16 Dec

The Benefits of Nasal Breathing for Health and Performance


How often do you breathe with your mouth open? Is it agape right now while you’re reading this? Or are you breathing deeply into your belly, using your diaphragm, while your lips are pursed shut? Today’s article will explain why it’s important and necessary to breathe through your nose, and why breathing primarily through your mouth can be quite an unhealthy dysfunction.

The Case for Nasal Breathing

Simply put, the function of breathing is to supply the lungs and the cells with oxygen. Individuals obtain that oxygen via breathing primarily through their nose or their mouth. For those with a high respiratory rate, mouth breathing is likely most efficient. However for most others, in order to breathe as efficiently as possible, individuals should breathe through their nose. 

Nasal breath has been shown to improve sleep and recovery, along with the ability to better manage and regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the body. Nasal breathing also releases nitrogen oxide which is responsible for several homeostatic mechanisms in the body (heart rate, blood pressure, respiration). In addition to the homeostatic benefits of nitrogen oxide, performance benefits such as increased aerobic capacity, reduced hypertension, increased insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance (1) all serve as huge health and performance benefits associated with nasal breathing. 

Conversely, the research has shown several negative physiological effects associated with mouth breathing (or more scientifically known as Mouth Breathing Syndrome). Prolonged mouth breathing can lead to permanent changes in the musculoskeletal structure of the face and mouth, adverse effects on cervical posture, reduced oxygen absorption, and disturbances in sleep patterns (2), to name a few. 

In addition to MBS having a significant impact on general health and physiology, MBS can also negatively impact training performance. Across the vast majority of templated exercise programs, there is a large absence of intentional breath-related prescriptions. While connecting the client’s breath to their training is a priority for many Central Athlete clients, most individuals who practice fitness are completely unaware of one of the foundational aspects of fueling strong efforts in the gym: their breath. 

Individuals who ‘gas out’ on more intense sets of resistance or aerobic exercise often hyperventilate. This leads to an overabundance of oxygen into the system, an under-release of carbon dioxide out of the system, and over-fatigue of the respiratory muscles. None of these results are conducive to sustainable, effective training. 

How to Fix Your Breath

Now that the negative effects of MBS, along with the incredible health and performance-boosting benefits of nasal breath are understood, it’s time to investigate how to begin improving the ability to breathe through the nose. 

Patrick McKeown, a world-leading breath expert and author of The Oxygen Advantage, suggests individuals follow these 5 strategies to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their breath.

  1. Keep your mouth closed when you’re not using it to speak, eat, drink, or laugh.
  2. Hold your tongue against the roof of your mouth to keep your airway open.
  3. Take slow, shallow, effortless inhales & exhales through your nose.
  4. Reduce how often you breathe.
  5. Always keep your breath under control. 

In addition to these tips which you can practice anytime, anywhere, below are a few training-specific tools that can be used to support their respiratory health and fitness with a bit more intention.

Diaphragmatic “Box” Breathing

Diaphragmatic box breathing has the individual give equal time to the inhale, the hold, the exhale, and the hold portions of every breath, all while intentionally using the diaphragm to take deep breaths into the lungs. An example of this would look like:

  • 5-10 minutes of the following:
    • 5-second inhale
    • 5-second hold
    • 5-second exhale
    • 5-second hold

Box breathing can not only improve the ability to inhale O2 and exhale C02, but it can also dramatically improve the ability to reach a parasympathetic, rest, and digest physiological state. Use this after intense training sessions to calm your system down, or before bed to more easily wind down

Manage Training Intensity with Your Nose

Another simple and effective way to improve the ability to breathe through the nose is to perform only nasal breaths while training. The caveat here is to absolutely include nasal + mouth breathing under certain training intensities (i.e. a 60- second airdyne bike sprint) when necessary. However, if an individual is following a lower intensity, progressive resistance training or aerobic training-based program, using only the nose to breathe can promote long-term performance benefits for a simple price. 

The intentional use of breath in health and fitness is often a forgotten one, especially to those who are new or relatively inexperienced. If the practice and skill of nasal breathing in your daily life and/or exercise practice needs some work, and you’re still feeling unsure of where to begin, schedule a Free Strategy Session with a Central Athlete coach today and learn how a holistic health and fitness program can improve your respiratory capabilities!

In Health, 

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