Interval Breathing Recovery Protocol

By Coach Brian MacKenzie, Training Mask

In 2005 I had a friend who bought an altitude tent. I subleased my first gym space from him. As an avid cyclist my friend Edward knew the benefits of altitude training. I did too; only I would go train in the local mountains at altitude to get the benefits of not being gassed when I was running above 6,000ft.

When training above 6,000ft it would take a number of days of repeated efforts at altitude to actually get that feeling of not being able to breath to stop. Living in Southern California at sea level doesn't really cut it, so we would make the 90-minute drive to either Mt. Baldy, or any of the local areas that had trails above 6,000ft. The altitude tent provided a relief from having to drive 3hrs (90 min each way) along with not having to sit that long either.

Unfortunately we couldn’t train in the tent that we used, so we recovered in it after training. We started at 30 minutes and progressed to 90 minutes when available. We would add a few breathing techniques and breath hold protocols, but essentially the recovery post workout became the most important focus. As the research says, train low; recover high (typically, sleep for more than 10hrs, but we weren’t looking to bump hematocrit levels we just wanted to feel normal at altitude). I didn’t exactly “buy into” this research, more so we tested it, and it showed a much more favorable adaptation than training at altitude. The highest we had this particular tent was around 10,000ft, but most of the time we kept it at 8-9000ft. I would test this by doing my normal route to the top of Baldy (just over 10,000ft) and back. Sure enough it paid off.

A couple of years later we would move and loose the ability to play with Edwards machine. This is where it got interesting. In 2006, I started CrossFitting full time. I would play with some breathing devices and protocols from time to time, but nothing too serious. In June 2006, I did Western States and completed it. In August 2007, I did the Angeles Crest 100 and completed it as well. Both of these races exceed 8,000ft at one point or more. That said, with no real altitude training under my belt I handled the altitude just fine.

Fast forward a few years, I purchased an altitude machine and played with it all the time. Including wrapping it around our bed, and sleeping in it. This didn't last that long as it got quite hot, and uncomfortable. Nonetheless there were some mild changes in recoverability but I wasn’t training anywhere near altitude at this point so no real tests were done.


For swimmers learning how to utilize oxygen debt is paramount. One of the hardest things for non-swimmers to do is to learn that they don't need to breath as hard as they can all the time. Pacing comes into play a lot with this statement, but doing breath hold work is high on most coaches list with training. A lot of sets, sprinters mostly, will be done hypoxic, focusing on breath hold work and learning to utilize all the gasses that you’re not able to expel. Sometimes sets are given for every 3rd or 5th stroke to breathe as well. There are physiological adaptations that occur here, but for the novice, a lot of this stuff is mental, as we have to get comfortable with being highly uncomfortable. Being a swimmer for most of my life, I can attest to the fact that some of this stuff goes away when out of the water for a while, but as a lot of my athletes can attest to, telling them how long I can hold my breath vs. how long they hold theirs rapidly changes how long they can hold their breath. I’ve seen it time and time again where the athlete increases their breath hold almost two fold after a simple explanation of this.

A lot of the surfers I’ve worked with and continue to work with are also in the breath holding business. Some have the ability to hold their breath in the realm of 5 minutes. This is a must when a 20ft wave or bigger lands on your head, as you wont be coming up very quickly as mother nature puts you through the spin cycle. This is why so often we see these men and women doing underwater training.

Jamie Mitchell - Charging Mavericks (Take this on the head, and you're probably not coming up for a couple minutes)

All of this (non-altitude training machine) helps build lung capacity. Breath holding teaches the heart to slow as not to eat up all of the oxygen. Teaching yourself to take deeper breaths by itself and relaxing (meditation) will help build better lung capacity. Granted, training your anaerobic and aerobic capacity will also have a large affect on this as well.

So, in searching for more tools to use with our athletes, I came across the Training Mask 2.0 and started applying a lot of the techniques I’ve learned to use with the experience I’ve had in building a better set of lungs.

A couple weeks ago I put out a basic protocol to follow post-workout, which looked like this:
10 minutes easy breathing

- 10 x :20 seconds hard in-n-out breathing / :40 seconds easy breathing,
- 10 minutes easy breathing.

This is to allow you get used to using the Training Mask and to start actually stimulating more resistive exercise with your lungs (diaphragm and intercostals), so that recovery get’s easier and easier.

The harder your workout, the more O2 you need to get into the body and allow the system to recover. When we start to restrict this the body begins to work harder to either produce more red blood cells (altitude training) or a better ability to deal with the hypoxic affects by either adaption to the gasses, and/or building up the muscles associated with breathing (hypoxic / restricted breathing exercises). The safest most effective way to handle these restrictions is like anything else; dig in at the level you can handle. That being said, the above protocol can be adjusted on the Training Mask for varying levels of difficulty. If you can handle 6,000ft simulation, no problem, take it up to 9,000ft or 12,000ft if you can handle it.

After two weeks you should have developed some sort of adaptation to the 30-minute session. Continue with this protocol, but lets limit it to two times per week post-workout. Then if you can find a track or a measured distance or even a pool, or use a bike (I like the Assault Air Bike) let’s lay out some lung searing work. To start, warm up well, and keep your Training Mask handy. I will use time below so that you can adjust for any of the above workouts.

Interval Breathing Recovery Protocol #1

Warm Up

5-8 sets x :20 seconds hard pace / :40 seconds easy pace

Working Set:

6-10 sets x 1 minute

Work at a hard pace that you can handle for 1 minute

/ 3:00 minutes rest by putting Training Mask on for either last 2 minutes or first 2 minutes. Using the mask for the first 2 minutes will be much more difficult than the last 2 minutes, so choose wisely or just flip back and forth.

Note: I suggest first using the Training Mask at 3-6,000ft so that you can actually finish this workout without adjusting. Then the next time you do this workout use a higher setting. There is also no reason you can’t leave it at the original setting. Give this two weeks so that you can actually have enough time to make some positive changes.

Additional Work:

After completing the working set, once per week, do a 20-minute easy run or bike with the Training Mask set at 6-9,000ft. This should be just to the point of uncomfortable. If you need to walk or stop that is fine. We are working to get you breathing harder without taxing the rest of your body physiologically so that we can return to training the next day and give 100% effort.