Do you breathe through your nose or you mouth when you run? You probably don’t even know. When you first start running, how the air is getting to your lungs isn’t really the first thing on your mind. You just know it isn’t getting there fast enough and you’re out of breath! As you get fitter, you realise you can run slowly and have a conversation or run fast and not be able to talk, but you still might not know if you’re a mouth or nose breather. Does it matter?
In actual fact, most of us breathe through our mouths when we run, gulping in air. There’s a lot of debate as to whether we could improve our running by breathing through our nose instead. Some running coaches advocate for this or for a combination; breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Others say stick with the mouth-breathing.
Breathing in through the nose allows the body’s natural defence mechanisms to work. Air travelling in through the nasal passages gets warmed before it hits the lungs. Germs and particles also get filtered out by the nasal hairs and mucous. You are forced to breathe more slowly when you nose breathe which can help you feel more relaxed when running, especially if you’re doing a mindful, meditative run. However, it can feel hard to get enough air in through your nose, especially when you’re working at high intensity. It’s certainly something that takes practice to master.
A small study was carried out on ten runners who had spent six months nasal breathing while they exercised. They were put though a series of tests while nasal-breathing and then while mouth-breathing. Interestingly, they took in the same amount of oxygen with both breathing methods. When they were breathing through their noses, their breathing was slower and more economical. The study concluded that with enough practice, recreational runners could breathe through their noses at all intensity levels of exercise, without sacrificing performance.
Other studies have found that while breathing rate might be slower when nasal-breathing during exercise, heart rate can be higher so there may be added stress on the body in a different way.
Ultimately I would say it’s personal preference. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it! If you’re happy as you are then don’t worry about whether you’re breathing through your nose or your mouth. What is more important is that you’re taking a proper breath and maximising the oxygen reaching your lungs. You can do this by making sure you breathe deeply, into your diaphragm, allowing your lungs to fully expand.
Your diaphragm is a sheet of muscle between your chest and abdominal cavities. When it moves up and down it creates and releases a vacuum which pulls air in and out of the lungs. Many of us only take shallow breaths into our upper chest. By learning diaphragmatic breathing we can maximise the amount of air we inhale and get the most out of every breath. Here are my tips for diaphragmatic breathing (DB):
- Practice DB lying down on your back first, then progress to sitting, standing and finally running.
- Put your palm flat on your abdomen, just below your rib cage.
- As you breathe in, keep your shoulders relaxed, back and down.
- Breathe in deeply – try to blow out your belly and watch your hand moving away from you.
- Exhale and see your hand sink back in.
- Do this for 20 breaths and repeat daily until it becomes natural. it takes time to re-programme your body.
- Try introducing DB while you run.
Have fun with breathing techniques. Focusing on your breathing can help you run in a more relaxed way, keep a steady pace and run more efficiently. This can help you if you’re aiming to run longer or faster. Try observing your breathing while you run and give nose, mouth or combination breathing a go. Don’t forget to practice diaphragmatic breathing too.
I’d love to know about your experience of breathing and running. Is it something you pay attention to? Have you transformed your running by learning to breathe differently? Leave me a comment here or on social media.
There are more answers to questions like this in my book Run Well: Essential health questions and answers for runners. Published by Bloomsbury and available to buy now.