Risky Professions Part Two: The endurance athlete

Risky Professions Part Two: The endurance athlete


Living in Central Otago another common patient group I see are those training for endurance races. Think Godzone, Challenge Wanaka, and Red Bull Defiance.


There are two main reasons why endurance athletes are at increased risk for dental erosion: consuming sugary sports drinks and nutrition and heavy mouth breathing.

Sugary Sports Foods

Frequent small sips of sports drink or other sugars while training, spares muscle glycogen, but negatively impacts your teeth.  Sugar consumption increases acid producing bacteria that begins the cascade of potential problems.  Most sports drinks also contain phosphoric or citric acid which further erode tooth enamel. A compromised tooth is now more susceptible to bacterial build up, leading to a list of potential dental problems: plaque, cavities, gingivitis, inflammation, unresolved infection, periodontitis, etc.

However, sugary sports drinks were not the main cause of dental erosion.

Heavy Mouth Breathing

This type of breathing during endurance training leads to dry mouth that reduces saliva flow giving bacteria a bigger opportunity to grow and thrive. A 2014 study in The Scandinavian Journal of Sports Medicine looked 35 triathletes and 35 controls, the athletes showed a significantly greater erosion of tooth enamel than controls. The triathletes had much lower levels of saliva and increased pH (more alkaline) during exercise. Saliva performs a very protective function for the teeth.  The longer the training session, the drier and more alkaline their mouths became. The more hours an athlete spent training, the greater the instances of dental erosion, tartar plaques and cavities.

The conclusion is that dry mouth combined with sugary sports nutrition exacerbates the potential harm.

Full Body Effect

If left unchecked, prolonged bacterial build up in your mouth will negatively impact how your whole-body functions and performs. Advanced dental erosion has been implicated in many disease states, such as: osteoporosis, pneumonia, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Long, hard training for days, weeks and years can leave your immune system stressed. Add to this an increased bacterial load in the mouth and your immune system struggles to keep up with demand.

Steps for Athletes to Improve Your Oral Health

  • Brush and floss daily (but at least at least 1hour after eating)
  • See your dentist and hygienist for check-ups 2 to 4 times each year (depending on your oral health risk)
  • If you have any nagging tooth pain or unresolved dental problems, get this taken care of right away
  • Decrease your consumption of sports drinks and other sugary sports foods. Rinse your mouth with water after consuming sugars. There is a time and place for these foods during hard training blocks and races. Work to reduce them during easy and short sessions. Instead, drink plain water or coconut water. You can also add electrolytes.
  • Work on more nasal breathing. Breathing through your nose increases the production of nitric oxide that helps to increase your lungs’ oxygen absorbing capacity and kills bacteria, viruses and other germs. This may be the hardest one to change. It takes time and focus, but can be accomplished during easier and shorter training sessions.
  • Ask your dentist about custom medicament trays that you can wear on your teeth with remineralising agents.

Be proactive about taking care of your teeth and you will improve your training, health and performance for life.

Posted: Tue 18 Jul 2017