recorded each year from elite, club and weekend warrior-level athletes in the United States alone; and racing only represents a small fraction of time spent participating in the sport. The average club-level athlete may spend a cumulative two to four weeks training each year; trying to improve their physical and mental capabilities to gain a one second advantage against their opposition or their own personal best. Aside from the physical changes provided by training, athletes frequently look to nutrition and psychological motivation to improve or sustain performance. Human physiology, food, and one’s opponent are all things that can physically be seen by eye, so it’s understandable that they are a common focus of an athlete. However, the unseen — bacteria, fungi and viruses — may, and in some cases obviously do, also play an important role in performance. Could the specific environment of the indoor and outdoor training facilities play a role in an athlete’s health and, in turn, their success? What happens to the microbiome of an athlete who travels to another country to train or to race? Are multi-sport athletes at greater risk for developing an illness because of varied environments? Microbiome studies involving sports are just beginning to emerge as a focus for basic or clinical research. We think that since so much of society participates in sports, that the microbiome of the athletic arena and of athletes themselves should be more of a focus for research!

Studying athletic facilities and the athletes that use them has the potential to shed light on the interplay between our environment and our microbiome. At the moment, we have very little understanding of if and how different athletic training facilities, changes in training or racing location, or even the size of training groups might influence the health — and possibly the overall performance — of athletes.

Athletics as a Model System to Study the Microbiome of the Built Environment

There are entire disciplines within athletics that are specifically designated for indoor competition. Most indoor track facilities aim to keep a ‘comfortable’ environment, a designation currently determined based on standard for North American offices and workspaces. Yet comfort can vary drastically when thinking about a spectator or an athlete, and the difference between indoor and outdoor environments at a given location may be significant. Research into a facilities’ temperature, humidity, air circulation, cleaning schedules and a variety of other factors shed light on how specific variables influence the microbiome of our environment, as well as how the environment effects our microbiomes, which could lead to future improvements for those who participate in athletic events. Athletes may obtain an advantage over fellow participants based on their environment and/or their own microbiome. If so, then for Olympic athletes, even the most seemingly insignificant microbe or microbial population could potentially determine their place in history.

For instance, after the 2012 London Olympics, a report of injuries and illnesses sustained during the Games was created; which showed that 41% of the illnesses affected the upper respiratory system and that the most common cause of illness was ‘infection’. The second and third most affected systems were the gastrointestinal tract and the skin — all areas of interest to microbiome researchers. Of the myriad events at the Games, track and field had one of the highest rates of illness at 10.5% (surpassed only by synchronized swimming, soccer, beach volleyball and taekwondo).

Overall injury rate was similar to that of illness rate. However, the time, money and worry currently spent on injury detection, prevention and recovery is far greater than that on illness. This means that about one in ten of the Track and Field athletes would have trained for four years only to have their potentially golden moment derailed by a microscopic opponent. Now, imagine a future in which athletes spend even a fraction of the countless hours they spend with physical therapists, chiropractors and other injury-focused personnel with microbiologists and immunologists.

Focusing on Indoor Athletic Facilities in the Greater Boston Area

Previous studies have suggested that bacterial communities of indoor environments vary with human contact and that sports and sporting facilities can serve as an ideal setting to study the spread of microbes. Of note, at the 2012 Summer Games, the only endurance sport to have disciplines conducted at both indoor and outdoor venues was cycling (track and road), providing a look into how this difference of environment might have affected the rate of illness. Surprisingly, the rate of illness for track cyclists was 9.6 percent, while for road cyclists it was just 3.3 percent, potentially suggesting improvements of the indoor environment might decrease illness and support performance.

The current focus of my research is to look into the specific microbiome signatures of indoor track facilities and to see if and how this environment is reflected in the microbiomes of athletes. With that in mind I began my project, ‘Indoor track facility microbiome and athlete salivary and nostril microbiomes,’ which is funded by a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Microbiology of the Built Environment from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Since September 2015, I have been sampling four indoor track facilities in Greater Boston, taking swabs of the track facilities and samples of indoor air to determine microbial composition, as well as monitoring indoor environmental parameters. I also work with runners who train at these indoor tracks to determine if the indoor track facility environment (and microbes) influences their internal microbes of the mouth and nose.

Some of the reasons for carrying out this project are to determine what microbes are common residents or colonizers of indoor athletic arenas, to determine if the microbes vary with environmental parameters, and to determine if these microbes get into/onto people using the facilities as a vector and/or if people are the ones depositing their microbes in the facilities.

The long-term goals of this research is to determine the microbial communities of indoor track facilities, to use this information to improve the overall health of indoor environments at the microbial level, and, potentially, to determine what role these microbes play in an individual’s health and performance.

In the meantime, you can learn more by visiting the American Society for Microbiology Genome Announcements to read about the draft genome sequence of the actinobacterium Curtobacterium sp. strain UCD-KPL2560, which was isolated from the running surface of an indoor track field house in Medford, MA. In the spirit of Open Access and data sharing to further collaborative science, we will continue to publish bacterial whole genome sequences of the athletic indoor environment throughout the project.

Brian A. Klein, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Katherine Lemon’s Lab at the Forsyth Institute

Originally published at