10 Benefits of Nasal Breathing Athletes May Be Missing Out On

Should You Breathe Through Your Nose or Mouth

Should you breathe through your nose or your mouth? This age-old question sits in the back of many athletes’ minds, especially when the consequences could mean untapped performance left on the table.

Breathing is essential to every aspect of your life. From the quality of your workouts to the well-being of your everyday existence, respiration is at the heart of it all.

But does it really make a difference whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth?

This article breaks down everything you need to know about how oxygenation in your body works and if there are advantages to breathing through your nose vs. breathing through your mouth.

How Oxygenation Works

Before we can break down the distinct advantages that come along with nasal breathing, we have to have an understanding of how oxygenation works in your body while you train.

Intuitively, you would assume that the more air you can bring in at once would mean more oxygen delivery to your muscles. But that isn’t necessarily the case. To improve oxygenation during exercise, you need to improve the efficiency of how much oxygen gets transferred to the muscles from the bloodstream.

Counter to intuition, the secret to improving oxygenation may actually come from breathing less rather than more. That statement might seem ridiculous at first glance. But breathing less doesn’t mean “holding your breath” and taking in less air. It simply means to have longer and slower breathing patterns.

Here’s a quick example to illustrate what “breathing less” means:

  • 1 Second Inhale + 1 Second Exhale = 30 Breaths Per Minute
  • 5 Second Inhale + 5 Second Exhale = 6 Breaths Per Minute

When you look at it from the perspective of those two examples, it begins to make sense. The full inhalations and exhalations from the one-second breathing pattern example would likely leave you hyperventilated and passed out on the floor if you kept it up for too long. Conversely, if you were to try the five-second breathing pattern while reading this, you’d notice a more focused and calm state quickly take effect.

To understand why this works and why nasal breathing is better suited for it, we need to take a quick dive into the Bohr Effect and its implications on how our body uses oxygen.

The Bohr Effect
Bohr Effect Nasal Breathing

Danish physiologist Christian Bohr discovered that wherever there is high carbon dioxide pressure, it causes hemoglobin to release oxygen.

This means the release of oxygen from hemoglobin is what allows for increased oxygen delivery to your muscle tissue that needs it the most.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to extend the time between inhalation and exhalation. This allows your body more time to hold onto carbon dioxide, release oxygen from hemoglobin, and ultimately deliver oxygen to the cells that need it most efficiently.

One of the fastest ways to accomplish an extended breathing pattern is to shift from habitual mouth breathing to nasal breathing.

Nasal Breathing vs Mouth Breathing

The mouth is designed for eating. The nose is designed for breathing.

While the mouth can also take in air as part of its function, it primarily serves as the origin point of the digestive system. Every time you eat, your teeth and saliva are doing their job of breaking down food to be absorbed in the body for fuel.

Interestingly, there is also a connection between chronic mouth breathing from childhood to structural changes in the face and mouth that require orthodontics to fix and restore the digestive functions of the mouth later in life. Indicating the direct link between using your mouth as a function of breathing having negative effects on its primary function for eating and digestion.

Additionally, Every time you breathe through your mouth, you’re receiving unfiltered air full of bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. You’re drying out your mouth and changing PH levels that lead to tooth decay. But most importantly, the wider airway leads to shorter breathing patterns and improper shallow breathing mechanics through the chest instead of the diaphragm.

But how does this differ from the nose’s function as a respiratory organ?

How The Nose is Designed for Respiration

You might think the nose is just a small protrusion out of your face and a straight tube to the lungs. But in reality, the nasal concha is a complex mechanism about as large as a billiard ball with purpose-built systems of grooves and passages.

The reason why it’s called a concha is because of its strikingly similar appearance to a seashell. These grooves and passages of your nose regulate consistent airflow. It slows down the air you breath in, filters, humidifies, and conditions it before reaching the lungs.

This airflow regulation component is the driving mechanism that extends the time of your breathing patterns to take advantage of the Bohr Effect discussed earlier. And in terms of human evolution, it makes sense that your primary respiration organ’s design would maximize the function of absorbing oxygen and offloading carbon dioxide. 

Nasal breathing also creates nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it widens your blood vessels and plays a critical role in oxygen delivery. Aside from the filtration mechanism of the hairs in your nose, Nitric oxide is also your first line of defense for your immune system. It has the powerful ability to control infections, diseases, tumors, autoimmune processes, and chronic degenerative diseases.

When you tie all of this together, it’s apparent that the nose is the superior breathing mechanism compared to the mouth. 

Benefits of Breathing Through Your Nose

Now that we’ve covered the differences in breathing with your nose and your mouth, let’s consolidate all of the known benefits of nasal breathing into one list:

  1. Improved Oxygen Delivery to Muscle Tissue
  2. Creates Longer Breathing Pattern Length
  3. Promotes Correct Diaphragmatic Breathing
  4. Releases Nitric Oxide
  5. Filtration of Foreign Substances From the Air
  6. Humidifies and Conditions Air to Protect the Lungs
  7. Activates Parasympathetic Nervous System
  8. Boosts Immune Function
  9. Supports Proper Formation of Face and Mouth
  10. Can Boost Athletic Performance and Cognitive Focus
Nasal Breathing for Improved Athletic Performance

When you combine slowed down breathing patterns and the vasodilation effects of increased nitric oxide, nasal breathing packs a punch for boosting athletic performance.

When you think about your athletic performance, especially any degree of endurance, fatigue occurs when your respiratory system competes for blood flow with your muscles. Optimizing the delivery of oxygen and removal of metabolic waste is what pushes the limit of your fatigue to higher levels.

You’re likely familiar with V02 max. V02 max is one of the best predictors of endurance performance for well-trained athletes because it considers both aerobic power and the efficiency of oxygen utilization in your body.

So while you can leverage specific training modalities to improve your V02 max, you can also supplement these efforts by taking advantage of the Bohr Effect through nasal breathing during exercise.

All things considered, for bouts of high intensity, you might find it challenging to maintain nasal breathing. It takes time for the adaptations to occur when you shift from mouth breathing to breathing through your nose. 

It’s perfectly fine to switch to breathing through your mouth on occasion when you need a few gulps of air during high intensity, especially when you’re first making the change. But it should be a consistent focus to return to nasal breathing as quickly as possible. Just like any other physiological adaptation from training, it gets easier over time, and you’ll find yourself needing to rely on spontaneous mouth breathing less often.

Habitual Nose Breathing Throughout the Day

Athletic performance aside, most of the pronounced health benefits of nasal breathing come from its daily habitual practice throughout the day.

An excellent equivalent example to consider is water consumption. Drinking enough water during competition or throughout training is critical. But, most of the benefits come from adequate hydration throughout the day before and after exercise.

Breathing properly follows the same logic and has a compounding effect over time. The more you can adjust your habits from breathing through your mouth throughout the day to your nose, the more benefit you get in the long haul.

It also curbs the diminishing effects of switching over to mouth breathing briefly during bouts of intense effort. Additionally, it gradually improves the effectiveness of your ability to breathe out of your nose.

Ways to Improve Nose Breathing

First and foremost, if you suspect that you have a medical limitation that inhibits your ability to breathe through your nose, you should always consult your doctor or preferred medical professional for guidance.

For many athletes, partially blocked nasal passages can make nose breathing a challenge. Mouth breathing causes a vicious cycle. The more you don’t use your nose for breathing, the more it gradually closes off and becomes harder to breathe through. 

But the good news is, the opposite is also true. The more you focus on spending time breathing through your nose, adaptations take place that make it gradually improve over time.

This is why regular nasal breathing throughout the day is so important. The more you can consciously focus on your breathing patterns, the easier it becomes to translate those patterns into unconscious habits, and you take advantage of the compounding benefits.

If this is a fascinating topic for you and you’d like to dive into how breathing can transform your athletic performance and daily well-being, check out James Nestor’s fantastic book giving a full investigation into both nasal breathing and the science behind breathwork for performance.

Also for your reading list, Jiu-Jitsu legend Rickson Gracie recently released a book with a laser focus on practical applications for breathwork and its massive implications for improving athletic performance.

Best Books on Breathing for Athletes:

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