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The Truth About Training Masks

The Truth About Training Masks

Mention the words 'training mask' and you're likely to spark an array of opinions ranging from players who like to train with them, to those who insist that they are a complete waste of money.

For those of you who have seen players training with one, you may still be unsure what exactly they're for, whether you can benefit from having one and if it's actually more of an image thing and you're better off hanging onto your money. Hopefully after reading this article you should have a clearer understanding of the hype which surrounds training masks.

The first thing to clear up is a common misconception, and that is that a training mask will give you the same benefit as training at a high altitude (like many runners do when training for the Olympics for example). In simple terms, athletes who train at high altitude do so because their body will adapt to training in this low oxygen environment by producing more red blood cells. When returning to normal altitudes the athlete is then able to supply the working muscles more efficiently with oxygen. A training mask is not capable of generating this change within the body.

However, as your body strives for oxygen whilst training at high altitude, something else happens...and that is that the muscles involved in the breathing process work harder as you work to maintain the supply of oxygen by trying to draw more air into the lungs with every breathe, and that's what a training mask can mimic - strengthening and improving efficiency of the muscles involved in breathing by restricting air flow.

So how does all of this relate to training for football? Well there are some scenarios where a training mask can actually be utilised to create an overload and lead to you becoming a better athlete on the pitch. No, I would not recommend that you should wear one for all of your training, and I also don't believe that a training mask is something that everyone needs to use.

If you are a performance player playing at an elite level and are always looking for an edge then you are the type of player who could benefit from one of these. You're looking for that extra 5% at the end of a game and you want to ensure that your training has you working to your full capacity, you want to still be powerful even when you're puffing away. At the end of the day, it's just a training tool to give you an edge, like buying a pair of boots with the latest technology or having a slimmer, lighter, more comfortable pair of shin pads. You're happy to do all it takes to gain an edge no matter how small.

That being said, when is it appropriate to use a training mask?

  1. When you want to train intensely but you don't have much time available or are limited by injury. Put on the mask and you will be working harder much sooner.
  2. When your training for stamina and want to add an overload. You could add on another set, or you could wear the mask. It's down to personal preference at the time. It's another option for adding an overload.
  3. Training for speed...usually when we perform short sprints we don't breathe, so how will a mask help here? When you're breathless after the sprint and trying to take deep breathes, the mask will challenge you to breathe deeper and doing this will strengthen the breathing muscles. Mimic this breathing technique during a match and you'll recovery that little bit faster.
  4. When you want to incorporate a more cardiovascular element to your weight training session.
  5. When you want to teach yourself to be able to cope efficiently with that burning breathless feeling as you're working hard in a match.
  6. For a psychological edge. Like it or not, some people find wearing a mask gets them in 'the zone' for training, plus it means they can't stop and talk to anyone whilst training. Also knowing that you've been pushing yourself in training in a way that others can't/ haven't could give you increased confidence on the pitch. It's the same reason why players wear the best boots, compression clothing or want big biceps, it almost doesn't matter if it works or not - if it makes you feel good then indirectly it's working.
  7. When you want to test technique and focus under fatigue
  8. If you simply want to become more efficient at breathing, increase your lung capacity and train a group of muscles which are otherwise tough to train.

However, there are also times when it is detrimental to where a training mask...

  1. When aiming for optimal performance. For example, if I want my best stamina test score, I'm not going to do it wearing a mask, this will hinder my performance and negatively affect my result. You should wear it during the training in preparation for the test so that you have experienced an overload.
  2. When you want to use the best possible technique on the ball. If I'm trying to get 10/10 volleys back into my coach’s hand but the mask is taking the focus away from this goal, don't wear one. It depends on the goal and focus of the session.
  3. When you are focusing on movement technique. There's no point in doing ladders and hurdles and tiring yourself out if the technique you are using isn't up to scratch. Again, use a mask as an overload, nail the basics first.
  4. If you're weight training and your technique is beginning to suffer. Take off the mask, technique and safety is paramount, strength training with poor technique is likely to lead to injury and limited results/ improvements.
  5. If you're not already in a near optimal state of fitness, training without a mask will still keep you progressing in the right direction.

I've heard many things over the last couple of years about training with masks, including 'it's a waste of time' and 'you may as well just train with a straw in your mouth' - which could be a valid point if training with a straw in your mouth was a practical solution. The thing here to remember is that it depends on the goal of the training session, and unless you're doing the session you don't know what the player/coach wants the outcome to be.

Some players may feel they can benefit, some players will feel it's not for them, it's down to personal preference. Again, it's a tool to add an overload to a certain muscle group or component of fitness, some players run up an incline, some players use an unstable surface, some players use a resistance band, some players use a training mask.

I hope this article has given you a clearer idea about how these masks can be used in football, has answered some of the questions you may have had and has shown you how to try and analyse what the training goal may be when you see players using different equipment.

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