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What It's Really Like to Work Out In a Training Mask

Samantha Lefave

Let's set the scene: I'm at the gym on a random Wednesday, running on the treadmill when a large, very muscular dude hops on the machine next to me. After a quick glance and cursory nod, I focus back in on my own interval routine. But right as I crank up the speed, I see him strap something to his face. It's a mask that covers his nose and mouth, wraps around his neck, and makes him look like he just stepped out of The Dark Knight Rises as Bane's even-more-evil twin brother.

At first all I could think was, "WTF is that?!" Then, "It must be hella hard to breathe in that thing." When I was finished and wiping down the treadmill after my workout, I let curiosity get the best of me—I had to know what the thing was. So I asked him.

Thankfully, the guy (whose name was Paul, I later discovered) was nice enough to pause his workout and let me know that he was using an elevation training mask. He said it helped him do some altitude training, as he had an upcoming race in Lake Tahoe and had to do all his training in New York City.

Curious as to whether something like this actually worked, I went to Google to learn more. According to Training Mask's website, this neoprene contraption makes workouts more efficient by "creating pulmonary resistance during physical exertion." Basically, it makes it harder to breathe in order to target your diaphragm and intercostal muscles, and that's known as respiratory training. "Respiratory training creates an improved physiological response to exertion via improving breathing mechanics and by exposing the body to hypoxic conditions," the site says. "Athletes have sought the benefits of hypoxic training by going to train in the mountains...[this] allows you to experience [it] without going to elevation."

So I got one for myself and decided to test it for a week. First up: Spinning. To save myself some embarrassment and fellow riders from pre-emptive Halloween scares, I booked a bike at Swerve Fitness in the back row. Once my bike was set up, I quietly strapped my Training Mask 2.0 on and gave the fitness gods a praise-hands emoji because it was early Monday morning and my row happened to be empty. Because I knew I was in for a high-cardio workout that required me to really breathe, I put the mask on the lowest level of air resistance (meant to mimic 3,000 feet), which was supposed to be beginner-friendly territory. Then I clipped into my pedals, said a silent prayer, and lifted my butt out of the saddle.

Yeah...let's just say that workout didn't go so well.

Even with the mask on the lowest setting, my earlier thoughts about the mask making it hella hard to breathe were spot on. Use it in a small, hot room when you're doing high-intensity cardio and, well, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think I was going to die a time or two. The mask made me realize just how much I use my mouth to breathe during workouts (as opposed to my nose), and throughout the class I felt like I couldn't get in air fast enough. Was this normal? Was it supposed to feel this hard? Had I gone too far? Those thoughts swirled through my head for the first three songs until, finally, I took the damn thing off for a song loaded with sprints. It felt amazing being able to breathe normally again—well, at least as normally as you can while sprinting out of the saddle—but I knew it was only for a short while. I gave myself a (literal) breather for the next song, then strapped the mask back on when it was time to climb hills. That certainly felt more sustainable than the faster-paced songs, and while I had to take another break from the mask, I made it through the rest of class without falling sideways off my bike. Success.

After that workout, I turned to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) for more research. They had commissioned an independent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to find out how effective this mask really was. After all, one of its biggest claims is that it can increase your VO2 max—a key marker for aerobic exercise capacity and endurance performance. (P.S. Should you try metabolic testing?) So the researchers separated 24 study participants into two groups: One group was wearing the mask and the other was not. Both groups went through six weeks of identical training, and researchers tested everything from lung function to power output both before and after.

What they found was that, yes, the mask did help improve two areas of athletic performance—overall respiratory compensation threshold (the amount of time each person could exercise without getting winded) and power output at respiratory compensation threshold (the level of exercise intensity each could handle without getting winded). The group that trained with the mask could run faster and for longer than the control group, and ACE chief science officer Cedric Bryant says the mask was "more like an inspiratory muscle training device." He also added that, while longer-term training would need to be tested to see if the results translated, "the Training Mask 2.0 could prove to be a very valuable training adjunct for endurance athletes."

That said, the mask isn't the glorious solution to all your altitude training prayers. The study findings also indicated that some of the manufacturer's claims, such as improvements in VO2 max and lung function, fell short. "While VO2 max improved in the mask group over the course of the study, a similar improvement was seen in the control group," the researchers reported. "In addition, there was no change in lung function over the 12 weeks." (More on VO2 max and how to increase it.)

With all that in mind, it was time for more training. For this round I decided to leave a hot, sweaty room out of the equation and embrace the great outdoors with a slow-but-steady run. I made my husband come with me—in case I keeled over and needed CPR, and because I was convinced that somehow his being with me made it less embarrassing. Once again, I kept the mask on the lowest level of air resistance. As we trucked along it definitely felt harder to breathe. But because of our slow, consistent pace, I never felt out of control or that it was unmanageable like I did in the spinning class. Had I been doing intervals, I imagine it would have been a much different story. But thanks to the fresh, cool fall air and my husband distracting me with random stories (it wasn't exactly easy for me to talk—or him to hear me—with a mask over my mouth), we made it through 3 miles. (Read next: Don't Make These Mistakes When Running Outdoors.)

One thing I did think about, though, was how—if at all—the mask would be affecting my blood levels. After all, when you train at high elevations the air is thinner and you have less oxygen available, so your blood isn't oxygenated that much. That leads to less O2 being transported to and used by your muscles. So I went back to that ACE study. The researchers say that, although the name of the device (Elevation Training Mask) and the settings (3, 6, 9, and 12,000 feet) would make you believe that the mask simulates different levels of altitude training, it doesn't really. That's because "the decreases in saturation of oxygen in the blood were small while wearing the mask (2 percent), which is far below the desaturation experienced when a person actually climbs to higher elevations," researchers wrote. "There is no doubt, however, that wearing the mask makes it more difficult to breathe, making it more like an inspiratory muscle training device." (Discover these fitness tips to conquer high-altitude workouts.)

After reading that, I still wanted to take the mask up in the mountains. So I drove about an hour and a half out of the city to Storm King Mountain. Now, keep in mind that the elevation doesn't increase all that much—the peak is only 1,340 feet—but with my mask set to the 6,000-feet simulation level, I figured it would give me a run for my money. Of course, I don't have anything to test how my blood was saturated with oxygen (I leave that kind of testing to the science pros). But, as usual, it was still harder to breathe in the mask. I had climbed the same trail just a few weeks earlier, so I was at about the same fitness level, but I definitely felt winded much sooner. The mask forced me to call upon an altitude breathing technique I learned from Melissa Arnot while climbing Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and I slowed down my pace. But getting to the summit felt like way more of an accomplishment than it had a few weeks prior.

At the end of the day, I can definitely see how wearing a training mask can help improve your breathing and your overall fitness. While I didn't test it long enough to see any hardcore results, you never know—I may just slap it on for the occasional training run for my next half marathon.

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