Condensed answer: The tape on cyclists’ noses is called a nasal strip. Its purpose is to keep the airways open by preventing the anterior nasal aperture from collapsing. The result is a greater and more stable supply of oxygen during cycling.
How Do Nasal Strips Work?
Nasal strips adhere to the skin around the nose and pull it up. The motion could be seen as the opposite of pinching your nose.
When the skin is lifted, it opens the nasal passage, namely the anterior nasal aperture, and stops it from collapsing.
You can get a feel for nasal strips’ mechanism of operation by gently grabbing the middle of your nose, pulling the skin upward, and then inhaling.
Your nose will feel more open and wider, and you will notice a greater volume of inhaled and exhaled air.
Negative Air Pressure Breathing
Air is a gas and therefore moves from high to low-pressure areas.
Living beings breathe by creating differences in air pressure between the lungs and the atmosphere.
Humans and other mammals are an example of negative air pressure breathing.
For air to get into the lungs, the diaphragm and the small muscles around the rib cage contract and expand the lungs.
The expenditure of the lungs results in low air pressure because the volume is now greater.
You can think of it this way – if you pump up a bike tire to the max it will have very high air pressure. But if the tire was to suddenly increase in width, the air pressure would immediately go down because the same amount of air would be trapped in a bigger chamber.
Or in short, more volume equals less pressure.
Once the low air pressure in the lungs is created, air starts flowing into them via the nose and/or mouth.
As the lungs fill with air, the pressure in them increases because now you have more air in a smaller space.
When the diaphragm relaxes, it allows air to escape from the lungs (high air pressure) and then go into the atmosphere (lower air pressure).
During inspiration, the air going into the lungs has a pulling effect on the soft nasal passages. As a result, they get smaller.
The purpose of nasal strips is to prevent that from happening by mechanically holding the skin up.
What Are The Benefits Of Nasal Strips?
1. Increased Supply Of Oxygen
The main selling point of nasal strips is that they make breathing easier by opening the nasal passages.
The additional oxygen is beneficial to athletes’ muscular strength and endurance.
2. Reduced Mouth Breathing
Since nasal straps and other similar products increase the air intake through the nose, they reduce the need for mouth breathing.
Some cyclists find this beneficial because breathing through the nose warms the air before it reaches the lungs. As a result, you’re less likely to get a sore throat and inflamed airways when cycling in cold weather.
Nose breathing reduces lung irritation too as the nose purifies and humidifies the air that you inhale.
3. Energy Preservation
Nasal strips facilitate breathing and therefore save energy. The energy savings, however, are questionable and probably too slim to make a difference.
4. Improved Sleep
Many people who have a difficult time sleeping due to nose congestion report almost instant improvement upon trying nasal strips or other products with a similar function.
Blocked nostrils result in adrenaline release waking you up to deal with the oxygen deprivation. Nasal strips improve the situation by keeping the airways open.
Note: Many factors could be behind this issue. There are no guarantees that a nostril strip would fix the problem. That said, the feedback on the Internet is positive.
Criticism Against Nasal Strips
1. No Effect On High-Level Performance
A study conducted by science researchers at the University of Buffalo concluded that nasal straps make breathing through the nose easier during an activity of low and moderate difficulty.
However, the strips had no impact on high-intensity performance because, at that point, athletes would switch to mouth breathing due to the greater need for oxygen. The switch marginalizes the oxygen gains induced by the nasal strip.
A lot of people attribute the boost resulting from the use of nasal strips to placebo and compare the product to magic bracelets which allegedly help performance.
3. Frequent Replacement
Ordinary nasal strips are a disposable product. In consequence, continuous use requires a steady supply. Frugal people may not like the extra expense.
To save money, users often buy in bulk from large websites (e.g., eBay) or switch to other reusable nasal dilators.
4. Falling Off
Nasal strips fall off when the skin of the nose is contaminated.
Other factors that contribute to this effect are sweat and rain.
If you wear nasal strips for extended periods, they will leave a sticky residue on your nose. The condition could be very irritating because regular shampoo and hot water can’t wash off the leftovers.
If you’re suffering from this problem, you need an oil-based cleanser such as coconut oil or a makeup removal.
After removing the sticky parts with an oil cleanser, wash the area to prevent the oil from “suffocating” the pores.
6. Red Nose
Nasal strips can cause skin irritation if the user is allergic to the materials in them (e.g., latex). The result is red, inflamed, and raised skin in the shape of the strips.
Products Similar To Nasal Strips
Cyclists are gravitating towards silicone nasal dilators which open the nostrils by pushing from the inside. A popular example of such a product would be the Rhinomed Turbine Nasal Dilator.
Silicone nasal dilators offer the following advantages over nasal strips:
Cycling is a dynamic outdoor activity. The pollutants in the air, the dust, the rain/snow, and the sweat caused by exercising contaminate the skin of the nose. Consequently, regular nasal strips tend to fall off rather easily when riding a bike.
Silicone nasal dilators do not come with that problem because they aren’t exposed and attach mechanically to the nose.
Quality nasal dilators can be used multiple times when cleaned regularly. Thus, the customer ends up saving money in the long run.
2. No Stickiness
Silicone nasal dilators don’t create the stickiness described above because they don’t rely on adhesive to stay on.
3. No Skin Irritation
Silicone nasal dilators don’t cover the nose and therefore do not leave a visible red spot after prolong use.
Frequently Asked Questions
I have oily skin and my nasal strips routinely fall off. What can I do?
Tea tree oil reduces skin oiliness as revealed by this study.
Washing your skin with it before applying the nasal strips makes it easier for them to stick on.
Why do cyclists put cotton in their nose?
Sometimes you may see cyclists warming up with cotton wool in their noses.
The cotton wool is soaked in inhalant decongestant (e.g., Olbas Oil) which helps clear the airways.
After warming up, the cotton wool is removed because it has already done its job. If the cotton is kept after the warm-up, it will have the opposite effect and restrict the athlete’s breathing.
In 2012, the popular cyclist Chris Froome forgot to remove his cotton wool nose plugs before the prologue of the Tour De France. According to experts, this cost him a few seconds as the cotton was blocking his nose.
Froome commented on the subject as follows: “I’d forgotten to take out the nose plugs before the start. I’d raced the whole prologue with them in, blocking my breathing. Thirty percent of your breathing is done through your nose.” (source)