The Q&A question I have is about the “breathing masks” that I often see runner’s using…not sure what they are doing, but wondered if they could/would play a role for cycling?

You’ve no doubt seen them: those sleek, tight-fitting masks worn by UFC fighters, NFL players and Cross Fitters. These masks seem to be taking the fitness world by storm. Do they play a role in endurance sports like cycling? But the question remains, do training masks really work?

First, we need to explore the differences between hypoxia, resisted, and restricted breathing.

Resisted Breathing

Breathe in and out through a straw, that’s a classic example of resisted breathing. It is more like weight training for your lungs. It recruits those muscles called accessory muscles like the intercostals (between your ribs) and abdominal muscles. Resisted breathing also increases your tolerance for increased retention of carbon dioxide. In fact, when you hold your breath, the discomfort that you experience is in reality a buildup of carbon dioxide and not so much the lack of oxygen.

Restricted Breathing

Imagine swimming and holding your breath under water while you breathe. Or you only take a breath every 5 strokes, instead of every 2 strokes. This is an example of restricted breathing. The body experiences brief periods of oxygen deprivation.

Hypoxia

You find yourself at a mountain resort based at 8500 feet in altitude. Or you crawl into an altitude chamber powered by a hypoxia machine. That is classic hypoxic training. The air is truly devoid of oxygen and your body experiences prolonged hypoxia and produces the proper adaptation responses in your plasma volume and red blood cells.

Training Masks

These apparatuses fall into the resisted breathing category. Basically, you are strengthening your accessory muscles of respiration and increasing your tolerance for carbon dioxide. There is a lot of research into resisted breathing exercises, and they indeed to improve your endurance performance especially in sports like swimming. A recent study from the Journal of Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance showed that 30 minutes of resisted breathing training three times a week for one month (at 12,000 feet altitude) improved endurance exercise by 44% compared to subjects who did not use the mask. This is one study, but it suggests that training masks (at least at altitude) do improve endurance exercise. Resisted breathing devices are also used after surgery to help recover your lungs from the effects of anesthesia. Basically, training masks improve the ability of the respiratory muscles to withstand fatigue for a longer period of time.

The Verdict

The use of a training mask may boost performance, especially used at altitude. The benefits of a training mask are not as pronounced as living at altitude or in a hypoxia tent but considering the simplicity of wearing a mask for a short period of time and gaining a performance benefit, it seems like a good deal.

Cites

Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2016 Aug;87(8):704-11