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Should river kayakers ditch the noseplug?

Sorry people. I know that many of you learned to roll while wearing your nose plug. I know your nose plug gives you the comfort of not feeling like you've been irrigated after capsizing in turbulent water. I also know that since then, the noseplug may have become a psychological crutch that you link to good performance in your boat. It is however, time to reconsider the noseplug, and when and why you choose to wear it.

Being face-up in water can be uncomfortable since the nerve endings inside the nasal cavity are easily irritated by water entering. If as paddlers we spent the majority of our time in this position, and if performance whilst upside down was the main objective for kayaking then using a noseplug to cut off that discomfort would be an obvious choice! (See synchronised swimmers and a number of freestyle kayakers) However, since the art of whitewater kayaking takes place predominantly above the surface and having to roll up is certainly never plan A, we need to prioritise performance in the open air. Can you think of a single athletic pastime where the ability to breath is not important? I thought not. And yet, recreational kayakers regularly plug up their noses and cut their ability to take on oxygen in half. To make matters worse, kayakers are regularly splashed in the face so are in the position of having to close their mouth even if its their only airway. They then wonder why they keep missing their roll... They were low on oxygen and therefore couldn't think straight.

All airways were not created equally.

Ever heard of the slur of describing someone as a mouth-breather? It generally means someone who is mentally slow and takes its name from the moronic expression that comes with having your mouth slightly agape at all times. A tad over the top, but there may actually be some science to it. A large amount of research suggests that nasal breathing is far superior to mouth breathing in terms of oxygen intake, which has a number of surprising knock-on effects.

Nose breathing drives oxygen more efficiently and deeply into the lungs. This is why Asthmatic patients are told to breath deeply through the nose and out through the mouth. This instruction is repeated in yoga classes and relaxation tapes the world over. When oxygen is deep in your lungs, it is easier to feel calm. Try checking your pulse after a minute of mouth breathing compared to a minute of nasal breathing. You are likely to find that your pulse rate is higher with the mouth breathing compared with the nose. Mouth breathing has a stressing effect as we're more likely to a draw a larger number of shallow breaths that are ineffective at driving oxygen. Now lets put this into the context of whitewater kayaking. We're pushing our bodies physically, and under the mental stress of possible capsize and physcial harm... And then we choose to plug our nose and rely on the mouth. I hope I am not the only one who thinks this is madness.

I smell a way forward

So what next? How can you get over the problem of nose discomfort when rolling so that you feel confident to paddle out, plug-free into the next set of waves?

- Practice closing your soft palate as you go under water. This is the divider that separates the throat from the nasal passages. When you have a cold and your sinuses are so bunged up that you can no longer pronounce your D's, thats what its like to have your soft palate closed. If you do an impression of Monica from friends, then that's closing this passageway. This creates a vaccum in your nasal passage that should reduce the water coming out of the nose.

- Make sure as you come up from your roll/swim that you breath out through your nose. This should dislodge any water that did make it inside.

- Practice this first in the bath or pool, then during your roll when kayaking, and then practice it when rolling under pressure. As with all things kayaking, varied practice is key!

Breathing is fun and useful, and so is kayaking. Happy paddling everyone.

P.S. The intention of this article is not to suggest the outlawing of noseplugs full stop. As stated above there are certain circumstances in which plugging up may be a great idea, such as intensive rolling practice and freestyle kayaking, especially perhaps in waters that are unclean or have a high chemical content such as a pool. We'd also not penalise anybody who chooses to wear one at all times to because they are prone to sinus infections. What we attempt to do with this article is to open up the discussion so that people can evaluate for themselves the circumstances in which they are using noseplugs, and to list a few reasons why they might choose to prioritise performance in the open air.


Credit to this youtuber who advised on techniques for blocking the nasal passage while underwater.

This article on is very informative on the effects of nasal breathing.

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