Ask Stew: Military PT and Exercise with Face Masks for Training and the Gym

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Marine works out with resistance band during pandemic.
A U.S. Marine with 1st Intelligence Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group (MIG), pulls a resistance band during a physical training event at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, April 13, 2020. (Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Wearing restricted breathing masks as a training device is nothing new in the fitness world. Due to our current health situation, this trend may be here to stay and more prominently displayed within a larger segment of society.

A small percentage of the fitness population has been using these masks for many reasons. Now, as a world becomes more worried about the spread of germs and viruses, many are asking these types of questions with regard to training again in public facilities:

Stew, I have not seen a face mask article done by you on the Military.com fitness pages and was wondering do you think we will see more due to our current situation with coronavirus? Do you find any uses for them, other than keeping your face warmer when you are running in colder weather? Amy

Amy -- you are correct. I have not written about them in the past, mainly just because I do not use them when training -- other than winter running. I have not found much use for restricted breathing in my training, but obviously it is a thing many people like to do, so I am not knocking it.

Studies show that though these masks do not replicate high-altitude training, they do make breathing harder and can improve VO2 max and power output overall. Many of these masks can be effective as filtration devices when the environment is filled with pollutants, sand or dust, and allergens.

I would use a mask for three reasons:

1. Keep my face warm during below-freezing running or biking.

2. Filter out pollutants and allergens that are common where I live during the hot, humid summers of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. (If I were overseas where dust storms and war pollutants were in the air, I would use filtration masks there as well).

3. Now, since avoiding germs and viruses is part of our daily lives and conscious thoughts, you might see masks or face coverings required in areas with large public gatherings indoors (gyms, athletic events, concerts, movies or plays, airlines, shopping, etc.).

You can use them to work harder doing your normal runs, cardio or high-intensity interval training workouts and see improvement in VO2 max. Not wearing a mask also will yield those results when done with more speed and intensity.

So, it is up to you how you want to push yourself to improve your conditioning -- breathe harder with harder workouts or restricted breathing masks. But you will find more people using these masks simply to decrease their own issues with contracting illnesses or spreading germs.

Note: Restrictive breathing training is not for everyone. However, covering your face while you train in a fitness facility likely will be a new normal for the foreseeable future even after COVID-19 is less prevalent. The restrictive breathing can cause lightheadedness, hyperventilation and even cause you to faint. If you have cardiovascular issues and/or high blood pressure, you should avoid masks.

Still, covering your face may help you with the spread of germs and viruses. You still will need to clean your hands, avoid touching your face and wipe down your workout area when done. Stay safe.

Study Reference - Effect of Wearing the Elevation Training Mask on Aerobic Capacity, Lung Function, and Hematological Variables

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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