Nasal Breathing During Exercise: The Secret to Better Performance

A tired young woman recovering after exercise.

Have you ever experienced nasal congestion and a stuffy nose after an intense workout? You're not alone! We've all had those workouts where we've been winded, worn out, and our noses running long after we've stopped.

It’s tempting to breathe through your mouth while you exercise, but you’ll get better performance if you don’t.

Competitive athletes will actually train while holding water in their mouths to prevent mouth breathing during training sessions. 

You don’t have to go to that extreme, or be a competitive athlete for that matter, to benefit from nasal breathing. And while nose breathing improves your performance, mouth breathing actually hurts your performance! 

All exercise, from running sprints to marathons, or taking a walk to doing yoga will benefit from proper oxygenation through your nose. 

First, let’s talk about the basics of breathing to better understand the why.

The Basics of Breathing

Breathing is an obvious vital life process, but it does a lot more than just keep you alive. 

When you inhale, air enters your lungs. The oxygen in that air moves to your bloodstream. At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from your blood to your lungs, and is exhaled as waste. 

This complex process is referred to as “gas exchange”.

Your respiratory system handles the breathing, but your brain controls your ability to breathe. 

Your brain controls your breathing habits including your breath rate. Breath rate refers to how fast or slow you breathe. It also senses when your body needs to get oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide.

The Benefits of Nasal Breathing

We've written about the overall benefits of nasal breathing and recommend you check it out if you’d like to go deeper, but we'll provide a brief recap here too.

Nasal breathing is the most efficient way for you to breathe. 

Breathing through your nose filters the air you breathe. Your nose hair helps keep irritants from entering your lungs and inflaming your airways. Nasal breathing also warms the air when you inhale through your nose, which makes the air easier for your lungs to use.

Other benefits of nasal breathing include:

  • Improves your lung capacity
  • Produces nitric oxide (NO), which widens your blood vessels and improves oxygen circulation in your body
  • Increases airflow to your veins, arteries, and nerves

You may be thinking "breathing is breathing," whether you do it through your nose or your mouth. But that's not true, and there are many reasons you shouldn’t be mouth breathing (exercising or not).

Why You Shouldn't Breathe Through Your Mouth

More than half the American population, 61 percent to be exact, identify as a mouth breather. Admittedly, we've all done it at some point. If it’s a daily habit, it’s time to break it.

Mouth breathing just isn't as efficient or healthy as nasal breathing. 

Here are several unpleasant side effects of breathing through your mouth:

  • Bad breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnea
  • Dental health problems like tooth decay, gingivitis, and grinding your teeth
  • Activating your sympathetic nervous system— also known as your fight or flight response

This list of mouth breathing side effects is on top of the negative impact it has on your fitness levels and athletic performance. 

Nasal Breathing and Athletic Performance

Whether you're on a long jog, in the middle of a particularly intense high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, or are just getting into the swing of things, you've felt that familiar breathlessness while you exercise. 

It’s tempting to breathe through your mouth to get some deeper breaths, especially when exerting a lot of energy or if you start getting stuffy during the workout. 

During your next workout or physical activity, pay attention to your own breathing habits. Do you start breathing through your mouth? If you do, it’s better if you stop and force yourself to breathe through your nose. 

If you get stuffy during exercise and think it’s too hard to breathe through your nose, we’re sharing solutions for that later.

An important reason to force yourself to switch back to nasal breathing is because mouth breathing during aerobic exercise makes you work harder for the same amount of oxygen you’ll get by breathing through your nose.

There are two main things that happen when you exercise:

First, your body uses more oxygen to keep you moving. In turn, this causes your blood oxygen concentration to drop. 

Second, increased muscle activity and a jump in your metabolic rate (which determines how many calories your body burns) during exercise causes you to produce more carbon dioxide (CO2) as you breathe.

Your ability to sustain physical activity like exercise is directly related to your blood sensitivity to carbon dioxide. 

Your breathing rate will increase to match your body's CO2 production to keep your blood CO2 levels consistent. If these levels are too high, the speed and volume of your breathing increases. 

In short, you'll need to breathe faster and deeper to keep up with your body's oxygen needs.

So what does this have to do with breathing through your nose?

Why Nasal Breathing is More Efficient During Physical Exercise

One study published by the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science found that, while running on a treadmill, runners who breathed through their noses had fewer breaths per minute than those who breathed through their mouths.

Even though these runners experienced more airflow resistance than those who breathed through their mouths, they didn't have to work as hard to bring in the same amount of oxygen. [1]

An article published by EC Pulmonology and Respiratory Medicine states that nasal breathing is the "secret to improved health and athletic performance and recovery." 

For optimal athletic performance, your body needs to utilize oxygen as efficiently as possible. To do this, you need to be able to consume more oxygen while keeping carbon dioxide levels low.

The article continues that mouth breathing can alter the balance of facial muscles and cause changes in your face's skeletal structure, which can contribute to additional breathing problems. It can also reduce oxygen absorption, which can have negative impacts on your stamina and your energy levels. [2]

On the other hand, nasal breathing performs the same amount of work as mouth breathing, but requires less energy and effort. Remember, breathing through your nose also produces nitric oxide, which is also important during physical exercise.

Nitric oxide helps control blood flow to your muscle cells, increases your lung capacity, and helps reduce exercise-induced bronchoconstriction— the narrowing of your airways after strenuous exercise.

What is Air Hunger?

Air hunger— or dyspnea— is the strong urge to breathe, or the feeling of being severely out of breath. Basically, it's your body's way of alerting you that you're not getting enough oxygen.

Air hunger is common while you are exercising— especially if you are out of shape or overexert yourself. It can also occur if you're traveling at a high altitude, or going through significant temperature changes.

Dyspnea can also be related to other issues, such as asthma, anxiety, and heart disease. If you experience air hunger often in your day-to-day life, it's recommended you talk to your doctor.

Air hunger during exercise, however, is typically not a cause for alarm. It can also be prevented.

The best way to prevent air hunger during exercise is to breathe through your nose. 

If that’s a challenge for you, there are ways you can teach yourself how to do that. Just like other areas of your body, there are specialized exercises that can strengthen your respiratory system too.

3 Breathing Exercises to Improve Your Performance

If you feel you’re hitting a wall with your athletic performance it’s time to consider how you're breathing, or perhaps you’re simply wanting to prevent mouth breathing during any form of physical activity. 

Either way, for more efficient nasal breathing during exercise, give these nasal breathing techniques a try. You may be surprised how much they help!

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breath control practice that can help reduce stress, improve cardiovascular function, and yes, help you breathe better. It's exactly what it sounds like— you alternate breathing through each nostril, focusing on your breathing.

Here's how to do it:

  • Exhale completely, and use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril.
  • Slowly inhale through your left nostril, and then gently close it with your fingers.
  • Open your right nostril and exhale. Then, inhale through this nostril before closing it.
  • Open your left nostril and exhale.
  • Repeat as needed for up to 5 minutes. Remember to always finish the practice by exhaling through your left nostril.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, involves consciously engaging your diaphragm to take deeper breaths. The goal is to fully engage your stomach, abs, and diaphragm while you breathe to help you breathe more efficiently.

Like alternate nostril breathing, belly breathing can help promote relaxation while also strengthening your diaphragm, slowing your breathing rate, and help you use the oxygen you breathe more efficiently.

There are a lot of ways to practice diaphragmatic breathing, but here's the most simple way:

  • Lie down in a comfortable place, using pillows to support your head and your knees. Place one hand in the middle of your upper chest— close to your heart.
  • Place your other hand on your stomach, just beneath your rib cage but above your diaphragm.
  • Slowly inhale through your nose, bringing your breath down towards your stomach. Your chest should remain still while your stomach pushes towards your hand.
  • When you exhale, slowly breathe out through pursed lips. Tighten your abs and let your stomach gently fall downward as your chest stays still.
  • Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes each session, between 3 and 4 times daily.

3. Use SinuSonic

What runs more, you or your nose?

Nasal congestion is common during times of physical exercise. But using SinuSonic right before your next workout can open your airways and help you breathe better, even during an intense workout.

In fact, athletes who use SinuSonic can expect a reduction in nasal congestion after the first use, and improved nasal airflow. The more you use the device, the more your breathing improves. 

What is Exercise-Induced Rhinitis?

Nothing ruins a workout quite like exercise-induced rhinitis (EIR)— that familiar runny nose and often stuffy nose you get when you exercise. 

It’s hard to breathe through your nose and get the benefit of nasal breathing if you’re too stuffed up. 

There’s allergic and nonallergic rhinitis, and although exercise-induced rhinitis symptoms contribute to both types of rhinitis, people with allergies often experience strong symptoms during high-allergen seasons. 

The increased symptoms occur partly because when you exercise you’re exposed to more allergens and irritants because you’re taking in more air. 

The irritants and allergens enter your body more easily and create inflammation and a strong histamine response. 

It’s most common in people who exercise outside, especially if they experience allergies to irritants like pollen. However, you can experience it if you work out at the gym too, as a form of nonallergic rhinitis. 

Nonallergic rhinitis occurs when your allergy symptoms occur in the absence of allergens like pollen and dust. Rather, it’s caused by irritants like odors, chemical fumes, or fragrances. 

So if there are certain strong smells at the gym— like cleaning solutions, air fresheners, or even other gym-goers— those can trigger EIR too.

No matter what causes your EIR though, SinuSonic can help clear that up. The device provides relief to inflamed and irritated nasal passages, and increases mucus motility so you can blow all that annoying mucus away. 

The device itself is also portable and will fit comfortably into your gym bag— even if it’s packed to the brim with water bottles, protein bars, or sweaty socks.

Mouth Breathing While Exercising: An Exercise in Futility

Nasal breathing is more efficient for your oxygen needs and is an elite athlete’s secret to better athletic performance!

We know everyone breathes through their mouth at some point. It’s especially tempting to start breathing through your mouth during exercise when you're already feeling stuffed up, or experience exercise-induced rhinitis.

It can be a hard habit to break, but it’s important to practice nasal breathing instead. 

Keeping your sinuses clear is key. Training yourself to breathe through your nose during exercise most of the time by adopting a breathing practice can help. 

Want to improve your athletic performance? Give SinuSonic a try!

Nasal congestion is associated with difficulty sleeping, reduced daytime performance, and reduced quality of life. SinuSonic's patented design uses gentle pressure and light acoustic vibrations to open your airways naturally and drug-free.

The device's unique flutter valve offers gentle resistance to help strengthen your breathing and decongest your nasal passages, allowing you to breathe more freely and efficiently before, during, and after your workout.

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Citations

1. Dallam, G., et al. "Effect of Nasal versus Oral Breathing on vo2max and Physiological Economy in Recreational Runners Following an Extended Period Spent Using Nasally Restricted Breathing: Semantic Scholar." Semantic Scholar, International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science, 1 Jan. 1970, www.semanticscholar.org/paper/effect-of-nasal-versus-oral-breathing-on-vo2max-and-dallam-mcclaran/d5c63c9c6816b7ae95b5626d66b49b8514cbcc8d.

2. Flanell, Michael. "The Athlete's Secret Ingredient: The Power of Nasal Breathing." ECronicon Open Access, EX Pulmonology and Respiratory Medicine, 21 May 2019, www.ecronicon.com/ecprm/pdf/ECPRM-08-00367.pdf.