Over the last couple of decades, the power of deep breathing has become clear to both the medical and running communities—not only as a potential performance hack, but also for your health. While breathing is obviously important while exercising, it also plays a role in sleep quality and disease prevention.
While doctors have advised people who snore or with sleep apnea to use nasal strips for better breathing while sleeping, social media has taken other breathing hacks to the extreme. You can find one method in particular all over TikTok—that is, mouth taping for sleep, which is meant to help you breathe through your nose.
This isn’t exactly a new trick. In 2020, in the book Breath, author James Nestor discusses taping your mouth while you sleep to not only improve your rest, but also your overall health and wellness.
So, is mouth taping to better your breathing a good strategy for runners? We dig into the pros, cons, and cautions.
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What are the benefits of mouth taping for sleep?
According to the Sleep Foundation, people tape their mouths—using 3M micropore (or surgical) tape, not duct or Scotch tape—to try to stop snoring and decrease bad breath, as it encourages nasal breathing. However, taping your mouth has not been extensively studied and its potential benefits are “largely anecdotal,” says the organization.
“Some of the speculations are that [if you tape your mouth at night], you’ll learn to breathe through your nose more and get better at buffering carbon dioxide,” says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., professor and chair of the Department of Exercise Science, and director of the USC Sport Science Lab at the University of South Carolina.
The reason people strive for nose breathing? Whether you’re running or chilling in your living room, the nose filters particles from the surrounding environment and helps deliver air with fewer contaminants to your respiratory system. The nose also humidifies and regulates the temperature of the air you inhale, a benefit you don’t get when you breathe with your mouth.
Even more significant and likely the reason some doctors might suggest nasal strips to improve sleep: Researchers found that people with irregular sleep patterns were nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease than those with more regular sleep patterns, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. However, the leap from nasal strips to mouth taping as a health hack has not been studied or verified extensively enough in the general population.
While there’s not much research on mouth taping for sleep for the masses, some preliminary science supports mouth taping as a solution for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when breathing during sleep gets interrupted, and it is often accompanied by snoring. For example, a Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery study, involving 30 people with mild OSA, found that mouth taping led participants to breathe through their nose, which changed the angle of the soft palate (at the back of the roof of the mouth) and the tongue. As a result, they snored significantly less and had fewer instances of interrupted breathing.
However, as of now, the most recommended treatment for OSA is continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machines, which use mild air pressure to keep breathing airways open while you sleep. This helps prevent breathing interruptions. Taping the mouth, on the other hand, won’t do anything to build that pressure, Orlando I. Ruiz-Rodriguez, M.D., pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist with Orlando Health Medical Group tells Runner’s World.
Are there risks to mouth taping for sleep?
Right now, based on the lack of scientific evidence, there is no logical leap between taping your mouth shut while you sleep and breathing through your nose. “If somebody wants to try [mouth taping], do me a favor, please at least talk to your doctor first to make sure you don’t have any disorders or breathing issues that could get exacerbated,” Arent says.
Runners with health issues such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, allergies, or a deviated septum (when the cartilage and bone separating the nasal cavity is off-center) probably aren’t good candidates for mouth taping because it could limit how much oxygen you take in at night. “That could make your sleep more irregular and may cause problems with the heart in the long term,” Ruiz-Rodriguez says.
Can mouth taping for sleep help runners?
Separate from those with sleep apnea, runners and other athletes know that proper breathing can boost performance. “How you breathe is a big part of the energy you use while you’re running,” says George Dallam, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Health Science and Movement at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and a researcher who studies nasal breathing during exercise. “About 10 to 15 percent of your total energy cost is just your respiratory muscles attempting to move enough air to provide oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.”
Research suggests that breathing through your nose during exercise is more efficient than mouth breathing. That is, you don’t need to work as hard to get the same amount of oxygen.
When researchers tested 10 runners for six months while they used nasal-only breathing during exercise, they found that while the runners’ oxygen consumption didn’t change between breathing modes, their respiratory rate, breaths per minute, and the ratio of oxygen intake to carbon dioxide output decreased during nasal breathing. In other words, nasal breathing reduced their overall energy cost, explains Dallam, the lead author of the 2018 study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science.
Dallam says it’s a common misconception that nasal breathing can’t provide enough ventilation (or air flow) to sustain hard running efforts. In fact, the study found that nasal breathing reduces total ventilation at a given high workload by about 23 percent, “and what that ends up doing is reducing your overall energy cost by about 2 to 3 percent,” he notes.
Also, as mentioned earlier, your nose helps to filter particles and deliver cleaner air to your respiratory system. When you breathe through your mouth, on the other hand, you take in big gulps of air that hasn’t been humidified or hasn’t had allergens and contaminants removed.
This exchange is multiplied when you’re running and breathing harder. “It’s the equivalent of driving your car and taking the air filter out,” Dallam says. It can damage the lungs over time and cause exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB)—a form of asthma that occurs when sucking in dry, irritating air during exercise—in the short-term.
While EIB is common in people with asthma, it can also happen in people without it, notes the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). Ever develop a dry cough after running? That’s EIB, which carries symptoms such as shortness of breath, decreased endurance, chest tightness, cough, upset stomach, and sore throat.
The best way to prevent EIB is to breathe through your nose, per a 2020 review in the Journal of Sports Research, in which researchers looked at the studies comparing breathing through your nose versus breathing through your mouth or a combination of your mouth and nose. The evidence supports practicing nasal breathing as the benefits include a reduction in EIB and the ability to work out at a higher intensity.
While nasal breathing may help your runs, it’s tough to say whether mouth taping will help you actually breath from your nose on a run. In fact, Dallam says that your performance will likely suffer in the beginning, because it’s tough to suddenly transition from mouth breathing to nasal breathing—doing so successfully usually takes about six months. “If you attempt to run a race breathing nasally, you’re probably going to run 5 to 6 percent slower, because you haven’t adapted yourself,” he says.
“What we do know is that, anecdotally, people who do this quite often make a performance gain, meaning that they improve a little bit once they adapt to nasal breathing,” Dallam adds.
Runners who do want to improve their nasal breathing technique need to learn to do this not only when they are thinking about it, but as an unconscious act. After all, most of us don’t think about our breathing, Dallam says. To that end, taping your mouth when you’re asleep may make it easier for the nervous system to figure out this is the dominant way to take a breath.
The truth is, though, the only way to guarantee you’ll breathe nasally while running is to practice. “If you want to learn how to breathe through your nose while running, you need to spend those periods doing it,” Arent says.
Feel free to experiment with mouth taping if you don’t have breathing issues. You may want to start by trying it while you’re watching TV. “Just put on some tape and see if you can sit for an hour or two,” Dallam says. “If you’re not bothered by the tape, and you can breathe comfortably, chances are you’ll be able to do that when you sleep, too.”
Lauren Bedosky is a freelance health and fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Runner’s World, Prevention, Experience Life and Women’s Running.