They look cool (and reduce training time?)

Reduce your training time from 60 to 20 minutes with a breathing mask?

That almost sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?

I think in this case it actually is – but if someone can produce an actual randomized controlled study that is published in a top tier research journal, I am happy to review it and reconsider.

In case you are not familiar with training masks, they look like a neoprene muzzle that you wear over your nose and mouth when you exercise and they restrict the flow of air. The proposed benefits of this restriction are…

  • reducing your training time from 60-20 minutes with the same benefits
  • regulate your breathing
  • increase lung stamina
  • increase lung capacity
  • increase oxygen efficiency
  • increase overall mental focus
  • help overall performance in all sports
  • help overall performance in daily living
  • increase VO2max
  • lower heart rate
  • improve sleep
  • improve digestion

Wow – that sounds great! But I am not convinced.

Here’s how I see it and you can make your own decisions, how would that be?

I have had players tell me (and they get it from the website) that the mask mimics high altitude training.

Not true. At high altitude the concentration of oxygen in the air is lower – this is why training or doing anything at high altitude is such a challenge.

At lower elevations we breathe in 21% oxygen. Even when we are exercising to our max capacity we are still breathing OUT about 17% oxygen – that means we are only using about 4% of the oxygen available – so the amount of oxygen in the air is not a problem.

With this mask you are still breathing in 21% oxygen, but you just have to ‘suck’ the air in harder.

At true high altitude (10,000 feet), you are only breathing in 14% oxygen, so it will limit your performance.

The Benefits Of Altitude Training

If you look at endurance sports that use high altitude training, such as cross country skiing or triathlon, you will find that the biggest benefits come from resting at altitude. Some athletes will even sleep in a ‘high altitude’ tent in their home at low altitude to get the benefits – this is a closed tent that gives them a lower oxygen concentration.

This leads to some of the chronic adaptations one sees in people living at altitude – increased mitochondrial density, increased capillarization and increased density of red blood cells (like a natural blood doping).

The Problem With High Altitude Training

You can’t go fast.  You can go hard, but you can’t go FAST.

Have you ever been at high altitude? Good luck going fast for very long.

When I skied for the Yukon cross-country ski team, we used to do a late summer glacier training camp near Canmore, Alberta. As I recall we camped around 6,000ft and then each morning hiked up to our ski area at 8,000ft and there we would spend the day slowly skiing around the track and trying to keep our heart rate low enough that we could keep going.

This is why places like Boulder, CO are popular training grounds for endurance athletes. Boulder is relatively low (still 5,000ft) but is in close proximity to high altitude. So slow work or even sleeping can be done at altitude while speed work can be performed at lower elevations.

Back To The Mask…

So the mask does not alter the concentration of oxygen we breathe, but it does increase or resistance to breathing – it makes breathing harder.

So it makes your respiratory muscles work harder. Again, for most healthy individuals, lung capacity does not have a large margin for improvement, but let’s say maybe there are a few extra teaspoons of air that could be added.

Remember, the volume of air is not the rate-limiting step – it is the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. We already breathe in more than enough oxygen than our red blood cells (they are the ones with haemoglobin, which is where the oxygen binds) can carry.

Plus, if you are trying to do speed work, you are could be limited in your speed so instead of giving your legs a great workout that leaves them more explosive and powerful, you end up giving your respiratory muscles a great workout at the expense of your speed.

The Mental Part…

One of the benefits is reported to be increased ‘mental stamina’ – and I suppose it could do that. When it is hard to breathe it is tough to focus on anything else right? But if you can continue to focus and suffer with the mask on, when you train without it, life will just be THAT much easier, won’t it?

Would I Use One?

With the cheapest model coming in at $90, it would be one of the LAST things I added to my training.

If I had EVERYTHING else completely dialed in

  • Perfect off-ice training program (and I never missed a session)
  • Flawless nutrition
  • Consistent recovery routine
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Working on skating and movement technique with goalie coach or power skating coach

Then, and only then, I might consider it.

BUT…I would never use it for high intensity work, speed work or stamina training. I might use it for very low intensity work like my Category 2 (heart rate under 140bpm) recovery rides or maybe even just watching TV.  Seriously.

Again, until I see a research article proving that it increases red blood cell density in the blood, (because that is the rate limiting step for aerobic activity in athletes who do not have a medical condition which compromises their lung capacity) I personally view the benefit as psychological. Like when you wear a weight vest and then take it off, you feel so light!

So following a proven off-ice training program, getting proper nutrition and proper rest are 1, 2, 3 priorities. Using a breathing mask in my opinion is a 8,9,10 priority.


PS – but the do look pretty cool in a Silence Of The Lambs sort of way 🙂

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