by Don Heatrick @donheatrick

From Buakaw to Petchmorakot… is it real?

Combat sports athletes are constantly bombarded with video clips of fighters using training methods or supplements that are seemingly a shortcut to fantastic results.

Most of the time, these clips are little more than social media stunts, either to market a product or simply to get likes…

And fighters are always up for having a laugh, and playing with some new toy in their training for a session or two.

Certain training methods keep coming around at regular intervals on social media.

Some do help fighters improve, while others either waste their time, or even negatively impact performance.

And right now, I want to take a close look at breathing…

It seems having to wear face coverings during the pandemic has respawned an interest in the elevation training mask ­– fighters are hoping to enhance cardio performance by simulating altitude training or hypoxic training.

So let’s start there…

Shark tank footage courtesy of PHAS3 MUAY THAI

Elevation Training Masks

Studies show that training in an elevation mask doesn’t simulate the effects of altitude training, but instead acts more like a respiratory muscle training device.

Elevation masks make it psychologically harder. You become exhausted quicker, not because of muscle oxygenation changes (because there’s no difference), but because brain oxygenation changes.[1]

And this seems to affect your perception of how hard you’re working, the amount of discomfort you’re in, and the anxiety level you experience.

Long story short, you’ll give up earlier.

Wearing an elevation training mask also reduces your ability to focus and remain alert [2], which negatively affects technical and tactical training sessions.

You’ll miss visual cues, reacting slower, making poor tactical decisions, and ultimately be practising and reinforcing poor sparring habits.

And when it comes to resistance training or repeat sprint ability…

Although wearing an elevation training mask doesn’t hinder your ability to complete the total sets and reps, it will hamper your velocity of movement.[2]

For fighters training for maximum power or speed development, this is of course not good news.

Despite maximal effort, you’ll move slower.

And if you train slow, you become slow.

Respiratory Muscle Training

But is there a significant benefit to targeting those breathing muscles?

Studies looking at respiratory muscle training have shown improvements in ventilatory threshold (breathing efficiency), but no improvement in maximum oxygen uptake or performance (power output).[3]

The truth is, your breathing ability rarely limits your ability to perform strenuous exercise [4][5]. Rather it’s your body’s ability to transport oxygenated blood to the working muscles, and for the muscles to use it efficiently when it gets there.

Mouthguards & Performance

This is also why a combat athlete’s performance doesn’t suffer when wearing mouthguards during training or competition[6][7].

Any perceived negative affect is purely psychological[6][7], and usually down to a poorly fitting mouthguard!

Summing Up

An elevation training mask makes training harder – but, just like sprinting is harder if your shoelaces are tied together! That doesn’t mean it’ll make you better at sprinting!

If I want a fighter to experience extreme fatigue ­– to push their power, speed, fight technique, or tactics under fatigue – I can do that by simply increasing the physical demands on them…

Anyone for a Shark Tank?

Applying the real workload that causes that degree of fatigue simultaneously develops the correct energy systems (central and local endurance) to support these efforts too.

This is then sport specific training. And also teaches the fighter how to pace their efforts (in real time) better too.

Breathing Pure Oxygen

(Well, 95% oxygen— compared to just under 21% we breathe in the atmosphere)

Despite seeing your favourite fighters sucking on a can of oxygen between rounds…

Studies show that personal oxygen supplementation (hyperoxia) doesn’t enhance sport performance either.

Once again, oxygen delivery has been shown not to be the limiting factor in exhaustive exercise performance [8], and recovery isn’t significantly affected by breathing oxygen enriched air [4][8].

Even reaction times after exhaustive exercise aren’t improved[8].

In fact, as well as these physiological measures, psychologically there aren’t any gains to be had either. Rate of perceived effort is the same with or without sucking on an oxygen supply or not [8].

However you choose to look at it…

Using personal oxygen cylinders to improve your Muay Thai performance, or boost your training ability is a waste of money.

Final thoughts

Those touting the benefits of sports masks or personal oxygen supplementation are also selling them.

The evidence so far shows that these products don’t boost your performance or your recovery ability…

The truth is, you’re better off investing your effort in well-structured training (both Muay Thai and strength & conditioning), getting adequate sleep and rest, and improving your nutrition with a healthy diet.

Fighters wearing sports masks or using oxygen cylinders are playing… these methods aren’t proven.

If you found this episode valuable, please like, subscribe, and share this with someone else it could help too!

[1]      M. E. López-Pérez, S. Romero-Arenas, D. Colomer-Poveda, M. Keller, and G. Márquez, “Psychophysiological Responses During a Cycling Test to Exhaustion While Wearing the Elevation Training Mask,” J. Strength Cond. Res., vol. Publish Ah, no. 16, 2020.

[2]      A. R. Jagim et al., “Acute Effects of the Elevation Training Mask on Strength Performance in Recreational Weight lifters,” J. Strength Cond. Res., vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 482–489, 2018.

[3]      J. P. Porcari et al., “Effect of wearing the elevation training mask on aerobic capacity, lung function, and hematological variables,” J. Sport. Sci. Med., vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 379–386, 2016.

[4]      D. R. Bassett and E. T. Howley, “Limiting factors for maximum oxygen uptake and determinants of endurance performance,” Med. Sci. Sport. Exerc., vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 70–84, 2000.

[5]      M. Amannn, “Pulmonary system limitations to endurance exercise performance in humans,” Experimental, vol. 97, no. 3, pp. 311–318, 2012.

[6]      K. P. Rapisura, J. W. Coburn, L. E. Brown, and R. D. Kersey, “Physiological Variables and Mouthguard Use in Women During Exercise,” J. Strength Cond. Res., vol. 24, no. 5, pp. 1263–1268, 2010.

[7]      K. T. Francis and J. Brasher, “Physiological effects of wearing mouthguards,” Br. J. Sports Med., vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 227–231, 1991.

[8]      C. Etheredge, L. W. Judge, and D. M. Bellar, “The Effects of a Personal Oxygen Supplement on Performance, Recovery, and Cognitive Function During and After Exhaustive Exercise,” J. Strength Cond. Res., vol. 28, no. 5, pp. 1255–1262, 2014.

Don Heatrick BSc. (Hons) Level 4 Strength & Conditioning Coach, Muay Thai Coach

Don Heatrick

Founder of Heatrick Strength and Conditioning

Don Heatrick is a family man from the UK, former mechanical design engineer, European Muay Thai silver medallist, former pro Thai boxer (ranked 4th in UK while aged 40-years), and the go-to expert on Muay Thai performance training with over 25 years of coaching experience.

Don helps ambitious fighters & coaches take their game to the next level by bridging the gap between Strength & Conditioning, Performance Science, and Muay Thai.

Follow Don Heatrick on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/donheatrick/

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