Nasal breathing - how much of an impact does it really have on your performance?

The breathing technique is being used by those at the top of their game, so is it something everyone can benefit from too?

Breathing. It is second nature. More often than not, you don’t even think about the air going in and out of your lungs, despite it happening around 20,000 times a day. The only time you might become more aware of your breathing is when you are exercising, starting to pant, looking for a way to get some more air into your lungs, or if you really make a conscious effort to focus on it. 

Recently, however, breathing, nasal in particular, has been hitting the headlines, becoming a talking point for general wellbeing and also athletic performance. One of the world’s top tennis players, Iga Swiatek, was seen training with tape over her mouth, Manchester City footballer Erling Haaland said that he sleeps with his mouth taped shut, and in the cycling world, João Almeida from UAE Team Emirates reportedly prefers to breathe through his nose and had to be taught how to breathe through his mouth as a young rider.

But why? What is the benefit of only breathing through your nose? And is it just a passing fad or something we should all be trying to consciously do? 

“When breathing we should be focusing on the abdomen instead of the thorax [between the neck and the abdomen]” said Elisabeth Honinx, a postdoctoral researcher who works for a brand called Moonbird, a handheld device that helps guide users in practising slow-paced breathing exercises. 

“If you are mainly breathing via the thorax it will be very superficial and often faster than if you were breathing through your abdomen. The oxygen you take in will also go all the way to the tiniest parts of the lungs when breathing to your abdomen and help you to expand your diaphragm, meaning the oxygen level in your bloodstream will be higher,” she added. 

She used the example of when people have panic attacks to describe the type of breathing that is not beneficial for our bodies, stating that they’ll be breathing very shallowly, very fast, and through to the thorax, activating the sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight” response, responding to dangerous or stressful situations. So, when trying to calm the person who is experiencing the panic attack, they’re asked to take deep breaths, activating the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest” response, which is looking to conserve energy to be used later – something people look for when undertaking exercise. 

“When breathing through your nose during your exercise the first benefit is, you’ll be able to gain more oxygen into the bloodstream,” Honix said. “Your nose also acts as a filter for the air you breathe in, so it warms or moisturises the air and creates ideal conditions for the lungs to do their job. There is also the advantage of nitric oxide, which keeps your arteries healthy, allows more oxygen-rich blood to reach your cells, protects you from infections and viruses, and also ensures stronger muscles and faster muscle recovery.” 

So, deep, nasal breathing does have a clear impact on your performance during exercise and promotes a quick recovery after. But, despite its benefits, nasal breathing doesn’t come as naturally as mouth breathing, especially when you are deep into an intense effort, leaving you feeling like you can’t get any air at all. Honix understood that it is difficult to master and advised practising nasal breathing in your day-to-day life, whether you are sitting on the sofa, commuting to work, or walking to get lunch. 

“It’s like realising you have bad posture, you don’t notice it until you do, then you fix it. After so much time, you’ll naturally start to have better posture. The same goes for this type of breathing, if you spot you are not breathing through your nose and you adjust it, you’ll slowly get more used to it,” she said. 

Even with breathing being a thing we do unconsciously, bringing awareness to it and trying to breathe in and out through your nose is more difficult than it seems. What about breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth? “There are different theories regarding the exhale,” she explained. “There are different breathing techniques that combine both, for example the Wim Hof method of breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, but we believe that both in and out through your nose is the preferred method. However, not a lot of research has been done on the exhale as many of the benefits like oxygen into the bloodstream and filtering the air are all related to the inhale.” 

The benefits of breathing through your nose go beyond just athletic performance, Honix noted. It also has an impact on your dental hygiene and care, too, as well as preventing your mouth from drying out, especially at night when you have a cold. She noted the recent trend of people taping their mouths shut while they are asleep, adding, “That can be a very big step for people and it is a bit frightening to them. I think just practising slower breaths through the abdomen and bringing focus to it is just as effective.” 

So, when next out on your bike, be mindful of your breathing. In through your nose, deep into the abdomen, then out for your nose. Keep practising and in the future, you'll see the benefits.

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