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?

  • 12
    Depends on whether you prefer bugs stuck in your nasal passages or your windpipe. Oct 20, 2012 at 20:10
  • 1
    @DanielRHicks: Although I've never gotten bugs in my nose while windpipe yes a few times. Oct 21, 2012 at 9:20
  • Is "cotton wool" the same as "cotton balls"? I'm unfamiliar with the term.
    – amcnabb
    Oct 22, 2012 at 1:07
  • cotton balls are balls of cotton wool. You can get the same substance in other shapes as well.
    – Useless
    Oct 22, 2012 at 14:15
  • If you live in a polluted city like I do, you should train yourself to nose-breathe
    – BSO rider
    Oct 14, 2016 at 20:39

6 Answers 6


Breathe however you need to in order to get oxygen in. This goes for your mouth, nose or a combination of both.

Riders warming up on their trainers have cotton in their noses that contains something like vapor rub that helps open up the nasal passages. They don't have it in their noses during the race itself.

  • 3
    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, 2012 at 21:25
  • 2
    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. :) Oct 21, 2012 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, 2012 at 17:20
  • 1
    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. Oct 22, 2012 at 8:54
  • 9
    ^ Citation needed. Oct 22, 2012 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.

  • 1
    +1 as a year-long commuter I avoid breathing through the mouth for this exact reason.
    – mouviciel
    Oct 21, 2012 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, 2013 at 10:33
  • On the other hand, cool air through the nose severely cools down the nose. That's why I prefer to breath through my mouth in both summer and winter. Aug 19, 2019 at 22:12

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.


Nose is a serious filter, pre-heater and humidity conditioner for the air. It is full of hairs that trap larger particles that are often germs or allergens. It moves air through the system of sinuses to make sure it is warm and humid enough.

If there is enough air passing through the nose, it is healthier for other parts downstream to have this filter machinery engaged. This is the most true if it is cold, dusty or very dry. Of course, if so much air is required that it all cannot pass through the nose, nothing to do.

Also, the referenced source says that the cold air may cause the airways in the lung to contract and dry air may thicken mucus there, making the lungs less efficient.


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).


Some people get "Exercise-induced asthma" -- a.k..a. exercise-induced bronchoconstriction -- they say it's from breathing (air that's cold, dry, and/or polluted) through your mouth.

It's especially true of/among cyclists (who exercise for a relatively long time).

If that's you, you might it's worth it to breath in only through your nose.

It may not be easy to tell whether you get (mild) asthma -- given that the symptom is, like, "shortness of breath while exercising".

I think it may be "unable to breathe as deeply as normal, either in or out" -- but don't take my word for it.

Youtube: Why Do So Many Pro Cyclists Have Asthma?

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