Training Mask: Truth and Hype

15Feb13

Recently a karate fighter asked for my opinion on a new training tool, a training mask that restricts breathing. He was tempted but skeptical because the manufacturer of that mask made some claims that were too good to be true. Had the manufacturer stuck to the facts, the fighter likely would have been sold on the concept right away. Well, if one knows enough to see through the hype, one can “take what’s useful. . . .”

Question:

I would like to know your opinion on this tool:

TRAINING-MASK-2.0

I wish to know whether it can be helpful or not by saving me workout time. At the moment I don’t really have a problem with stamina, and my resting heart rate is around 46. Nonetheless, I always look for ways of making my training more effective. I am skeptical, however, about some of the mask’s benefits, such as increasing lung capacity and mimicking the effects of high-altitude training.

Answer:

The mask forces all respiratory muscles to work harder, so it can help strengthen them. Training with the mask can eventually increase your aerobic endurance, when competing or training without the mask, because with stronger respiratory muscles you should be able to breathe deeply easier and for a longer time than without such training.

To decide whether you need to train with the mask, ask yourself these two questions:

1. Do you run out of breath during practice or while fighting?

2. Do you do as much aerobic endurance training as you can without overtraining or as your time permits?

If the answers to both are yes, then it may be worth giving the mask a try. For setting resistance of the mask and duration of training bouts, follow the guidelines for resistance training that I give in my post “Resistance and Technique.” So, if your technique deteriorates at a given setting of the mask’s resistance, then lower it. If you can’t go on for a certain time without losing good form, then shorten the time.

As for the claims that the mask increases lung capacity and surface area and the elasticity of the alveoli, I don’t believe them. For these things it is enough to frequently take the fullest possible breaths, without any resistance to the air flow.

Claims such as the mask “mimics the effects of high-altitude training” are not correct, either. The effects of real altitude training are far more complex than those of restricted air flow. Low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes makes it difficult to get oxygen from the air in one’s lungs into one’s blood. The mask makes it difficult to get air into the lungs, but not to get oxygen from that air into the blood. This is a considerable difference. You may read up on altitude training from books on exercise physiology listed at The Athlete’s Bookshelf.

Science of Sports Training, 2nd edition, by Thomas Kurz

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2 Responses to “Training Mask: Truth and Hype”

  1. 1 JBR

    Mountaineers often say they best way to simulate the effect of altitude on your body is to put a bag on your head and run up the stairs. This is essentially what this mask does…it simulates how you will breath at high altitude. It has no effect on the partial pressure of inspired 02 so it is not going to have any effect on your red blood cell count or make you more resistant to acute mountain sickness. The mask does make your inspiratory and expiratory muscles work against resistance and since these are skeletal muscle, it seems logical that you can train them. I haven’t worked out with it long enough to say it makes a difference in performance. I think the greatest improvement you will gain is the psychological benefit of working out under conditions where you have to work very hard to breath.

  2. 2 NBV

    I was reading your article and I had a few ideas to propose to you. I am in the middle of some medical training in the military, and I have been using the mask pretty often for about a year.

    Firstly, Boyle’s law states that at a constant temperature, the volume of container and the pressure of the gas inside are indirectly proportional. When the container expands, the pressure decreases. So on inhalation, the pressure of the air is decreased as the volume of your lungs is added to the volume of the mask, spreading out the oxygen molecules, just like at higher altitudes. It may not be the same pressure exactly, but I think it does create a lower pressure of air.

    I also use something called a power lung, which really helped expand my lungs and lengthen my breath hold, which has been useful for diving. With both this and the mask I am worried about decreasing the elasticity in my lungs because of the pressure on exhalation. On a normal exhalation, your body does not use muscles to decrease the volume of your lungs. It works by negative pressure, your alveoli have elasticity, and like a balloon with a hole in it, they contract, expelling the breath. People who get COPD(chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) later in life basically lose their lung elasticity because every time they exhale, there is something partially blocking their airway. Like a ballon blown up to many times, their lungs start to lose their elasticity and alveolar wall strength, and can even tear and create a spontaneous pneumothorax, where air is released into the pleural cavity(the space around their lungs). They can also begin to create stagnant pockets of air in the lungs that don’t go away on exhalation, and prevent fresh air from participating in the gas exchange necessary for breathing.

    Any comment on these thoughts would be appreciated.


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