Key Factors to Your Athletic Performance

Learn how breathing and your teeth can affect your athletic performance.


By Dr. Steven Lin


As a dentist who focuses on whole body health, there is one nutrient I assess in my patients almost immediately as they walk in for their dental check-up.

It’s the most important nutrient of all; your body needs it first and foremost. Have you picked it yet? It’s oxygen.

Oxygen is one of the most important factors for athletic performance.

You may wonder how you can assess whether someone has enough oxygen while they’re sitting on the dental chair? Well, their face, teeth and jaws tell much of the story.

Your jaws are the infrastructure of your airways. And your teeth are the end result of how you breathe.

Breathing, your most vital meal

You do it naturally all day, every day: breathe in and breathe out. You have to, of course, or you wouldn't be alive for much longer. The human body is designed to make sure it takes the next breath, no matter what.

Because of this, you will often breathe in a non-ideal way. And there are lots of clues in your teeth as to whether this is the case or not.

Many will blame it on being nervous in the dental chair, but I see many patients breathe in and out shallowly too much of the time. It's called "chest breathing.” It's not ideal for optimum fitness levels because it's not the best way to fill your body with life-giving oxygen.

Your breathing is the way you deliver the oxygen to all the cells in your body. If you're breathing poor quality air, you starve your muscles of oxygen too. Huffing and puffing through your mouth is not the best way to deliver oxygen. Slow, nasal, diaphragmatic breathing delivers far more oxygen.

The problem is that you can see whether a person is breathing correctly. A deep, slow breath should make your belly should rise due to the diaphragm. It's when your abdominal area expands outwards and our ribs expand sideways.

Optimizing your breathing through the nose

For fitness levels, the best way to deliver your body oxygen is through diaphragmatic breathing. It fills every part your lungs, including the lower parts, with life-giving oxygen. When you exhale, the abdomen pushes in and up. The lower rib cage contracts inward, the diaphragm expands, and the air is forced out.

Before you start diaphragmatic breathing, though, you need to check out something even more simple: nasal breathing. In other words, breathing in and out through your nose. Nasal breathing is something that many of us simply aren’t doing enough.

The nasal passages are designed to deliver oxygen. When you mouth breathe, you're basically depriving your body of oxygen. The nasal passages are designed to warm and humidify air. When you mouth breathe you receive cold, dry air, from which your lungs can't extract as much oxygen.

Your nasal passages also boost your levels of nitric oxide. That gas increases blood flow and, hence, oxygen absorption in your lungs. Without it, you don't get as much oxygen.

Nitric oxide is also antibacterial and antimicrobial. Many people, especially children, now suffer chronic issues with congested, inflamed airways. This includes, blocked sinus, asthma and other allergic reactions. Nitric oxide seems to assist the body's immune system.

How to know you’re not nasal breathing? Crooked teeth.

If you have crooked teeth, it's a sign that you have been breathing incorrectly for a very long time. And when you don't breathe nasally and correctly, the effects echo throughout your whole body, for your entire life.

Your teeth sit in the upper and lower jaws, which also house the airways. The maxilla or upper jaw support both the nasal airways and upper. A high, narrow palate means small cramped upper airways.

The lower jaw supports the framework of your tongue, which acts like a sling to your hyoid bone and chest bones to support your pharyngeal airways.

Breathing is one of the most significant forces for craniofacial growth. If you mouth breathe, you have a higher risk of crooked teeth.

High palates, skinny jaws and faces are signs you are not breathing correctly. And it’s the first thing I assess in a patient.

How to get started with breathing exercises

When you exercise, your muscles need oxygen to work optimally. Here’s some quick exercises to retrain yourself to breathe through your nose, using your diaphragm.

If you're a mouth breather, you may feel as if you are "suffocating" by keeping your mouth closed. You may have nasal restrictions, in which case, you should see an ear-nose-and-throat specialist.

Step 1: Practice nasal breathing deep into your belly (abdominal area). Lie on the floor, put your hand on your belly, and breathe so you lift your hand up. Your belly should rise and fall. This is how you should visualise your breath, not going into your chest, or lifting your shoulders, but into your diaphragm.

Step 2: Keep your tongue position in the right place. It should always be to the roof of your mouth. This opens your airways and conditions the muscles to hold your airways open. Try a two- to three-minute exercise putting your tongue behind your front teeth and pushing the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth.

If it feels like exercise, you're doing it correctly. That's because it is you're using a huge amount of muscles in your mouth and airways, and they're very important.

Keep reminding yourself to keep your lips closed instead of open. This will help you to breathe through your nose by habit.

Step 3: Once you’re feeling comfortable, try repeating while walking slowly. Keep your mouth closed and make sure to take deep nasal breaths.

Your breathing is the way you deliver the oxygen to all the cells in your body. If you're breathing poor quality air, you starve your muscles of oxygen too. Huffing and puffing through your mouth is not the best way to deliver oxygen. Slow, nasal, diaphragmatic breathing delivers far more oxygen.

Breathing impacts your whole nervous system. When you breathe in, you activate your sympathetic nervous system. When you breathe out, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Therefore, if you take deep, slow exhalations, your heart rate won't rise as fast and you won't feel as fatigued.

Dr. Steven Lin is a practicing board accredited dentist, writer and speaker. As passionate health educator, Dr. Lin works to merge the fields of dental and nutritional science to show how the mouth is a crucial part of our overall health. As a TEDx speaker his work has been featured on influential health websites such as MindBodyGreen and Dr. Lin is now working on his own publication ‘The Dental Diet’ an exploration of how food is the foundation of oral health and how it connects to the body. Follow Dr. Lin on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Main Photo Credit: 

Maridav/; Second Photo Credit: Antonio Guillem/; Third Photo Credit: Jacob Lund/; Fourth Photo Credit: Robert Przybysz/; Fifth Photo Credit: fizkes/