How Nasal Breathing Can Improve Your Sports Performance

Imagine playing a sport – whatever it is: running, hiking, dancing, weight lifting… Then ask yourself the following question: am I breathing through my nose or through my mouth?

Like most people who exercize, you breathe through your mouth, especially as the effort increases. However, sports specialists are discovering that breathing through the mouth may not be as appropriate and effective as breathing through the nose.

How the nose works and why it’s important to use it

The nose is designed to perform a very specific function: to support the respiratory system (while the mouth houses the start of the digestion process). The role of the nostrils, nasal hairs and nasal cavities is to filter allergens and prevent foreign objects from entering the lungs. In addition, the nose helps moisten and warm the inhaled air for the lungs.

Unlike mouth breathing, nasal breathing has the ability and the advantage of ensuring the transport of a greater quantity of oxygen to the active tissues and thus allowing a more sustained and more efficient physical effort. Breathing through the nose releases nitric oxide, an essential element for increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood, which in turn will allow the release of oxygen.

The nose also plays an important immunological role, since it act as a barrier against possible infections as well as other benefits.

Mouth breathing however doesn’t filter the air, nor release nitric oxide and will not deliver as much oxygen to the cells as nasal breathing, mouth breathing can lead to fatigue, stress and other pathologies.

Studies have proved nasal breathing is more effective

A recent study provides proof of this. This study concerns 10 runners, men and women, who have been running for six months by breathing exclusively through the nose. These participants were given standard tests that they had to perform by breathing first through the nose and then through the mouth, in order to compare the maximum rates of oxygen uptake. Other tests were also carried out on various markers of respiration and on the levels of carbon dioxide recorded during the practice of sport.

The maximum oxygen uptake rates associated with nasal breathing and mouth breathing, respectively, are similar. In contrast, the study shows that runners’ respiratory rate – the number of breaths per minute – as well as the ratio of oxygen consumption to carbon dioxide production decrease during nasal breathing.

According to the researchers, this result is due to the low respiratory rate associated with nasal breathing, which allows oxygen to be delivered more slowly into the bloodstream.

Oral hyperventilation, that is to say the succession of rapid and jerky breaths that most of us take by mouth when we practice sport in an intense or stressful way, forces the body to reject a greater quantity of CO2, which makes oxygenation of our cells more difficult. When we are under intense physical effort, nasal breathing is the best way to efficiently oxygenate our body.

In addition, nasal breathing stimulates more strongly the part of the nervous system which promotes rest, recovery and digestion, rather than that triggering the fight or flight state we get into when put under stress.

This means that even though we are in a stressful situation or under intense physical exertion, nasal breathing can make us feel more calm and allow our bodies to function better.

On top of this, it’s extremely difficult to learn or integrate anything when we’re in survival mode.

Consequences of breathing through the mouth for athletes

When breathing through the mouth (due to bad habits, or nasal obstructions), cellular oxygenation is reduced, and heart and respiratory rates increase. This has important negative consequences for people who regularly practice sports:

  • Poor athletic performance
  • Lack of concentration during sports practice
  • Tiredness the day after playing sports
  • Absence from training

In addition, over time these patients can develop other pathologies, such as high blood pressure and arrhythmias.

Pathologies that can arise if you breathe badly

Air poorly filtered through the nostrils is cold, dirty, dry air that can cause pharyngitis, laryngitis, bronchitis, dysphonia and cough. Likewise, a nasal obstruction can cause snoring and sleep disturbances, giving the patient a poorly restorative sleep.

This, in turn, can lead to irritability, depression, tiredness, fatigue, and even sexual dysfunctions. These patients may also suffer from frequent colds that are never cured and are often complicated by ear plugging, sinusitis, and headaches, with progressive deterioration of smell being frequent.

Nasal fracture in sport: a common, but underrated injury

On the other hand, 40% of facial fractures in sports are nasal fractures, reaching 85% in combat sports. Many times nasal fractures are treated with a reduction at the same time, but in 50% of cases they are not resolved, so the specialist must perform a septoplasty, rhinoplasty or rhinoseptoplasty, with both functional and aesthetic purposes. Many nasal fractures go undiagnosed because patients are unaware of the injury.

In addition, it is common for nasal fractures to be treated only from a functional point of view, without taking into account the psychological impact it can have on athletes.

Therefore, the current situation for many athletes is that the role that the nose plays in their health is undervalued. Many athletes are used to breathing badly, without being aware of it. Generally, sports checkups do not include an upper respiratory check.

From experience, specialists in Otorhinolaryngology always recommend carrying out complete reviews to detect pathologies and bad respiratory habits, which affect sports performance, in order to establish personalized treatments according to the characteristics of each case.

How to switch to nasal breathing

Since nasal breathing helps us stay relaxed and also improves our athletic performance, how can we use it more often?

First, think about: during the day, do you breathe more often through your nose or through your mouth? And what about when you play sports, especially when you need to put in more intense effort? Then observe what is happening with your breathing, and what do you feel when you pay attention to your breathing?

Now you are going to practice breathing through your nose. Close your mouth and make sure your lips are gently closed. Your teeth should be touching each other lightly with the tongue on the top of the roof of the mouth (which helps increase the size of your airways).

Now relax your body, release any tension that you sense in your neck, shoulders, chest and stomach and breathe in and out naturally.

Practice this throughout the day until you feel comfortable breathing through the nose, at some point your body will switch to nose breathing as your natural state.

Once this happens you can start practicing nasal breathing during exercize, don’t start with high intensity exercizes as it will take a while for your body to adapt to this way of training. If you become breathless at any point or lose control of your breathing, stop or slow down the exercize until you can control your breath again.

For example, if you want to start nasal breathing while running, first start practicing at a light jog, and speed up as you get more comfortable. Ramp up the speed and length of your practice as you feel more comfortable.

What about how I breath during my sleep?

During sleep it’s also recommended to breathe through your nose and not your mouth. However since you can’t be mindful of how you’re breathing when asleep there are other techniques you can try such as mouth taping.

Incorporating this technique will allow you to breathe through your nose in your day-to-day activities, while exercizing and while sleeping.