Does a Running Breathing Mask Really Work?

Elite runners do whatever it takes in order to get themselves a tactical advantage to increase performance. This includes traveling to areas of higher altitude, for example, to help their bodies to adapt to lower levels of oxygen. This gives the runners an advantage when they then race at lower altitudes. What if you can’t live and train at a higher altitude but you want to reap the benefits? Are there ways to cheat the system? This is one question people are asking. This is where the concept of wearing a running breathing mask comes into the picture. 

What Does a Breathing Mask for Running Do?

The idea behind a breathing mask for running is to increase the runner’s V02 max. Used in training, the person would wear the mask for training runs, then not wear the mask during competition. The idea is that taking off the mask to compete would result in significant benefits to the athlete. 

Companies that make running training masks claim they will do many things:

  • Boost Performance
  • Improve Endurance 
  • Build Lung Strength
  • Make Stronger Athletes
  • Decrease Workout Time
  • Get More Bang For Your Buck

Does a Running Breathing Mask Work?

If you’re looking to purchase an oxygen mask for running, you may wonder what the benefits would be. Called hypoxic training, the idea is to limit oxygen availability while working out. In theory, if a mask can limit the availability of oxygen effectively, the runner would reap the same benefits of high altitude training. 

Masks made specifically for hypoxic training often have a valve that allows the person to increase or decrease the level of oxygen the runner gets. These oxygen masks for running would, in theory, help increase performance. But does it work?

breathing mask for running
medium.com

The short answer is no. Sure, according to athlete reviewers it seems to be doing something. For example, one athlete did a workout of core strengthening exercises and found he felt like he was working a lot harder to breathe. He completed the workout feeling pretty accomplished and thinking that he had found something effective.

However, making it more difficult to breathe does not necessarily simulate elevation. Therefore, just because it is harder to breathe does not mean that you can replicate the hypoxia that you would get while training at a high altitude. These masks cannot change the oxygen you are taking in. 

The United States Air Force did a study on these masks to see if a running breathing mask could improve performance. Think about it, the U.S. Military has a vested interest in creating men and women who are lean, mean fighting machines. They certainly would love a quick fix to performance improvement. Although their sample size was not large, the empirical evidence does not back the claims of performance enhancement. 

In fact, the ROTC cadets used in the study did not show significant differences than the non-mask wearing cadets. 

Is a Training Mask Good for Running?

So-called studies done on masks that show clear positives and gains for running breathing masks typically are not done by impartial individuals. As referenced in RunnersConnect, most “reviews” of the training masks are done by the same companies who make the masks. 

There simply does not appear to be enough evidence to back the use of masks to replicate oxygen deprivation as far as we are concerned.

However, that does not mean there is no potential benefit.

Benefits

So what does a running mask do? Since the masks do restrict the airflow of fresh air, you will work harder to breathe. Since you will work harder to breathe it stands to reason you may see some results when you are not wearing the mask. Anecdotally, as people wear masks in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, athletes are questioning if the masks used to prevent the spread of the virus have any benefits to runners as athletes. 

Masks to Stop the Spread of Covid-19

Throughout the world, individuals have been advised to wear non-medical grade masks and/or buffs in order to potentially stop the spread of the Coronavirus. At first, people were told not to bother with masks outdoors. As the virus has spread, almost uncontrollably in some areas of the world, people have been advised to have masks ready anytime they may encounter other individuals- even outside.

running with mask
Pinterest

Runners and cyclists alike are wearing masks or buffs around their neck so they can pull them up into place when they come into contact with another athlete. For people who run on busy trails or in large cities, they are running more miles in masks than not.

Choosing a Cloth Running Mask

If you’re looking for something comfortable to run in, choose something unlikely to cause skin irritation. Many runners prefer a buff that can be easily pulled up and down when needed. A thinner yet two-layered fabric will help protect others around you as your past. 

Masks should be able to fit snugly over your mouth and nose, and to stay in place as you move. In addition, the mask should be easy to clean. You want a material porous enough to allow for ease in breathing yet protective of others you may pass. 

Do Cloth Masks Have Benefits?

Many runners who are wearing masks for Covid-19 protection are asking themselves and others if they will see benefits once they resume running without the mask. According to some out there, the answer is probably. Since it will be more difficult for you to breathe while wearing the mask, when you take it off you will feel like it is much easier to breathe which should aid performance.

So, Should I Invest In a Fancy Mask?

After looking at the evidence, our vote is that spending money on a running breathing mask is probably not worth your money. Whether you are trying to replicate elevation or just see VO2 max improvement, a mask will likely not be the magic bullet you are hoping for. 

Sources:

Does the Elevation Training Mask Really Simulate Elevation?

Can Altitude Masks Really Replicate Altitude Training?

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