Tag Archives: Coaching

Training masks; the science behind them!

People like new toys and gadgets, especially ones which can improve their performance. In recent years breathing masks and gas masks have become popular amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The idea originated from firefighters and the military who experience some extremely intense, physical situations while wearing breathing apparatus. The experience of wearing these masks in such scenarios can be quite overwhelming. In order to familiarize themselves with these situations they began to train while wearing their equipment. Obviously the more accustomed to something we are the more comfortable we are with it. Shortly, after we saw them to be used in the fitness community. They started to use similar equipment in search of more intense training methods.

In very recent years breathing masks have been produced commercially and specifically for the fitness and sports industry. Like any new training tool it comes with many benefits. This article is aimed at examining the physiological theory for the use of such masks. By understanding the physiological processes taking place we can make better use of such equipment.

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The major misconception which seems to have formed with the use of these masks is their ability to replicate high altitude. High altitude has been linked to many physiological benefits to cardiovascular conditioning. The concept of this relates to the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen (O2) molecules move from lungs to blood and the blood to muscle through a process of diffusion. The molecules travel across thin membranes from areas of high, to low pressure. If ambient oxygen pressure is low, as it is at high altitude, less molecules cross from lungs to the blood and so forth. The amount of O2 in the air remains exactly the same (20.93%) but overall air pressure (Barometric Pressure) is greatly reduced. In order to compensate, our body first increases breathing rate and take bigger breaths. This allows us to utilize a larger portion of the lung and alveoli allowing more O2 to diffuse into the bloodstream. Another reason is to excrete Carbon dioxide (CO2). By blowing off CO2 we drop the pH level of the blood and create something known as “Respiratory alkalosis”. This allows more oxygen to be absorbed by our red blood cells. This process occurs similarly at sea level.

When exposed to this over long duration (16hrs+ per day for a minimum of two days)(Chapman et al, 1998) our body increases a hormone called Erythropoietin (EPO). This hormone when combined with iron stimulates the creation of new red blood cells, a larger amount of which allows us to transport more O2 around the blood. In addition our muscles respond to training by increasing mitochondria and capillarization of the fibres. This allows our muscles to consume more oxygen. The issue with altitude training is that our breathing rate can only increase so much and the other adaptations are relatively slow to occur. As a result the intensity of our training significantly drops. This is why many athletes choose to live at altitude and travel to sea level to train. It allows the adaptations to occur without training intensity suffering. This limitation is well documented.

Breathing masks do not alter the partial pressure of O2. They simply restrict airflow. They do not specifically filter O2 from the air. We compensate for this restriction by breathing more forcefully creating positive pressure to overcome the resistance. This is similar to techniques adopted by individuals suffering with breathing difficulties such as asthma and COPD. Pursed Lip Breathing is an excellent example of a breathing technique used to compensate for resistance. It is also something we automatically do when wearing a gum shield or mouthguard. We do not experience any increase in EPO as pressure gradients are maintained. The processes taking place at altitude are different from the ones taking place when using these masks .

In order to compensate for resistance we must breath with more force, both when we inhale and exhale. We use the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. These muscles are like any other; they become stronger when a stress stimulus is applied. When using these masks we are in theory strength training our breathing muscles. This can allow us to utilize a larger portion of our lungs, making our breaths more efficient and deeper. It also allows us to develop our breathing muscles, which will make breathing easier in normal conditions. This is of great benefit to an athlete’s conditioning as the effort in breathing will be greatly reduced.

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In addition to physical adaptations we can also experience some mental benefits. In scenarios where breathing is restricted we get a sense of breathlessness. This often causes panic. In a competitive environment panic can be a debilitating experience. Like firefighters and military servicemen, becoming accustomed to that feeling can have a great benefit. Learning to be comfortable and to relax allows our breathing to settle. Having the experience to know how to breath efficiently in such a scenario can allow an athlete to maintain composure. I believe this to be a very significant benefit to the use of such masks.

Like any new tool or training method it is very important to understand the processes taking place and the adaptations that come with them. Unfortunately there is relatively little research available on the use of breathing masks. I believe them to be an effective tool when used for the right goal. With any training an athlete wants the best results. Examining the physiological process taking place we can often learn to make best use of the tool. While science cannot always give the exact answer it usually puts us on the right track.

It’s never wrong to be strong!

There are very few sports where absolute strength is unimportant. Regardless of whether or not the athlete’s bodyweight is important to performance, strength is always beneficial. A strong athlete will often be able to make up for skill more often than we like to admit. We have all seen clumsy, brutish athletes simply overpower and overwhelm more skilled opposition. In combat sports the argument is that two fighters of equal skill, bodyweight will be the defining factor. This is the reason for weight classes. Now, in a particular weight class we recognize that the stronger fighter will have the advantage.

Despite this we still argue that strength isn’t everything. While I believe other factors are just as important I will present a case for absolute strength being a critical factor. First we will look at the debate of relative strength. The Powerlifter/strongman vs. Olympic lifter is one such example. On one hand we have the Olympic lifter, a master technician who can shift weight more efficiently than most other athletes. They have incredible strength relative to bodyweight. Then we look at a powerlifter or strongman. They demonstrate tremendous strength while not being as technically efficient as an Olympic lifter. They also have much greater bodyweight which diminishes their strength to weight ratio. The following video shows how they compare when asked to squat their own bodyweight for max repetitions.

While the strongman and Olympic lifter achieve the same total reps the powerlifter has a greater total load lifted. Work done is an extremely important factor in all sports. This simply demonstrates that despite him not achieve the same reps his absolute strength allows him to beat more efficient lifters.

In the case of endurance athletes the argument may not be as obvious. Endurance athletes must sustain workloads in order to be successful. Our initial thought may be that their conditioning is going to be the critical factor. Again this is not the case. The greater an athlete’s maximal power output is, the easier he can manage submaximal work. Relative workloads become less intense. An athlete who must sustain 300watts when his max is 350watts will struggle against an athlete who maintains 300watts with a max of 400watts.

Crossfit athletes are also a very good example of this. They are often prescribed workloads which disregard any differences in the size or strength level of an athlete. In this case an athlete who must complete 20 deadlifts of 100kg, having a max effort of 150kg will need to work much harder than an athlete who has a max effort of 200kg. The first athlete is lifting 75% of their max in comparison to 50% with the second. This allows for a large advantage which may be too great to overcome even with a more efficient technique.

While I do not advocate neglecting technique or conditioning, it is important to realize the advantage that absolute strength provides. A weak yet technically good athlete will automatically be at a disadvantage. For this reason it is a very good idea to ascertain strength standards which athletes should look to achieve in their discipline. If they fail to do so it may highlight where they might struggle during competition. Very often direct attention to strength development can make a very significant impact on an athlete’s performance. Neither coach nor athlete should ever disregard the benefits of an effective strength program. It is often overlooked especially in technical sports. At high levels of competition this oversight may be the weakness that gives the opposition the opportunity they need to win.

Training age!

Training age is an important concept which both athletes and coaches should be aware of. Many now make the mistake of comparing athletes based on age. This is especially true at underage level and young adult athletes. Often we are impressed with young athletes who stand out physically from their peers. We also often disregard athletes who might be behind others of their age. This is a big mistake to make for both athletes and coaches as it can lead to a loss of potentially good athletes.

In an age where professional sport is so popular, the physical development of young athletes begins much younger than ever before. Some teams and organizations place more emphasis on physical development than others. It is now pretty common to have a wide range of physical ability across a group of athletes of a same age in a particular sport. This has now become an issue for some coaches as they must deal with players of quite varied levels of development.

It is quite common for athletes to feel under pressure to catch up to their peers especially if they have not yet put direct work into their strength and conditioning. Often when working with a team some players struggle as they are total novices to strength training. It is common for a school player to arrive at university and be thrown into an advanced program which they are not ready for. Even on the field of play they may be noticeably smaller or weaker while being extremely skillful. These players can become targets especially in contact sports where they might be identified as a weak links.

Sports such as American football have been professional for decades and now have a structure in place where they give the less developed players time to catch up. Often in their freshman year they spend most of their time focusing on their physical development rather than playing. This allows them to avoid injury and/or a loss of motivation from being beaten around by bigger players in their first season. By allowing them to catch up they can often be quite successful in their consecutive seasons as they are big and strong enough to compete.

In sports like rugby we are now at a stage where early focus on strength and conditioning is common but not always present at school level. Players can make rapid progress with direct attention to their physical attributes. The issue is that while they try to address these issues they still play regular games and partake in multiple skills sessions a week. This does not leave much time for recovery and some players may struggle to make the desired progress. Often they can be discouraged and a loss of motivation and attendance can occur. They simply slip through the net.

A good sports program will acknowledge that players come from varied backgrounds. Their age is no longer a reflection of their physical development as some have undertaken S&C programs for years while others have never seen a weight room before. The best organizations make allowances for this and treat players on a more individual basis. This way a player’s potential can be realized without letting good players go to waste simply because their training age is lower than their peers. Often players who were once seen as underdeveloped can become serious contributors to the team when given the chance to achieve their potential. A coach should be aware of the background of each player so as to avoid missing out on a player whose potential is hindered due to underdevelopment.

Clear goals, Clear Progress!

Our body has a remarkable abilty to adapt. There are hundreds of processes and systems which work in unison to keep us functioning. When we apply stimuli or stress to our body, it responds in such a way that allows it to effectively continue to function under that stress. This response is what we use to become faster, stronger or fitter. The downside of this adaptation is that there is usually a tradeoff between the systems. It is extremely difficult to train all capabilities at once. This is the main challenge for any coach or trainer. They must construct an appropriate training program which achieves an improvement in certain capabilities while not negatively affecting the others.

One common scenario is related to body composition. Often an athlete will need to increase body mass while simultaneously reducing body fat. These goals directly conflict with each other. To increase body mass we need a calorie surplus but to reduce body fat we need a calorie deficit. It is contradictory. Many athletes attempt this believing that if they increase muscle mass there will be an increase in energy expenditure associated with greater muscle mass. While in theory this is possible it is a very difficult task to achieve in a real world scenario. A more effective strategy would be to alternate between periods of surplus and deficit, carefully monitoring both variables to ensure gradual progress in both. This would result in small body mass fluctuations but over time it would achieve the goal.

Another example is the athlete who wishes to improve both aerobic and strength capabilities simultaneously. While it is completely achievable, progress will be relatively slow. This is simply because while one promotes the development of type 2 fibres, the other is promoting development of type 1 fibres. This is not the most efficient approach to the task. Depending on time frame it may be necessary, but it is not as effective as partitioning the goals and focusing directly on one capability.

There are many training program designs and methodologies which look to solve the challenge of training multiple abilities at once. The problem is that combining certain training goals can be extremely counterproductive. The strategy for an athlete should be to always look for maximum gains with minimal effort and interference with other capabilities. This is not to advocate a lazy athlete. Instead it advocates a smart athlete who looks to effectively promote some qualities without negatively impacting others.

In terms of programming for an athlete, it is important to keep things as simple as possible. Athletes should have few but specific targets to work towards. Often high level athletes have so many targets to hit that they get lost. A wheelspin effect is created where their efforts counteract each other leading to very little progress. As simple as it sounds athletes should have a clear goal and stick to the process which achieves it. When they achieve this goal, they should identify their next weakness and follow the process to improve it and so on. Keeping goals clear and simple is the most effective way to make solid and consistent progress.

Olympic Lifts and Team Sports!

Olympic lifting has long been a popular component of team sports’ strength and conditioning programs. There are great benefits to gain from it. It trains the triple extension movement effectively, which is the basis for many athletic actions. It also teaches an athlete to produce and increase their ability to produce power. Additionally it can help athletes build muscle, become more agile, and improve functional mobility.

So what’s the problem? In short these lifts are sometimes too technical for a team setting. For an athlete to really benefit from them they must be reasonable proficient in executing them. In a team environment there is usually a big spread in technical ability and experience. There are also a lot of individual needs and scenarios which make technical lifts problematic. These lifts require significant time to be focused on them in order to teach and learn the movement. Additionally, mobility can often be an issue that needs to be addressed first before an athlete can attempt new lifts.

There is a theory referred to as “Physical Literacy” it relates to how we learn to move in our early years and how coordinated we become. Some of us are more physically literate than others. It is usually the product of having more practice or experience. Children who played a wider variety of sports tend to be more well rounded in terms of movement and adapt to new skills quickly. We cannot assume all players are at a similar level, so constructing a team-based program there must be compromise. In some cases we have the time to develop players and teach them new skills, other times we only have a few weeks to prepare them for a coming season.

Time and experience must be considered when building Olympic lifts into a team program. Getting the best “bang for your buck” is the preferred approach when choosing exercises. Often when we have a short time frame and sticking to the basics is a more effective approach. Jump training covers achieves most benefits, and with a fraction of the skill requirements. It can be quite easy to spot a “muscle clean” over a fast and technically sound clean. This is what we try to avoid as there is no benefit to performing inefficient lifts.

As with any type of training, a logical progression must be in place. The mistake is when people try to rush things. We would rather have athletes do ten minutes of skill practice with just a bar and then some jump exercises, than a full session of sloppy Olympic lifts. There is a time and place for every exercise. The key is to narrow a program down to what’s effective, then look at adding things in the offseason when there is more time to give direct attention to weaknesses.