WHEN SEAHAWKS All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch wore a colorful neoprene mask in the days before Super Bowl XLIX, he drew comparisons to everyone from Hannibal Lecter to the Batman villain Bane. But what looked strange then now seems commonplace, as NBA stars such as Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard have been spotted wearing the headgear during workouts. So what is it?
It's called the Elevation Training Mask, and the model Lynch uses, Training Mask 2.0, employs three resistance valves to regulate breathing in an effort to mimic the benefits athletes get from training at elevations from 3,000 to 18,000 feet. According to Casey Danford, the company's CEO, the device conditions athletes' lungs by creating pulmonary resistance and strengthening their diaphragms. The valve system forces athletes to inhale fuller, deeper breaths. As their bodies adapt, their lungs theoretically learn to use the available oxygen more efficiently.
But Michael Ross, a sports medicine physician at the Rothman Institute and director of Rothman's Performance Lab at Velocity Sports Performance in Cherry Hill, N.J., says that the advantages athletes gain from high-altitude training result more from being exposed to those conditions during longer periods of rest rather than for shorter, intense workouts. Ross adds there may also be dangers associated with using the mask if an athlete doesn't have a healthy heart.
Lynch is sold on the benefits. "I put the mask on, and I probably did a lap around the building where we train, and halfway through the lap, I had to take it off and stop," he says. "Three days of working out with it, my wind got that much better. I just get my mask on, and I get my little boost like"—Lynch takes a deep breath and exhales—"O.K., it's time to go to war."