Nasal Versus Oro-Nasal Breathing As You Exercise

Hi folks,

FitOldDog's advice, Continuum lessons, safe exercise, blogging ideas,

Rebecca and Robert’s pond, on the property where I take my Continuum lessons.

For a number of years I was a kind of nose expert, being invited all over the place to talk about noses, from the toxicology perspective. I even made a movie of mucus flow in the nose, but one thing I did learn during all those years of research was that there is always something else to learn. This turned out to be true of the nose in my latest Continuum lesson, which is teaching me a bunch of new things right now. Rebecca, my Continuum Teacher, said something that surprised me, as follows: “If you breathe through your nose you will tend to breathe into your abdomen, whereas if you mouth breathe [which is actually oro-nasal breathing, with about 50/50 distribution], you will tend to breathe into your upper chest.” This, in my case at least, turns out to be true, and it is a very important observation. Give it a try and see if it is true for you, too.

I consider this to be paradoxical behavior on the part of my body, because as training load increases there is a tendency to mouth breathe, which will encourage inspiration into the upper chest with less effective ventilation – the exact opposite of the desired effect for safe exercise and better performance. The body seems to have several odd tricks like this, another one being the induction of vertigo, followed by nausea, in states of severe dehydration, which only makes the dehydration worse, whilst compounding the problem by throwing away critical electrolytes. As a biologist I find these apparently counterproductive reflexes to be very odd indeed – biology usually has a good reason for everything it does – plus being great material for the generation of blogging ideas.

I then went to the Internet and searched for articles on breathing whilst running, only to find conflicting advice, some saying nose breathe and others recommending that you keep your mouth open. There was even the suggestion that you should mouth breathe into your abdomen, which I find difficult at best.

FitOldDog’s advice is to find the breathing pattern that works for you through mindful exploration. I do agree with one writer who said that complete expiration is critical for effective oxygen uptake, which is certainly true of swimming.

My advice – breathe nasally (mouth closed) as much as you can, if you have to mouth breathe learn to ‘take the air into your belly’ for optimal ventilation, but don’t force it. Of course, each individual and sport is unique, with sprints differing markedly from marathons when it comes to anaerobic versus aerobic activity. Whatever your sport, this aspect of training is important as it can limit your output, so a small time investment here can pay big dividends for your performance.

A final comment: during my reading about barefoot running and persistence hunting, the observation that humans can uncouple their breathing patterns from their limb movements, unlike four-legged runners (deer, wolves and so forth), is a fascinating one.

Think about it!

-k @FitOldDog



  1. Rory Conolly says

    What do you think of the idea that your body knows how it needs to breathe in any given situation, so you don’t need to engage your conscious brain to think about it?

    • Hi Rory,

      I took that approach to breathing until I studied Kung Fu and later meditation. There are many ways to breath, even through your eyes, strange as that might sound. Furthermore, people seem to breath as differently as they run, and you could apply your proposed logic to running as easily as to breathing. In the case of running, suboptimal biomechanics lead to obvious problems. In the case of breathing the effects are often less apparent.

      The problem with breathing as an autonomic function, unlike heart beat or intestinal motility (in most cases), is that conscious control can, and often will, take over. This makes it possible for us to develop poor breathing habits, and alternatively it permits us to train our breathing to eliminate such habits. These habits include insufficient use of abdominal breathing, which seems to be more common in women oddly enough. Many people have to actually be trained to breathe into their belly, in order that they can learn to use the full range of diaphragmatic movement to fill the lower lung lobes.

      Natural runners and breathers would not benefit from such training, but I think that it is worthy of study by the rest of us. My experience with the Feldenkrais Method certainly indicates to me that this is a solid line of reasoning.

      Thanks for a great comment.


  2. Kevin

    I think many athletes could benefit from controlled breath. I too learned the power of breath from practicing Kung Fu. “Belly breathing” really helped my performance in bike racing too. Not sure I completely agree with the nasal vs oral breathing. But I am a firm believer in controlling your breath and Belly breathing. It takes time to master, but it well worth the effort.

    • Hi Victor,

      Yep! Eighteen months of Kung Fu and I basically learned how to (a) breathe, and (b) take a load of pain. I enjoyed Jeet Kune Do more, because it was very left brain, with lots of great biomechanics, but I think I enjoyed it because Kung Fu prepared me to handle the workouts. I think that both of these experiences help with my Ironman training.

      Thanks for the comment.


  3. Kevin – after reading this article I tried some breathing variations while running this week.

    I can’t run and not think about breathing – I find my leg work becomes almost impulsive but breathing and arms are everything – not sure what this says about me or my training.

    I observed that larger breaths either nasal or mouth – caused balance issues and would cause a loss of rhythm.

    Short/sharp mouth breaths allows me to maintain a smoother running rhythm, much easier than nasal breathing does.

    Thanks for the article – it has prompted me to think about this aspect of training.

    Cheers – Scott

    • Hi Scott,
      Yep, this breathing issue is a funny one. It always reminds me of the struggles I had with breathing meditation. At first, when I observed my breathing my conscious mind always wanted to control it. It took me ages to be able to just observe it. That is really the goal in running. To observe your breathing as you run, and explore better breathing patterns for different workout loads, find the ones that work, and then turn the thinking off again – once your body knows what to do (which is a result of eliminating old inefficient habits imposed earlier in life upon your innate physiology – I suspect). Then it will just do it on it’s own and you can forget all about breathing, and of course go sort out something else. There is always something else, which is one reason why I love training.
      Efficiency in sports is all about getting out of your own way, odd as that might sound.
      Thanks for the comment.

    • Hi Scott,

      A comment on the ‘balance issues.’ This could be a symptom of hyperventilation, reducing blood CO2 levels, increasing pH, resulting in vasoconstriction of arteries supplying the brain, or some such reflex (my brain is rusty on this stuff). I would avoid hyperventilation if you can, and stick to calm deep (belly) breaths that follow your natural rythme, and remember to expire all air (not forced though) to reduce dead space.

      Happy trails.

      -kevin aka @FitOldDog

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.