Although the most general use of a mouthguard is for the treatment of bruxism, you may have seen some athletes wearing a mouthguard while playing sports.
Most of them use it in contact and strength sports to prevent oral injuries, however, many use it with a double purpose as it’s been proven to improve performance.
Chewing: Its relationship to the body
Much of the research on this topic suggests that clenching the jaw when performing a physical task (such as jumping or lifting a weight) increases strength and energy.
This phenomenon has been called “simultaneous activation enhancement” and is essentially an elegant way of saying that:
“…When one muscle or muscle group contracts hard, other muscles like to contract in the same way…”.
As you can see from the previous paragraph, the act of chewing when training is a neuromuscular matter.
Our central nervous system activates synergistic motor neurons – acting together – when the electric driving force increases, and this occurs when we need to overcome a very high load.
Effects on our body
- Chewing increases blood flow to the areas of the cerebral cortex associated with memory, attention, and awareness, as well as to the cerebellum.
- It increases the activation of the hippocampus (responsible for short and long term memory) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning).
- It reduces the stimulation of the amygdala (emotional reaction) and activates serotonin in the brain.
- It influences the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (important hormonal mediator during physiological stress, such as exercise).
The conclusions reached can be summarised as follows:
- Mouthguards improve peak power (maximum power produced in an effort) and performance in maximum efforts, such as lifting, throwing, sprints, vertical jumps, etc…
- They also improve performance in repeated anaerobic and high intensity efforts (lasting less than 45 sec) such as HIIT, muscle building in ranges of hypertrophy, or interval sports (martial arts, mainly)
- Isometric strength exercises can also be benefited from the use of protectors.
- Cortisol levels in some interval sports such as football, basketball, hockey, etc…were lower after an hour of exercise compared to those subjects who didn’t use it.In the same way, the concentration of lactate post-exercise was also lower (better recovery) in the group that used it
- In non-repeated aerobic and submaximal efforts such as long runs, the total duration of a football, tennis, basketball game… no obvious improvements in performance have been shown (despite the physiological changes shown in the previous point)
- Neither were there significant differences between using or not using this accessory in flexibility, balance and reaction speed exercises
Despite the benefits for power, strength and/or anaerobic sports, the use of mouthguards has some limitations
Firstly, if you’re thinking of using it, it should be done only occasionally in really important training and/or competitions and not as a regular thing, as it loses its benefits through adaptation.
In addition, and although I would advise you to first try a traditional mouthguard, one that you can find in many sports shops, it’s proven that custom-made mouthguards are the most beneficial in terms of performance and dental health. That said, of course, their disadvantage would be the price.
- Bourdin M, Brunet-Patru I, Hager P, Allard Y, Hager J, Lacour J, et al. Influence of maxillary mouthguards on physiological parameters. Medicine and Science of Sports and Exercise 38: 1500–1504, 2006.
- Duarte-Pereira DMV, del Rey-Santamaria M, Javierre-Garces C, Barbany-Cairo J, Paredes-Garcia J, Valmaseda-Castellon E, et al. Wearability and physiological effects of custom-fitted vs self-adapted mouthguards. Dental Traumatology 24: 439–442. 2008.
- Dunn-Lewis, C, Luk, H-Y,Comstock, BA, Szivak, TK, Hooper, DR, Kupchak, BR, Watts, AM, Putney, BJ, Hydren, JR, Volek, JS, Denegar, CR, and Kraemer, WJ. The effects of a customized over-the-counter mouth guard on neuromuscular force and power production in trained men and women. J Strength Cond Res 26(4): 1085–1093, 2012.
- Garner, D.P. and Dudgeon, W.D. The Effects of Mouthpiece Use on Cortisol Levels During an Intense Bout of Resistance Exercise. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011
- Von Arx T, Flury R, Tschan J, Buergin W and Geiser T. Exercise capacity in athletes with mouthguards. International Journal of Sports Medicine 29: 435–438, 2008.
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