Breathing is probably something you take for granted — if you even notice it at all. Unless, of course, you’re huffing and puffing after climbing a few flights of stairs or finishing a sprint on the treadmill. Then, suddenly, that flow of air in and out of your body is everything.
In those all-out efforts and less intense moments during exercise, though, how you breathe — particularly whether it’s through your nose or mouth — matters. Breathing well supports your performance (and all-around well-being) while breathing poorly holds you back.
Here, experts break down why you should pay attention to whether you breathe through your nose or mouth during workouts — and how to optimize your flow.
NOSE BREATHING VERSUS MOUTH BREATHING
Many of us walk around (and work out) without thinking much about whether we’re breathing through our nose or mouth — but there are actually notable differences between the two.
Though your mouth can take in a greater volume of oxygen-containing air at a time, breathing through your nose may be more efficient.
Here’s why: “When you breathe through your nose, you take in less oxygen,” explains James Breese, trainer and founder of Strength Matters in the UK. “Since the process of inhaling through your nose is slower and faces more resistance, though, it gives your body more time to process that oxygen.” Basically, you utilize the oxygen you do inhale more efficiently.
The slower process of nose breathing also allows carbon dioxide, which can then be turned into more oxygen, to build up in the body, adds Steve Stonehouse, certified personal trainer, USATF coach and director of education for STRIDE running studio.
Although mouth breathing shuttles more air into your body, it’s quicker pace and lack of resistance leaves the body with less opportunity to utilize the oxygen you inhale and convert carbon dioxide in your body into oxygen.
Another advantage of nose breathing: It’s a major line of defense from pathogens in the air. “Our noses are specifically built to support the respiratory system,” says Stonehouse. “Your nostrils, hair and nasal passageways help filter out allergens and prevent foreign bodies from entering your lungs.”
THE ARGUMENT FOR NOSE BREATHING DURING MOST WORKOUTS
Since breathing through your nose allows your body to utilize oxygen more efficiently, it can reduce the level of stress in your body during exercise, says Stonehouse. The more easily your body can utilize oxygen, the better you perform in whatever workout you’re doing.
In fact, one 2018 study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science found runners who used nose breathing during training breathed in less air — while maintaining the same level of performance — as runners who used mouth breathing.
Plus, since your body uses oxygen in the process of turning fat into energy (like during a jog), the more efficiently you can get oxygen into your cells and utilize it during exercise, the more potential fat loss you experience, adds Breese.
Not to mention, when a workout becomes too intense or stressful, nose breathing can provide the relief your body needs. “Proper nose breathing reduces hypertension and stress, and ultimately helps prevent us from overexerting ourselves during our workouts,” Stonehouse says.
For those reasons, Stonehouse and Breese recommend breathing through your nose throughout as much of your workout as possible. (If this is totally new to you, Stonehouse suggests focusing first on nose breathing throughout your warmups and cooldowns, and trying to maintain it throughout more and more of your workouts as you get comfortable.)
WHEN MOUTH BREATHING COMES IN HANDY
Of course, though, it’s expected you’ll breathe through your mouth during super-intense parts of your workouts, like treadmill sprints.
“At times, the intensity of exercise can get to a point at which nasal breathing just isn’t possible and you just need to get in as much air as quickly as possible,” says Stonehouse. After all, your mouth can take in a greater volume of air at once — and desperate times call for desperate measures.
A few seconds of mouth breathing can get you through those last few dreaded burpees — but just switch back to nasal breathing as soon as you finish that final effort, says Breese. Focus on taking slow, deep belly breaths through your nose to calm your body and shift back into that more efficient breathing pattern.
HOW TO BREATHE OUTSIDE OF THE GYM
In addition to supporting your fitness, nose breathing helps your body use oxygen more efficiently 24/7, which is why Breese recommends trying to nose breathe all the time.
Though mouth breathing is often just a subconscious habit, doing so at night can potentially indicate obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep.
Sleep aside, efficient breathing can also support your overall health and well-being by helping you ease stress and anxiety, boost your mood and even let go of pain. Once you’ve got nose breathing nailed, try some of these specific breathwork practices for boosting your energy, releasing anger and more