Jan 29, 2015
Mouthguards Enhancing Performance

By Mike Phelps

Once upon a time, mouthguards were used only by athletes playing contact sports who wanted to protect their precious pearly whites. While that’s still a popular reason today, athletes are also beginning to use mouthguards as a performance-enhancing device.

Anyone who tuned in to Monday Night Football on Nov. 2 to watch the New Orleans Saints topple the Atlanta Falcons probably heard ESPN analyst Jon Gruden ranting and raving about the Saints’ new high-tech mouthguards that were supposedly improving their performance on the field. While Gruden talked about the new equipment in a half-joking manner, there’s no arguing with the results: New Orleans is 13-0 entering Week 15 of the regular season.

“I was definitely a non-believer but it seems to be working,” Saints safety Roman Harper told WWL-TV in New Orleans. “I guess my head doesn’t hurt when I hit people. It’s actually a mouth piece that you can actually breathe pretty clearly with.”

The Saints have been using the Pure Power Mouthguard (PPM), developed by Makkar. Mandeville, La., dentist James Moreau, DDS, says the benefit of the PPM is based on the fact that many people’s jaws don’t naturally fall in the most comfortable, relaxed way, causing the facial, neck, and shoulder muscles to overwork. The PPM, as well as other brands of performance mouthguards, instantly fix that problem by repositioning the jaw, sometimes by only a few millimeters, which reduces stress and allows for better performance. The new mouthguards also allow for better airflow, which brings more oxygen to the muscles.

“In neuromuscular dentistry, we find a harmony between the way the muscles want the jaw joints and the jaws to function,” Moreau told WWL-TV. “And we find out that the neck aligns better and the muscles relax and even in some cases an air way can open some more, and the patient will have better posture and certainly not damage their teeth.”

But football players aren’t the only athletes who have taken a liking to the new performance mouthguards, which are also produced by Under Armour. It seems everyone, especially endurance athletes, is interested in the products which can account for a three to five percent increase in performance–a huge deal for elite athletes.

When athletes exert themselves, either during practice or competition, clenching the jaw is a natural reaction that triggers excess production and release of hormones that produce stress, fatigue, and distraction. This, obviously, can hinder performance.

The ArmourBite Technology found in Under Armour Performance Mouthwear, for example, prevents an athlete’s teeth from clenching, relieves pressure on the temporomandibular joint, and prevents the excessive production of hormones that hurt performance.

“Throughout history, soldiers, warriors, and athletes realized that by preventing their teeth from clenching together with a leather strap or bullet, they were able to gain the edge they needed to get through, or even excel at strenuous or punishing activities,” Jon Kittelsen, Founder of Bite Tech, which is behind the ArmourBite technology, told Dental Economics. “Our technology brings this ancient concept to today’s athletes with a comfortable, safe product from Under Armour.”

Unlike traditional mouthguards, however, performance gear can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the mouthpieces must be custom-fitted by a dentist, whereas a regular mouthguard can be fitted by dropping it in boiling water.

Still, it isn’t entirely clear how much of an edge these products actually give their users. A 2008 study at Rutgers University, sponsored by Makkar, found that athletes wearing the PPM could jump higher and perform better at their peak, but did not have improved endurance.

“There wasn’t a huge difference,” Shawn Arent, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Exercise Science at Rutgers, told The New York Times. “It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s not magic. But for an elite athlete who has been training for a long time, even a 3, 4 or 5 percent increase in performance is a hard thing to come by.”

Mike Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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