Ever since the Greek soldier and messenger Pheidippides ran approximately 40 kilometers to report the results of the Battle of Marathon over two thousand years ago, the idea of distance running has been a heroic one. The difficult training involved in endurance running is an impressive show of both bodily strength and willpower. And the health and physical condition of marathon athletes can often inspire admiration and a little jealousy.
Of course, distance running isn't without its risks. When it comes to health problems for endurance runners, most people think of physical injuries such as runner's knee or tendonitis. But what you might not expect is that distance running – in fact all endurance training – can have an impact on your dental health as well. According to the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, endurance training has a serious effect on tooth decay.
One of the things that saliva does is help protect your teeth. It does this in a number of ways – it acts as a protective layer on your teeth, it contains antibacterial agents, it helps neutralize acids in the mouth, and it contains minerals that promote strong enamel.
During endurance training, however, the amount of saliva in the mouth decreases. Constant hard breathing through the mouth dries out the saliva, leaving teeth less protected. Because the training may extend for hours, this gives acids and bacteria plenty of time to begin to wear away at teeth. Training can also cause slight to moderate dehydration, making the interior of the mouth even drier.
Acidic Mouth Environment
With low levels of protective saliva, teeth are at increased risk of damage from acid. There are two main sources for acid in the mouth: first is foods and drinks that directly contain acids, and second is foods and drinks that contain sugars, which are then eaten by the bacteria in the mouth and converted to acids.
Just like sodas, many sports drinks contain citric or phosphoric acid. They are used as both flavorings and preservatives, and they can also contribute to tooth decay. If you drink sports drinks, check their labels to see whether you might be consuming large amounts of acid along with your electrolytes.
High Carbohydrate Consumption
The bacteria in the mouth feed on carbohydrates and sugars, excreting acid that breaks down tooth enamel. This is why dentists often tell their patients to stay away from sugary foods and drinks – and many sports drinks are very sugary.
In fact, endurance athletes often consume a lot of sugars and carbohydrates during training. They provide easy-to-access energy for muscles; however, they also provide easy-to-access food for oral bacteria.
What Can Be Done
Few endurance athletes would be willing to give up carbohydrates; while their teeth might benefit, their performance could suffer. However, trying to drink more water and fewer sports drinks can help. Rinsing out the mouth with water during and after exercise can also help, especially when it comes to combating dry mouth.
Working with a dentist for frequent checkups is also a good idea. If enamel damage is seen, for instance, a dentist can prescribe highly-fluoridated mouthwash or toothpaste to help combat the decay, strengthening teeth against the increased acids they are facing. Not catching such decay early, on the other hand, might mean cavities and fillings down the line.