Can Wearing a Mask Really Make You a Better Athlete?

You might feel cool looking like Bane, but is it all for naught?

Elevation Training Masks

You may have noticed an increasing amount of professional athletes using odd masks when they’re working out or warming up — most notably former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. Those masks are oxygen deprivation masks, made by a handful of companies. The idea behind them is that they restrict the flow of oxygen to your lungs. In other words, it simulates training at altitude, a technique that many top endurance athletes use to their benefit. But truthfully, there are some shaky scientific claims out there regarding these types of masks. To separate the fluff from the facts, we reached out to Juan Delgado, a sports scientist and certified biomechanist who works at the NY Sports Science Lab.

Q: There’s conflicting information out there about oxygen deprivation masks. Some say they make your lungs stronger by restricting the flow of oxygen. Others say that because there is nothing happening on the molecular level, there is no benefit. What’s the real science?

A: Indeed, there is a lot of conflicting information regarding oxygen deprivation training using a device or mask. There is a bevy of articles out there without enough study samples, comparisons with normal levels, or substantiated results to really confirm that it has an effect on your body, much less a performance-enhancing effect by the mere use of this practice. The main premise is that oxygen deprivation training promotes the formation of red cells that will increase the hemoglobin concentration in one’s blood, which in turn will help increase the oxygenation of your body and perform better. This effect is basically an adaptation mechanism of your body to a low-oxygen environment, whether this is due to natural or artificial circumstances — by using a mask or any other oxygen deprivation device, such as hypobaric chambers. However, this phenomenon is not necessarily or exclusively due to the use of masks and/or devices. It could be attributed to the athlete taking deeper breaths that will have more oxygen, but in a lower number of breaths taken.

Another current and popular practice is the “live high, train low” or “train high, live low” premise. It’s based on intermittent exposure to high-altitude, low-oxygen environments (train high) followed by low-altitude periods (live low) where the oxygen levels are high. This allows the body to stave off the detrimental effects of prolonged hypoxia, as well as promoting the formation of red blood cells, hemoglobin and erythropoietin. These are vital cells for the use and transportation of oxygen in our body, that will allow the athlete to perform better and more efficiently. In my opinion, hypoxic training using masks and other devices can indeed have a placebo-like effect for most athletes performing aerobic exercise (most sports), since athletes that utilize it are at a stage of higher-level training than the regular athlete and thus train harder, leading the way to better results in regards of performance.

However, the high-altitude theory can show more grounding since it’s a gradual adaptation practice. The best example being the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where high-level athletes train for two to three weeks at the time, changing their environment with hard training at a higher altitude to induce these adaptive changes, which are reflected when they come back to their original environment, resulting in a better performance, more endurance, more stamina.

Q: Short of training at altitude, are there products that do work to increase your body’s efficiency when processing oxygen?
A: Indeed, a few examples are:

Hyperbaric Chambers: When used properly, without overexposure to oxygen, these can help the muscles and tissue recover faster.

Pneumatic Intermittent Compression Massage Technology: This is a massage to limbs that promotes better circulation and lymphatic drainage. By promoting these two factors, the cells are relieved of any metabolites that can be causing pain and/or soreness, before and after a workout or competition. Moreover, better circulation as a result of this massage will promote the flow of oxygenated blood, help the tissue recover faster and endure harder over longer periods of stress (exercise, competition), thus improving performance and oxygen usage.

Anti-Gravity Treadmill: Designed by NASA, this device allows the athlete to run with a lower body weight load, reducing the impact and helping him or her continue with the cardiovascular exercise without the exhaustion and CO2 elevation that hyperventilating entices while running on a regular treadmill.

Isoinertial Training: By concentrating in both concentric (shortening of muscle fibers) and eccentric (lengthening of muscle fibers) contractions during exercise, the muscle will use more nutrients and will require a better, more efficient oxygen usage. This will translate into a leaner, stronger, more durable and definitely more efficient athlete.

Q: What do you recommend people do if they are looking to get an edge?
A: Find the best balance between training and recovery. A lot of athletes believe that the harder or the more days they train, the better. This is a common misconception that can’t be farther from the truth. Recovery is as, if not more, important than training. However, recovery should be smart, as technology has advanced tremendously. For example, Whole Body Cryotherapy (instead of the dreaded ice baths), active recovery on an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill (less impact on joints), compression massage, physical therapy, electrical stimulation; all of these recovery modalities are vital and at hand for athletes to make their bodies better and more efficient, and to be on par with the competition. Achieve that balance, and your body will benefit and perform better, faster and longer.

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