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I just watched the 'Road to Glory' documentary about Team Sky. I noticed when they were warming up on their Turbos, some of them had cotton wool up their noses.

Is this because it's better to breathe through your mouth than nose? If so, why don't they have cotton wool up their noses during the actual race?

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Depends on whether you prefer bugs stuck in your nasal passages or your windpipe. –  Daniel R Hicks Oct 20 '12 at 20:10
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@DanielRHicks: Although I've never gotten bugs in my nose while windpipe yes a few times. –  Robert Koritnik Oct 21 '12 at 9:20
    
Is "cotton wool" the same as "cotton balls"? I'm unfamiliar with the term. –  amcnabb Oct 22 '12 at 1:07
    
cotton balls are balls of cotton wool. You can get the same substance in other shapes as well. –  Useless Oct 22 '12 at 14:15

4 Answers 4

Breath however you need to, to get oxygen in. This may be mouth, nose or a combination of both.

When you see riders on their trainers warming up, the cotton has something like vapor rub or similar, to help open up the nasal passages. They don't have it in their nose during the race itself.

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Chris Froome forgot to take it out before the prologue of the Tour de France and the commentators reckoned that it cost him a few seconds. –  robthewolf Oct 20 '12 at 21:25
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I think that breathing through your nose is hardly enough because when you start grasping for air on some climb that raises your HR, you're trying to get as much air in your lungs as possible. Mouth usually gets that done quicker. :) –  Robert Koritnik Oct 21 '12 at 9:19
    
@RobertKoritnik - Agreed, but it's all effort dependent. If I'm just cruising around on a low level ride, nose is fine. When I crank it up though, definitely gulping the mouth route! –  JohnP Oct 21 '12 at 17:20
    
In low effort situation it's always the healthiest way to breath in through nose and breath out through mouth but it needs some time to get used to it. Those that do pilates will already be used to this technique. Likely joga guys as well. –  Robert Koritnik Oct 22 '12 at 8:54
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^ Citation needed. –  Stephen Touset Oct 22 '12 at 15:37

For some people, weather conditions (specifically: temperature and humidity) make a big difference. Not so much for direct intake of oxygen, but because repeated inhalation of cold, dry air directly through the mouth can cause significantly more irritation of the airways and lungs, triggering asthma symptoms. Breathing through the nose warms and slightly moistens the air before it goes to your windpipe and lungs and can decrease this effect. Nose-breathing has the added benefit of filtering out particulate matter.

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+1 as a year-long commuter I avoid breathing through the mouth for this exact reason. –  mouviciel Oct 21 '12 at 18:09
    
I wear a wool balaclava when cycling in the cold, as I don't tend to get enough air when breathing through my nose and pushing hard. The wool acts as a heat exchange increasing the temperature of the air going into my lungs. They do tend to get quite soggy / gross, so I have 5 - one for each work day. I wouldn't recommend trying it with a thinsulate balaclava though - I almost sufficated! –  tofarr Feb 2 '13 at 10:33

I think it kinda depends on what type of ride you are going for. Generally, breathing from mouth provides more amount of oxygen compared to from nose. So it comes down to this IMO (& Experience):

  • Nose: You have to respire quickly to get enough oxygen to lungs
  • Mouth: You can breath slowly but you can still get enough oxygen into lungs very quickly.

So, breath depending on how you are riding. If you are sprinting you will want to get as more oxygen as you can into the lungs, but if you are going on a casual ride, breathing from nose is enough and safe (from bugs etc).

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As far as I know, breathing through the nose might be the healthier option if you don't need the extra oxygen (for say, intense uphill efforts). Breathing through the nose will optimize the temperature, humidity of the air you breath in and also makes any pollution reach your lungs a bit less probable.

There are also some other subtle effects, but since I'm no expert, I won't go into that. You might want to research that if you are very interested.

During an intense effort, I would say deep (diaphragm) breathing through the nose and the mouth is the most effective way to fill your lungs with fresh air. You might want to practice diaphragm breathing off the bike as well to get used to it. It isn't very natural for the first time. So the tldr version is:

  • Nose when not intense effort
  • Nose and mouth when intense effort

Also try to keep your mouth humid when you breath through it (drink very small sips of water frequently). A dry mouth is very unpleasant and also unhealthy (gums, throat).

On the cotton wool (it's pure speculation): maybe something is put on them, probably to clean up the upper respiratory tract from mucus.

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