Explained: The science behind why football players spit on

The Fifa World Cup 2022 has just started and fans from around the world can’t keep calm.

If you’ve already watched a couple of matches, you may have come across players spitting on the field while they’re playing. Ever wondered why? Interestingly, there’s much more to it than what meets the eye. You may interpret it as an off-putting gesture by the player, but science has a completely different explanation for it. Let’s find out.

Why?

According to some studies, exercise increases the amount of protein secreted into the saliva, especially a kind of mucus called MUC5B, making the saliva thicker and difficult to swallow.

Dr Udit Kapoor, senior consultant, Asian Hospital, Faridabad told Indian Express that the saliva in the mouth thickens during physically strenuous activities like football matches, which players consider better to spit out.

“There is especially a type of mucus called MUC5B which makes the saliva thicker and therefore harder to swallow. So, it is best to spit it,” he explains.

This is also why footballers, cricketers, and rugby players are allowed to spit on the ground, while those who play tennis, basketball, are penalised for it.

While it isn’t clear why one produces more MUC5B when exercising, it is said that it could be because they breathe through their mouth more, and therefore the mucus stops the mouth from drying out.

In addition, Joseph Dosu, a former goalie for Nigeria, has also been quoted saying, footballers spit because “they need something to clear their throat… they make a run of maybe 10 to 15 yards and they need air to breathe”.

Many other explanations have come to the fore. While some claim it is a tactic to intimidate opposition players, others believe it can be a case of OCD.

What is carb rinsing and does it improve performance?

Carb rinsing is when football players wash their mouth with a carbohydrate solution and spit them out. This is said to trick the body, especially the brain into thinking that one is actually consuming carbohydrates, stimulating the body to act as though it has those carbohydrates in the system.

Asker Jeukendrup, an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, had told The New York Times that carb rinsing may in fact be associated with better performance. In a study he had conducted with the University of Birmingham in 2004, he found that carb-rinsing made cyclists about a minute faster in 40-kilometer cycling time trials.

Another study that was published in the European Journal of Sport Science in 2017 found that carb-rinsing enhanced performance. It involved 12 healthy men in their 20s, who were found to be able to jump higher, do more bench presses and squats, sprint faster, and be more alert after carb-rinsing.

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