Great Legs, Gross Teeth: Endurance Runners and Tooth Decay

Runners are sexy people.  They have a contagious energy, an unusually positive outlook on life, and let’s face it- they look good in their spandex shorts. But, according to dentists and health professionals, runners and other endurance athletes are more prone to tooth decay and dental problems than the rest of the population. Here’s what you need to know about runners and tooth decay.

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade and Accelerade contain lots of sugar. Simple sugars are used to fuel our muscles during races and training. Sugars are absorbed quickly and preserve muscle glycogen to extend athletic endurance and help us run farther. However, the sugars that help our tired muscles are hurting our teeth.

“They have bodies of Adonis and a garbage mouth.” – Paul Piccininni, Dental Director for the International Olympic Committee

To make matters worse, most sports drinks contain phosphoric or citric acid which erode tooth enamel. The compromised tooth then becomes more susceptible to bacterial build-up fueled by the sugary liquid. Bacterial proliferation leads to plaque, cavities, gingivitis, and a host of other dental problems.

Dry Mouth

Runners are heavy breathers. If you’ve ever run a race, you’re familiar with the freight train sound of runners gasping for oxygen. All that rapid breathing dries out the mouth, reduces saliva flow, and gives bacteria a great place to live. And that sports drink you sip as directed, delivers just enough sugar to keep things moving in terms of bacteria production.

How Runners Can Prevent Tooth Decay

So what can you do? You work hard to keep your body in peak physical condition, you eat healthy foods, and you fuel during your races as directed by the experts. Here’s how to keep your teeth as healthy as the rest of your body and have a winning smile:

  1. Rinse your mouth with water after consuming gels, bars, or sports drinks. Often times the aid stations will have a choice of sport drink or water. Take one of each and ‘rinse and spit’ with water.
  2. Chew gum when you can to increase salivary flow and neutralize the bacteria in your mouth. The gum should contain xylitol.
  3. Brush and floss regularly.
  4. Ask your dentist about sealants and fluoride treatments. Let them know you’re an endurance athlete and discuss ways to prevent tooth decay.

10 thoughts on “Great Legs, Gross Teeth: Endurance Runners and Tooth Decay

  1. I’m 62, I’ve completed 54 ultras and I’ve never had a cavity. It’s not luck, heredity or fluoride in my drinking water. It’s brushing twice a day, flossing and rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash. We make our own luck.

  2. Something that should be discussed concerning xylitol: it is lethal to dogs. So if you have gum or mints in your purse, make sure it is not available to your furry friends.

  3. I am 63, a runner, and dental hygienist. Running does not cause garbage mouth. Poor oral hygiene does.

  4. It’s an interesting theorie. But it’s statement is simular to: guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    My Dentest is very happy with my teeth and mouth hygine. I am 36 and run around 50 km in a week.

    But thank you for the warning.

  5. I am an experienced dental hygienist, past distance runner, and dental educator and I find this message an important one. Dental hygiene is only one of the many potential factors related to cavities. As with many conditions, people have very different risks. Some people have a low risk and others an increased risk for developing decay. Jason’s post highlights the potential for two other factors that cause tooth decay: (1) frequent doses of sugar over a prolonged period and (2) frequent bouts of impaired saliva flow.

    Runners differ greatly in their exposures to sugars and dry mouth. Not all runners are doing training that requires doses of sugars while on the run or that causes extended periods of dry mouth. If you are having problems with tooth decay, Jason’s tips are good ones. Consult with your dentist and dental hygienist and consider using a fluoride rinse. To get maximal protection from xylitol, dose and frequency are important.

  6. Well, I’m here as the contrarian to those who have stated simple, good oral hygiene will completely offset the effects of sugars from sports drinks and energy gels. I have not had a cavity in well over 25 years, until my last dental visit this spring. This was also my first visit since I took up running about two years ago. This visit revealed 6 cavities. Yes…. 6. I brush twice a day, floss (although not as regularly as I should) and use a flouride rinse. My dentist quickly diagnosed the problem as running related issues as Jason has described. I was given the same advice that Jason has relayed, and was also put on a prescription grade toothpaste.

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