Saturday, April 28, 2007

Is Ultrarunning Bad for Your Teeth?

My last dentist visit uncovered a new cavity. Although it wouldn't be the first (and certainly not the last much in thanks to my chronic chocoholism), it was the first time my dentist pointed to endurance training as a likely culprit. How? Because the electrolyte replacement/energy drinks that we all consume so regularly have sugar and carbohydrates that eat away at our molars. He could tell because the cavities appear right along the gum line, where energy drink can pool up after a big slurp. Apparently, this is well-known in the dentistry circles. If the body fat is low and cavities are high, it's time for the lecture on sports drinks.

It turns out that Gatorade (and like drinks) can erode teeth faster than Coke or Red Bull, even though the sugar content isn't as high as a soft drink*. Does this mean we should floss at every aid station? Probably not, but you can take steps to decrease the likelihood that your next dentist visit will involve drills and novacaine. Blogger Mark Iocchelli has some great suggestions based on a similar experience he had at the dentist.

This isn't the first visit to the dentist that involved a long discussion about trail running. In 2004 when I was doing a lot of short-course running, I noticed I had jaw pain the morning after the races. It turns out that I was clenching my teeth while racing (and I did a lot of racing that year), to the point it had ground my molars down to nubs over a 10 month period. My molar alignment looked like Stonehenge, which made my bite uneven and in turn created increased jaw pain when I clenched my teeth during the next race. I probably didn't notice this while racing since it was drowned out by my bursting legs and lungs, but I definitely could feel the ache in my head the next day. I asked the dentist if this meant I needed to stop running and he said, "no, you just need to relax more".

That turned out to be some of the best coaching I had all year. ;-)

The two 1/2 days in the dentist chair to get my bite back to normal was more than enough incentive to investigate what was causing the clenching. It didn't take long to figure out that it happened most often when I was racing downhill. Part of the stress came from the fact that I rarely trained running downhills at full speed, so at race time I would get nervous when entering steep downhill sections. Ironically, I could fix this by adding MORE downhill sessions to my training, such as a few 1-2 minute downhill bursts 2-3x/week with a focus on running relaxed (I always think of "leaping" and "letting gravity pull me down", which is a much calmer mantra than "charging the hill"). After 3-4 weeks, I was not only running more relaxed, but I was runing smoother and going faster.

At my check up, my dentist said it was obvious that the clenching had been minimized. Another factor was that I moved up to the ultra distances, where white-knuckle downhill bombing isn't quite as common. Unfortunately, this also means I am drinking a lot more energy drink. So I guess I just keep a toothbrush in my fanny pack for the long runs...

(Anyone else remember Crest and the Cavity Creeps on Saturday morning cartoons? "They must be out of Crest...attack!!!!")

- SD

* Note that this same article points out Gatorade-sponsored studies showing that there is no incremental damage, much in thanks to increased saliva production. Perhaps the effect isn't as dramatic as the latest studies show.


  1. Dude...cavity crack me up. Here's another Sat morn fav - Yuckmouth!


  2. Interesting article, Scott.

    Somebody recently told me that ultra running could actually mess up your teeth by using up critical nutrients, like calcium, etc.

    I asked my dentist about that during my cleaning last week and was relieved when he told me that was not possible, since there is no way for any material in your teeth to be reabsorbed by the body (unlike material from your bones, for example -- so still a good idea to take a calcium supplement).

    Take care -- and if you have to, you can floss while you're walking the steep uphills :)

  3. Quite funny and interesting article!

    Have been reading your blog for a long time now, very enjoyable and informative!

    - madhuri (ex-runner).

  4. Yep, I always thought the constant drinking of sugary drinks would erode teeth. How can they not?

    Offsetting this, my new running diet is healthier and I visit my dentist regularly. Before running, I wasn't so diligent.

    Good post!

  5. Great post and a good thing to keep in mind. I've never had a cavity *knock on wood* and would hate for my new interest in ultras to change that!

    Makes me feel like I should go brush my teeth :D


  6. Scott,

    Love reading your blog and look forward to each race report. Had to let you know I loved the link to the "cavity creeps". My 3 year old daughter went to the dentist for the first time and now I play the video for her to encourage her brushing her teeth and it works great!

    Keep up the great running, you're an inspiration.


  7. Just stumbled across your blog. Interesting post. Who needs teeth anyway? Solid food during an ultra is over-rated. :)

  8. I had never heard about this teeth issue! I do seem to get more cavities now than when I was younger and I do not take in much sugary stuff.

    Massage Chair


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