It was July 2011 and I was watching a UFC fight. I noticed a sponsor on one of the fighter’s shorts that caught my eye. I did a Google search and went to the website. It was a breathing device/mask that you could wear during training. So, I hit the ‘Buy Now’ button. I was curious to find out do these breathing devices work? If so, what do they do?
Now, these questions feel more relevant than ever. With mask restrictions sweeping the country, many athletes are required to train with masks in order to prevent the spread of the virus via the droplets in our breath. For many, this can feel especially frustrating and uncomfortable as we spend so much time breathing much harder during training efforts. But what if we changed our mindset and considered how masked breathing devices could actually improve our training. After all, if you have to wear a mask, you might as well wear one that will make you a better athlete.
Respiratory Muscle Training (RMT) is one area where athletes can find benefit by using resistance breathing devices. Research shows that RMT can serve as an effective stimulus for improving the strength and endurance of the respiratory muscles. In addition, studies have shown how RMT can influence performance in aquatic sports. RMT can consist of Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT) and/or Expiratory Muscle Training (EMT).
Changes From RMT
Respiratory muscles respond to a training stimulus just like skeletal muscles respond to a training stimulus. The results from several studies show that IMT produces statistically significant improvements in performance. In addition, RMT was found to improve breathing patterns, make respiration more efficient and lower the perception of dyspnoea (also spelled dyspnea), meaning difficult or labored breathing; shortness of breath.
Breathing and Performance
According to the co-author of Perfect Breathing, Al Lee, “Whether you’re a casual gym-goer, a mall walker, a mountain biker, an actor, singer or dancer, putting your breath at the core of your discipline will help you achieve far more than you ever thought.” And those of you that have worn a mask during training know this to be true. It takes so much focus and breathing is quickly positioned at the core of your discipline.
“During exercise, the body’s demand for oxygen increases and our breathing volume or ventilation must also rise,” explains Matthew Pine and Mark Watsford, both from the human performance laboratory at the University of Technology, Sydney. “This requires numerous muscles surrounding the lungs to contract in a highly coordinated manner. As the intensity of exercise increases, these respiratory muscles must contract more forcefully and more rapidly to keep pace with the body’s substantial increase in metabolism.” And as Al Lee says, “By increasing the strength and stamina of your respiratory system, your breathing becomes more efficient, requiring less energy—which leaves more energy for the motor muscles and whatever task or activity you’re involved in.”
An Athlete’s Perspective
Having worn a mask during many of my workouts over the past nine years, I’ve seen other benefits in addition to the aforementioned. Depending on where you set the resistance on the mask, it is very, very hard to breathe and can be very uncomfortable (in a positive way). As you crank out a 10-mile run while wearing the mask, you just want to rip it off as you crave more oxygen. But sticking with it, even as you struggle, enables you to embrace the suffering even more.
In addition, I feel wearing a mask during workouts is much like wearing a weighted vest. Let’s say you go for a run with a 20lb. weighted vest on. When you finally take the vest off for a cool-down shakeout, wow! You now feel amazingly light on your feet, super-fast and efficient. Your stride is now more attuned to balance the increase in weight, and your body feels more buoyant and powerful. Well, you get that similar sensation with the mask. When you take it off, and you can easily get a deep, satisfying breath of air, it feels like you can train forever.
Who said masked training had to be a bad thing!