Should runners breathe through their nose or mouth?
Should you breathe through your nose or mouth when running? It’s a highly controversial topic.
Breathing through your mouth gets more air into your lungs, which is the key to helping most runners perform at their best. We’ll explain why we’re proponents of mouth breathing for running faster, and we’ll list the circumstances we recommend breathing through your nose.
We hear the critics: “Kipchoge breathes through his nose and look at how fast he is!” Yeah, well. You aren’t Kipchoge.
We’ll talk about the latest research and the Kenyans – and we’re going to go deep. So hang on tight.
Why you should breathe through your mouth to increase your speed
First of all, let’s step back a level and talk about your nose.
Evolution put a nose on your face to make sure that the air that gets into your lungs is clean. Your nose hairs filter out dust and the length of your nose warms air up when it’s cold outside.
It’s no surprise that your nose isn’t the fastest way to get air into your lungs. Go ahead: do this easy experiment yourself. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Exhale. Now take a deep breath in through your mouth. Which was faster? Of course it was your mouth. It’s just a giant hole that sucks in air.
Since breathing through your nose is a harder way to get air, you have to work harder when you’re doing it. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science showed that breathing through your nose makes your heart rate higher than breathing through your mouth, when running at the same pace.
Generally, the nostrils just aren’t big enough to get enough air in through your nose for high-performance running. At an easy, slow pace, yes, you can get enough oxygen in. But if you’re training hard, you’re not going to get enough air in the lungs breathing through your nose. If you’re hitting your threshold into race pace, you’ll need to breathe through your mouth to get enough oxygen.
Let’s talk about a few times when it might be best to breathe through your nose.
Reasons to breathe through your nose when running
Reason to nose-breathe 1: Ensure it’s an easy run
Breathing through your nose is a great way to check that you’re doing a proper easy run. And easy runs should be an important part of your training program.
We’re huge advocates of doing aerobic runs to build your VO2 max, interspersed with easy runs to recover fully (read more about our training recommendations).
If you’re asking yourself, “what’s an aerobic pace?” or you find yourself relying on your smartwatch to tell you, think of nose breathing as your guide. If you can breathe through your nose, it’s an easy run. As an aside, you need to learn to listen to your body and because you can’t always trust your smartwatch.
We find that many advocates of nose breathing just aren’t running quick enough to need more oxygen. Their opinions might change when they hit threshold.
Reason to nose-breathe 2: Filter out dust
In the Middle East, it’s common to hear runners say, “Look, we get so much dust that if I breathe through my mouth, I just get all this dust into my lungs.”
Okay, fair point. Your nose is made for filtering out dust. So maybe if it’s dusty, you want to breathe through your nose.
Or, maybe if it’s really dusty you should also just keep your pace down. Or wear a face covering.
Reason to nose-breathe 3: Combat dry mouth
If you breathe through your mouth, you may get a dry mouth. And it affects some people worse than others.
Well, yeah, if it’s the middle of a race, and it’s a hot, dry day, your mouth will go dry. Consider it one of the downsides of running, like blisters.
If it’s really bad, maybe you do want to breathe through your nose. But your performance may suffer.
Reason to nose-breathe 4: To relax
Nose breathing can help you relax. If you’re breathing through your mouth, there is a tendency to breathe in the shoulders rather than from the diaphragm, which can cause tension in the shoulders.
For an easy run, long, slow breaths through the nose may help you relax and ease some of that tension.
Will breathing through your nose make you run like a Kenyan?
It’s absolutely true that athletes like Kipchoge can run a world-record marathon while breathing through their nose. Does this mean that if you breathe through your nose, you’ll run like a Kenyan? Probably not.
Kenyan marathoners are amazing for lots of reasons, but there are two that are relevant for the nose-breathing issue. First, they have an incredible aerobic capacity (VO2 max) as a result of their training. Second, they train at altitude, so they can excel with less oxygen (or, do even more amazing than the rest of us at sea-level).
As we’ve said, breathing through your nose brings less air into your lungs. If you have a very high VO2 max or are conditioned to run in air where there’s less oxygen (or both!), then having less air in your lungs isn’t going to negatively affect your performance.
If all that you change about your training is that you start breathing through your nose instead of your mouth, we seriously doubt that’s going to turn you into a world-class runner.
In fact, if you’re not used to nose breathing and you do a hard workout where you aren’t getting enough oxygen, you’re at risk of passing out. So do be careful.
Does breathing through your nose help you use oxygen more efficiently?
Let’s dive back into the research. The study we mentioned earlier also showed that runners who breathed through their nose had more oxygen entering their bloodstream – so in effect, their breathing was more efficient. This is the evidence that nose-breathing advocates point to, and also likely an efficiency that the Kenyans use to their advantage as well.
As we mentioned before, breathing through your mouth leads many people to breathe from the shoulders and not from the diaphragm, but that’s not an inherent part of breathing through your mouth. We suspect much of the efficiency difference comes from a difference in diaphragm breathing.
Anyway, let’s assume for a minute that breathing through your nose is more efficient. On this blog, we’re all about how to help you, the runner who wants to be faster and stronger to actually improve. Mike’s been a serious runner and training serious runners for decades, and with the exception of a handful of Kenyans, he hasn’t come across any other runners who are running their fastest times by only breathing through their nose.
And, if nose-breathing is delivering results for only a dozen people, it’s not really very likely to help you improve your game. You’d be better off spending your effort improving your form, your aerobic capacity or your nutrition than trying to change how you breathe.
That said, if you’re a dedicated nose-breather who’s speed has improved significantly then we’d love to hear from you. New science and evidence is always coming in, and we’re happy to be in the thick of it.
And, if this isn’t enough for you, hear even more of our thoughts about fun breathing exercises, maintaining your aerobic base on a bare-minimum timetable and why being sick is a blessing in disguise in our full podcast episode. And if you like this kind of stuff, sign up for the newsletter. We’ll keep you on top of your game.
What You Will Learn
- How our current training is going
- The concept around how training actually makes you weaker
- How, why and when breathing through your mouth vs your nose works best and for what type of runner
- The dangers of nose breathing
- The great debate… caffeine or not before a workout?
- And a few more cool things to help you perform better in training, racing and life!
- “Training makes you weaker. Rest Makes you stronger.”
- “Nose breathing is great because it helps you check that you aren’t running too fast.”
- “If you breath through your mouth, on hot dry days you will just have to accept that your mouth will be dry”
- “You have to make a choice – You can’t say you want to breath through your nose and go quicker. It’s one or the other.”
Questions Of The Episode
Do you know anyone that can nose breath and race fast?
- How much time should you really take off? https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/losing-and-regaining-fitness/
- Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing Article – https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a33993505/nasal-breathing/
- Mike’s Instagram Post On Breathing https://www.instagram.com/reel/CQfLMoOD5OF/?utm_medium=share_sheet
- Mike Trees Coaching Services – https://nrg-coaching.com
- Mike Trees Instagram – https://instagram.com/run.nrg
- DLake Creates Instagram – https://instagram.com/dlakecreates
- Suggested episode to listen to next: Tips & Tricks to run fast and easy at age 60yo – https://dlakecreates.com/mike-trees-run-fast-and-easy-at-60/
- Podcast Concept, Production and Marketing BY POD PASTE
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