As far as hobbies go, triathlon is about as healthy as you can get. But while your cardiologist may swoon over your low resting heart rate, chances are your dentist isn’t having the same reaction.
Most endurance athletes rely on carbs during long training days and races. And while there’s a ton of science to back up why simple sugars are ideal for providing quick zips of energy, there’s also an entire canon of literature damning sugars as poison for your teeth.
“Artificial colors, acidity, sugars and sugar alternatives are all things that don’t help out your mouth at all,” says Jonathan Levine, D.M.D., a New York-based dentist and avid cyclist. “We have a balancing act of good versus bad bacteria in our mouths,” he says, “called the homeostatic balance. Both sugar and low pH environments create ideal conditions for bad bacteria to thrive.”
The problem is that when sinister bacteria are left unchecked, they cause cavities as well as gum inflammation. Both things that can have lasting and long-term consequences—including eventually losing entire teeth—if not addressed.
It turns out that athletes may be more at risk of oral decay than their non-active peers. A 2015 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that elite athletes generally have poor dental health. Even worse, we seem to be oblivious to the risks we’re taking with our teeth. A 2011 paper published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that only 3.2 percent of triathletes surveyed had considered the impacts sports nutrition products could have on dental hygiene. Guess what is full of sugar and acid? Yup, many of your favorite commercial sports drinks, gels and chews.
You need not swap your gels out for shots of toothpaste just yet, though. Levine says that there is a time and a place for using sports nutrition products, especially if you’re aware of the downsides. He switches between sips of a carb-charged beverage and mineral water, which tends to be more alkaline than tap water, and thus helps to counter the high acid content of things like Gatorade.
He also says that after long, hard days in the saddle with many calories consumed, he is especially thorough with his before-bed brushing. “The vast majority of problems happen at night, so your nightly care routine is really important.” Athletes should spring for electronic toothbrushes, which are more efficient than their manual counterparts. Also, those who suffer from dry mouth while training need to be especially vigilant, since saliva acts as a natural buffering agent, working to keep your mouth’s pH neutral. If you finish a long workout feeling like you’ve just licked a cotton ball, you may want to add brushing to your post-workout routine.
You also can try experimenting with making your own sports drinks, says Levine. A mix of 50 percent fruit juice and 50 percent water would be significantly lower in acid than commercial products, which usually list citric acid within the first four ingredients. As a bonus, you’ll also eliminate added colors, which can stain your pearly whites.
The bottom line here is that, while taking good care of your mouth isn’t as sexy as, say, checking your VO2 max or measuring your body fat, it’s an important aspect of your health to keep in mind. Sure, healthy gums and molars may not help you cross the finish line faster, but they are crucial for demolishing that post-race burrito—and we think that’s pretty important.