Explained: The science behind why football players spit on the pitch

Explained: The science behind why football players spit on the pitch

The 2022 FIFA World Cup has just started and fans all over the world can’t keep calm.

If you’ve ever watched a few games, you might have come across players spitting on the pitch as they played. Have you ever wondered why? Interestingly, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. You can interpret it as an off-putting gesture on the player’s part, 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 in saliva, specifically a type of mucus called MUC5B, making saliva thicker and harder to swallow.

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

“There is especially a type of mucus called MUC5B which makes saliva thicker and therefore more difficult to swallow. So, it is better to spit it out,” he explains.

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

Although it is not clear why more MUC5B is produced during exercise, it is said that it could be because they breathe more through the mouth, and therefore the mucus prevents the mouth from drying out.

Moreover, Joseph Dosu, a former Nigeria goalkeeper, also reportedly said that the footballers spit because “they need something to clear their throat…they’re on a run of maybe 10 to 15 meters and they need air to breathe”.

Many other explanations have emerged. While some claim it is a tactic to intimidate opposing players, others believe it may be OCD.

What is carb flushing and does it improve performance?

Carbohydrate flushing occurs when soccer players wash their mouths out with a carbohydrate solution and spit it out. It is said to trick the body, specifically the brain, into believing that you are actually consuming carbs, which in turn stimulates the body to act as if it has those carbs in the system.

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

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

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