Athletes and doctors have long known that eating carbohydrates can enhance performance — but what about a carb mouth rinse instead?  The New York Times reports on new research revealing that athletes can improve their performance by simply rinsing with a carbohydrate solution made of water and maltodextrin, a starch derivative.

Fat fuels the body, but the use of fat depends on how an athlete exercises and how long he exercises. Athletes achieve their best performances by eating a variety of foods and by staying hydrated. But athletes are also known to perform well when carbohydrates are stored in the body. In fact, when someone first starts exercising, 40 to 50 percent of their energy comes from carbohydrates.

Marathoners have been known to load up on carbohydrates the night before a big race. It turns out they may just have to rinse with carbs moments before hitting the pavement. As the NY Times reports, it seems that the brain senses carbs swishing around in the mouth and responds as if the swisher has consumed them.

Matt Bridge is a senior lecturer in coaching and sports science at the University of Birmingham in England. As he told the NY Times, “You can get an advantage from tricking your brain. … Your brain tells your body, carbohydrates are on the way. And with that message, muscles and nerves are prompted to work harder and longer.”

Studies have already shown that carbohydrates can have an effect on short exercise sessions, but other studies have shown that carbs make no difference. The difference turns out to be hunger. If the athlete is hungry, he or she will perform better after consuming carbs.

This knowledge prompted researchers to take things a step further. They ask trained cyclists to consume sugar water and ride fast for an hour. There was no change in their performance. Then they had them rinse with carbohydrate water and they performed faster. Later, brain scans confirmed these results. As the NY Times reports, “Carbohydrates activated brain areas involved with rewards and muscle activity. Artificial sweeteners did not.”

Still, experts urge that athletes consume the needed calories, rather than relying on a sticky rinse that is spit out. Ultimately, an athlete still needs real food to perform at peak levels. And he's going to get it from complex carbohydrates like potatoes and grain products and simple carbohydrates such as fruit. Nonetheless, it is likely that future marathon races may get a whole lot stickier.

For further reading: