Most athletes, whether recreational or elite, have seen a physiotherapist, chiropractor, massage therapist or sports medicine physician to perform at their best. But who goes to the dentist? Even when we treat our body as a temple, oral health often gets neglected. But to achieve peak performance, the body needs to be in optimal health and free of pain and the mouth is, after all, connected to the rest of the body.
While exercise is good for creating lean, toned physiques, recent research shows it doesn’t necessarily create an environment for good oral health. The most obvious sports-related oral health issue is trauma — broken teeth and facial fractures. However a lot of damage can be done from clenching and grinding teeth during exertion for sports such as weightlifting and cycling.
Sugary sports drinks and fuel such as gels, gummies and bars greatly increase an athlete’s risk for tooth decay. It is the frequency — small sips and bites over long periods of training time — that does the damage as oral bacteria use the carbohydrate to produce acid that destroys tooth enamel and causes cavities. Contributing to this tooth damage is the reduced saliva flow and dehydration that occurs during long efforts. Less saliva means less calcium and fluoride bathing the teeth to neutralize the acidic environment.
So how does poor oral health affect sports performance? Well, have you tried to run a marathon with a raging tooth abscess? In addition to pain, the infection can cause fever, fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell. In a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 18 per cent of athletes at the 2012 London Olympics dental clinic felt that poor oral health impacted training and performance. The main concern for most athletes was coping with pain, plus discomfort when trying to take in needed calories during physical exertion.
La Sportiva ultrarunner Nicola Gildersleeve experienced this during the Fat Dog 120 miler in 2013. “Everything was going just fine until halfway through the race, when I started to get a really sensitive feeling in one of my teeth. The feeling was very uncomfortable and would arise every time I ate something sweet, which was roughly every 30 minutes,” she says. “This horrible sensitivity went on for the next 10 hours and I had to try and take in gels and chews into the side of my mouth opposite this tooth.”
Even with the discomfort, Nicola went on to win the race and then ran straight to the dentist. She found out she had developed eight cavities since she had begun ultrarunning five years earlier. Prior to this, she had been cavity-free for five years.
Endurance sport goes hand-in-hand with consuming copious amounts of sticky, sugary food and drink while racing and training. Therefore, staying on top of oral hygiene is that much more important.
Adam Campbell, two-time Canadian Ultrarunner of the Year, has felt the impact of frequent sugary carbohydrate consumption on his oral health.
“The first thing I do when I cross the line at an ultra is lie down. The second thing I want to do is brush my teeth. I consumed 36 gels, along with over 2-litres of Coke in my first 100-mile race around Mount Fuji in Japan. My teeth and jaw also ached from clenching due to the pain I was suffering the last few hours of the race.”
For both elite and recreational athletes travelling to a race away from home, a dental emergency can be detrimental.
Canadian Olympian Devon Kershaw says, “As an athlete who travels around the world, we’re never sure what sort of dental care is available.” The cross-country skier always gets a checkup in Canada before starting the season and before a major championship. Similarly, in Olympic years, triathlete Simon Whitfield would always get his teeth checked prior to his final four month specific preparation phase to help rule out, or address, any possible issues that could affect his performance.
Regardless of athletic ability or level, poor dental care can interfere with practice and competition. While daily brushing with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing, and regular dental care won’t turn the average weekend warrior into an Olympic gold medallist, it may be another piece of the puzzle in achieving your personal best.