Mouth and nose breathing in running

The great thing about running is there’s always something new to learn and personal experience, misfortunes and accidents can often be the best teachers. I recently wrote jokingly about my slow miler’s cough after a 1500m race, the thing is, the more I thought about it, the more I started to think this wasn’t normal and that my miler’s coughing was perhaps a sign that my breathing while running was an issue that needed attention.

I don’t race over 800/1500m that often, mostly because I’m slow, but I actually really enjoy the distance and would like to race it more often, but the last three times I’ve compete in a 1500m or 800m race I’ve been incapacitated for about 20 minutes after the race with the worst kind of coughing that blends into uncontrolled nose running and even less fun, the urge to throw up – mostly simultaneously! The end result is not being able to breathe too well, which is never a fun experience.

I’m going to go through the medical process in the coming weeks and get a few opinions, but the cause appears to be my mouth breathing habit. This isn’t exactly by choice as through an accident of genetics, my nose doesn’t work too well, the left nostril in particular is a complete passenger, serving no practical purpose whatsoever in helping me drag in some air. So the long term solution is probably going to be some kind of surgery to straighten up my septum and perhaps clear away any other nasal passage obstructions – one of the procedures I’ve looked at is called septoplasty and sounds scary. Anyway I’ll let the experts decide what may or may not need to be done and report back what they say.

Paula Radcliffe smashing it during NYC marathon 2008 – breathing strip in place! Image by Ed Costello

In the interim, while I find the time and build up the courage to talk to some doctors, I’ve been experimenting with using a nasal splint or external nasal dilator. These plastic strips are pretty readily available from chemists for about a dollar each – you stick them on the outside of your nose and they spring out slightly to hold your nostrils open. They’re not going to do much good if you have blocked sinuses or other obstructions deeper in the airways, but in my case they work really well. As soon as the breathing strip goes on my ability to nose breathe improves dramatically.

Now any casual perusal of search engine results will tell you that there are a few benefits to nose breathing compared to mouth breathing and most of those appear to make sense. These range from humidifying air, filtering partials and even reducing your chance of getting sick by stymieing the ability of various nasties to enter the body directly through the airways. There’s also plenty of advocates of specific breathing techniques that claim a great number of preventative health and wellness benefits.

But we’re runners, so what we really want to know is: dose combined mouth and nose breathing aided by a nasal dilator help you run faster?

 And in the case of runners who have trouble breathing through their noses – do these external devices make any difference to your enjoyment and performance levels? In my case I’m curious about the later, especially during events like the 1500m where you need all the air you can possibly draw into your body. There’s no doubt that so far I feel like I can run at an easy jogging pace (for a while) while nose breathing, the result is slower breathing and perhaps even slightly improved posture (lengthening of the spine), those of you familiar with Pilates will find this no great surprise where the breathing muscles are considered part of the ‘core’. The nose breathing tends to allow a deeper more diaphragmatic intake of air which does straighten you up. Note to self: stop leaning forward towards the computer and breathe!

When you’re running, especially when you’re running hard and at the limits of and beyond your cardiovascular capacity in events like the 1500m you want to breathe in as much air as possible, this will involve a combination of nose and mouth breathing or as Arthur Lydiard said, even through your ears! I was very conscious of this in my most recent race, about 800m in I was breathing hard but exclusively through the mouth, all that air coming in so fast felt pretty scorching on the throat and I was completely dried out. I’m assuming this is the likely cause of the problems post race.

Running towards a slow miler’s coughing fit: Image by Tim Crosbie Athletics Victoria

Trying out the nasal dilator in practice

I’m very curious about how my next middle distance race with turn out, even if my performance levels remain the same, reducing throat burn is going to be a major step forwards in enjoying racing this important distance for building up speed and speed endurance more often. So far what I found after my first hard mile pace repetition session, when using the breathing strip, was that my mouth breathing is now a habit that needs to be broken. I’m not used to co-breathing through the nose and mouth once the pace gets faster, so it’s probably going to take a while to maximise the potential benefits available from being able to intake more air through the nose. It’s going to take practice.

Like any new piece of running equipment whether it be shoes, socks, clothing etc races are not the place for experimentation, trying things out in training is definitely preferable. One potential side effect of the nose splint I used the other day during track work was a major case of runny nose and sneezing in the following days – I’m not a sufferer of allergies and the like so I’m putting it down to more air passing through places that are unused to high intensity breathing. We’ll see if this settles down with repeat usage.

Meb PRs with breathing strip in his shoe

Are breathing strips / external nasal dilators  performance enhancing?

I had a brief scan on google scholar for scientific journal articles that look into potential performance gains available to runners wearing external nasal dilators and this article  popped up. It appears to indicate some benefit might be available in terms of performance. I’ll ask exercise science guru Alex Hutchinson to look into that one a bit further to see if he knows more.

Probably the most notable elite runners using these breathing strips are Paula Radcliffe and Meb Keflezighi. They must think it helps, but I’m not sure whether they use the strips because they have issues similar to mine or whether they are chasing elusive small performance benefits.

I read following the 2011 NYC Marathon that Meb missed some training through an unfortunate series of events. He forgot to take his breathing strip out of his shoe and put it on his nose before the race. The result was a personal best time and an infected foot, so there’s an argument right there for the nasal splint not making any difference to his performance.

Conclusion

I’ve no idea whether my  breathing strips will lead to some big personal best times in the coming months and years, but it’ll be interesting to track what differences (if any) it makes to my enjoyment and performance levels – I’ll keep you posted. If anyone has any information or personal experience in using these devices please leave a comment below. I’m keen to know how they’re being used and what benefits you’ve experienced in using them.

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I found this interesting article on the same topic

Image of Meb by Erica Sara Neuman

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9 Responses to Mouth and nose breathing in running

  1. Ian Mannix July 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Hi Brian. While we’re on this subject – recently my gym instructor heard me shallow breathing doing a bit of a hill climb on a treadmill. He advised me to get better at breathing OUT to get all the CO2 out of my lungs. Sounds right, although in practice I will have to change my style. But is this something you’ve written about?

    • Brian July 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

      Hi Ian, Thanks for the question, I think that sounds ok. Generally I find breathing out deeply in a good rhythm helps get the next breath in easier – almost involuntarily. Jack Daniels who coached Lisa Martin to Olympic Silver in the Marathon talks about breathing rhythms in his book. For easier running breathe-out (take 3 steps) then breathe-in (take three steps). If you’re pushing harder a 2/2 rhythm is good for a sustained effort – say running 5km relatively hard. Once you get into 1 breath for each step you’re likely to be pushing close to the limit and only good for about a minute of running. 3/3 and 2/2 are the go.

  2. Ulf Benjaminsson April 1, 2012 at 1:15 am #

    The benefits you list for nose breathing; moisture, warmth, filtering – can be had by means of a mouth worn heat exchanger.

    I live in Sweden (= pretty cold) and have been running with Lungplus Sport (http://www.lungplus.se/) for a bit over five years.

    Before I’d get terrible coughs, dry throat or asthma-like symptoms after running. With the heat exchanger these problems are non-existant.

    The best thing is the humidifying properties. Your breath condenses within the mouthpiece and you can choose to either expell it by breathing out forcefully, or simply draw some of it back in. I run routinely for 60-90 minutes without ever having to carry water with me.

    • Brian April 1, 2012 at 6:23 am #

      Thanks Ulf, Interesting.

  3. Ken S February 16, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    I have had the Septoplasy surgery to correct a severely deviated septum. The surgery was a breeze. It took about a week to recover and I was running 10 days after the surgery. I had the surgery to correct my snoring. The Dr also gave me an internal nose dilator. He used the cartilege he removed from the septum and basically put a nose strip under the part of my nose where you would put an external dilator. My snoring has stopped and I do feel I breathe easier while running. I am no longer a competitive runner so I can’t use any times to prove what I feel. I run about 20 miles per week at around 7:00 pace. I ran a 4:12 mile in college (1981) but had the surgery when I was 46. I am now 52.

    • Brian February 16, 2012 at 9:09 am #

      Hi Ken, thanks for those insights, sounds like a great success. Brian

  4. heather gaunt February 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Hi Brian, can you explain more, or direct me to resources, about how to actually combine nose and mouth breathing? Running middle distance races I always breath through my mouth;is it about regular /rhythmic alternation, or what? Thanks in anticipation…Heather

    • Brian February 15, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

      Hi Heather, my experience so far is that if the nasal passages are open that you’ll naturally take in air from both the mouth and nose. If I use a two / two rhythm when doing mile pace training i.e. breath in, take two strides, then breath out and take two strides I’ll breathe pretty deeply making use of both mouth and nose breathing. Other things I’ve noticed are that if I keep my eyes up and head not stooped towards the ground that breathing in general is easier as the airways are more open – again both nose and mouth. It’s early days for me researching this area so I’m reluctant to give you any specific advice. Brian

      • heather gaunt February 15, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

        Thanks Brian, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be happening simultaneously, but that makes perfect sense. Cheers and thanks (and good on you for the piece including Tony Dell…he is a great guy, supportive of all runners especially the juniors, as well as being an outstanding runner himself).