When I was a tadpole on the municipal swim team, Coach Wyn Paul always emphasized the importance of good form – and that included how to breathe while swimming, running, or lifting weights.
Breathing through the nose was always Coach Paul’s preference. This technique was much easier to master while running, although many times toward the end of a course I would resort to huffing and puffing with my mouth wide agape and (I blush to say) gasping for breath.
One major benefit of all aerobic activities that raise the heart rate from resting to 120-180 beats per minute for at least 15-20 minutes is that the body actually creates new oxygen-processing capillaries at the end of our blood vessels. Doing aerobic exercises on a regular basis, over a few months, will make most people’s bodies able to work harder longer as increased oxygen supplies flow into the new capillary systems.
Swimming without mouth breathing, as I said, was tough. It took a mental mindset of “Yes I can!” and practice, practice, practice. We were allowed to cheat by exhaling into the water through our noses and breathing in through our mouths. But we all knew the goal was seamless, constant, nasal breathing.
Eventually, the whole team got really good at nasal breathing which gave us an edge at swim meets.
After I stopped swimming under Coach Paul’s expert guidance, I took up distance running. (I’m built for distance, not speed.) Once again, I practiced breathing only through my nose, allowing myself to mouth breathe only as a last resort.
Then, in college, I began to do yoga for weight loss and to “calm and center” myself. I continue yoga sessions to this day and recommend you do, too, health allowing. In yoga, we breathe in and out through the nose.
One notable exception to the always-breathe-in rule is pilates, which calls for inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
Why all the fuss? Does it make any bloomin’ difference whether an athlete inhales and exhales through the mouth or nose?
The short answer is yes, it does make a difference. But first, it’s important to understand that there are known health benefits of optimizing oxygen delivery to the body’s muscles and internal organs.
Having higher levels of life-giving oxygen within the body can:
• Lower your blood pressure
• Reduce stress and anxiety by lowering the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and releasing mood-boosting hormones like serotonin
• Balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
• Improve athletic performance
• Improve mental focus and boost brain health
Even though everybody breathes without thinking about it – thank goodness! – being mindful and in control of this autonomic function can serve us well. Remember, the more you move, the more oxygen your body needs.
Breathing through the nose carries small amounts of nitric oxide, a beneficial gas present in the nasal cavity, into the lungs.
Almost every type of cell in the human body produces nitric oxide. It is one of the most important molecules for healthy blood vessels.
Nitric oxide is a vasodilator which relaxes and opens the inner muscles of the blood vessels. Widening the pipe, as it were, allows more blood to flow and, consequently, lowers blood pressure. It is also a bronchodilator (opens the respiratory airways by widening them) – and kills germs, to boot.
More consistent breathing, with even, measured breaths rather than short, shallow breaths, delivers more nitric oxide into the body. This ensures that tiring muscles get the oxygen they need to keep working.
Nose breathing also helps balance the volume of air you breathe in and out. Chronic mouth-breathers often take many short, shallow breaths rather than complete lung expansion and contraction.
“During your workout, be sure to breathe through your nose the entire time. If you start sucking air through your mouth, back off on the intensity so that you can go back to breathing through your nose. In time, you’ll be able to exercise at greater intensity and still breathe through your nose—a sign that your fitness is improving!” agreed <https://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2015/04/24/breathing-techniques.aspx> Peak Fitness</a>.
For the record, I do not endorse mouth breathing as a last resort during exercise, even though I was guilty of it. Lung elasticity comes, in part, from nasal resistance, and you can only get that from breathing through the narrower nasal passages.
<https://www.self.com/story/how-to-breathe-during-a-workout> Dean Somerset</a>, C.S.C.S., from Edmonton, Alberta is a kinesiologist and exercise physiologist who advised people who engage in long-distance endurance sports to inhale for 2 to 3 seconds and exhale for 2 to 3 seconds.
Doing so sets up steady, consistent nasal breathing which, in turn, can help keep up a steady, consistent pace throughout any aerobic workout. A runner, for example, might breathe out for three steps and in for another three steps as a way to regulate the strides. Go with your comfort level and expect improvement over time.
“If you’re breathing very slow and relaxed, your ability to pull in more oxygen will be reduced, which will limit your ability to perform aerobic work,” affirmed Somerset.
Two other benefits of nasal breathing are:
1. Regulates body temperature – a medical <http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/18565805> study</a> revealed that “The internal nose not only provides around 90% of the respiratory system air-conditioning requirement but also recovers around 33% of exhaled heat and moisture.”
2. Improves brain function – a <https://breathing.com/pages/nose-breathing> scientific study</a> found that “Increased airflow through the right nostril is correlated to increased left brain activity and enhanced verbal performance; whereas increased airflow through the left nostril is associated with increased right brain activity and enhanced spatial performance.”
Now that you are in the know about how nasal breathing can help you work out better, go and ahead and breathe a sigh of relief – through your nose, if you please.