Football has been around for a long time and is a sport that greatly values its history and tradition. This leads to great things, such as the the atmosphere at a storied rivalry and the reverence with which historic occasions are marked, and less great things, like the rampant misogyny at stadiums and Tim Sherwood consistently getting coaching gigs.
The latter example is indicative of a larger issue; coaches at all levels are often former players, whose curriculum tends to be written by other former players, and there is a real resistance to outside influences. This leads to training modalities that are terribly outdated, which in turn precipitates an injury-prone group of athletes who are nowhere near the limits of their physical abilities. The lack of expertise in physiological matters sometimes also results in the sport latching onto some really bad ideas in instances when it does seek advice from outsiders.
This is where The Trainer's Table comes in, as we aim to deconstruct the silly things our favourite athletes sometimes do in training.
Here at The Trainer's Table, we love Lucas Leiva. We really, really do, and we have ever since he was getting flack for not being Mascherano or Alonso back in the mid 2000s. In other words, we loved him before it was cool. We are Lucas hipsters and we don't care who knows it. He has been able to overcome a limited physical talent by reading the game exceptionally well, making consistently great decisions on and off the ball, and having the very best expression of absolute disgust when he disagrees with a refereeing decision, usually a booking for a cynical foul.
What we don't love quite as much, based on video evidence, is his Brazilian performance coach.
Now, there is some merit to agility and speed ladders; quick feet is an important trait in football. Along with relative strength in the lower body and an understanding of moving your center of gravity, it aids in change of direction. This is useful when, say, Lionel Messi decides to go right instead of left and you don't want to look like you've suddenly forgotten how feet work.
What has little to no merit whatsoever, on the other hand, is the Bane Face, aka the Training Mask that our beloved Papa Lucas is wearing in the above video.
The Training Mask makes a simple claim: by limiting the amount of oxygen the wearer can breathe into his lungs, it works in the same manner as altitude training, forcing the body to produce more red blood cells, improving lung capacity and thus cardiovascular conditioning. Based on conventional wisdom -- there is less oxygen at altitude, altitude training leads to improvements in cardiovascular conditioning, the Training Mask limits oxygen -- it makes sense. It also sucks real bad, and as well all know, training is supposed to suck. Sadly, conventional wisdom is missing a vital piece of the jigsaw.
The reason altitude training works isn't that there is less actual oxygen at higher altitudes -- air contains around 21% oxygen regardless of altitude -- it's the fact that the change in atmospheric pressure reduces how much oxygen the body can effectively use. This means that while the lungs breathe in the same volume of air, a lower percentage of the oxygen in that air is used, which leads to an increase in red blood cells in order to more effectively transport what oxygen remains through the bloodstream.
The kicker, then, is this: the Training Mask only restricts the total volume of air the wearer can inhale. The effective percentage of oxygen is the same, and simply restricting total air volume does not lead to an increase in red blood cells. Limiting air volume will simply lead to the athlete accumulating lactate faster, and at a lower intensity, leading to a drop in performance. Thus, the only effect the Training Mask will have is lead to a slower-paced, less effective workout, and make the athlete feel really terrible, because having your breathing restricted is unpleasant.
A second issue with the concept is that altitude training is a fairly misleading term. Most athletes who make use of the method will spend long periods living at higher altitudes, but do all their training at sea level, because the adaptations in red blood cell volume require a lot of time to take effect, and the athletes still want high quality training sessions, which, as mentioned, are hard to come by when you're not getting enough oxygen. This is known as the live high, train low principle, and it is an important component to make the method useful. So even if the entire premise wasn't hokum from the start, simply training under oxygen deprivation for an hour wouldn't have any effect at all on red blood cell volume.
Our plea to Lucas: Wear Bane masks for the impersonation lulz, because they're still totally hilarious nearly four years later, we promise, and train hard with a lungs full of air. We'll all be much happier.