We’ve all seen (and heard) that one person in the gym with this mask on, whether they are doing 20 rep bicep curls to failure, using the rowing machine at a max intensity or doing intervals on the treadmill. Coming onto the fitness scene a few years ago these masks were designed with valves that could restrict the amount of oxygen one can take it with every breath.
With the original theory being the accessories ability to recreate training at altitudes at or above 5,000 feet (or a little over 1,500 meters) above sea level, this mask seemed like a cheap and effective way to increase performance. But do these masks do what the creators claim? Or is just another overhyped fad that will do nothing for your training? In this article, we will be discussing those questions and more.
Why Do Athletes Live in High Altitude?
With the main concept behind the masks being the ability to recreate altitude training, it is important to know how and why athletes train at altitude in the first place. In locations that are over 5,000 feet above sea level the amount of oxygen in the air is less concentrated, meaning every breath you would take contain a bit less oxygen as a result of the thinner air. After being exposed to this type of altitude for weeks or months at a time something fascinating happens.
At first, your performance would suffer as less oxygen circulating in the body during training will lead to impaired endurance, shortness of breath and less overall power output. Over time your body would adapt though, and the amount of haemoglobin in your blood would increase, your VO2 max would increase, and your capillaries would become denser.
Above all those benefits though, at prolonged exposure to high altitude your body would produce more Erythropoietin, which is a hormone better known as EPO. If this hormone sounds familiar it’s probably because you have heard about the Tour de France cyclists who illegally supplement with synthetic EPO. This hormone is mainly responsible for producing red blood cells in the body, and the higher your red blood cell count is, the more oxygen your body can use effectively. A greater oxygen capacity will equal better performance and increased endurance, something every athlete wants.
When an athlete lives at high altitude for weeks at a time or lives in an altitude chamber they actually travel to lower elevation region or leave the chamber to train, as this will lead to better training sessions and overall improved growth/performance. This is where the holes in the training masks begin to reveal themselves (and I’m not talking about the literal holes you breathe through).
By spending the majority of their day at high elevation, these athletes give their body ample time to adapt and become acclimated to the lower concentration of oxygen. This is not what proponents and distributors of elevation masks recommend though, they actually say to do the opposite. By using the mask only for an hour or two during training sessions, your body does not have enough time to acclimate and increase the amount of EPO your body produces (as well as not increasing your red blood cell count), but instead will only decrease your performance as if you were training at elevation for the first time. Unfortunately for these masks, this is the best case scenario if the mask actually properly simulated elevation training… which it doesn’t.
What Do These Masks Actually Do?
With the main benefit of living at high altitude is the less dense air with fewer oxygen particles increasing an individual’s red blood cell count, elevation masks cannot replicate this. Although it simulates the feeling by making you breathe harder, the truth is that you are still breathing in the same amount of oxygen at the same concentration, but you are only taking in less air in general. A good way to put this into perspective is to think about breathing through a straw, or with a sock in your mouth, or through your nose. All of these methods have the exact same effect as the elevation masks and won’t cost you close to 100$.
Some further arguments that are in favor of these masks will talk about how having to breath harder will strengthen your diaphragm and help you inhale more powerfully. While these benefits might (they have yet to be scientifically proven) be true, even if they are it more than likely will not help you in the slightest. When we train our breathing capacity and diaphragm strength is never the first thing to give out, even at true 100% intensity.
The lactic acid builds up in our muscles and lack of ATP being produced in our body will most definitely cause any type of athlete to fatigue before the ability to breath gives out. Long story short, these masks will do nothing more than impair your performance as less oxygen during training means less time until you exhaust and a larger likelihood of lowered overall intensity/volume.
Put simply, the benefits you will receive from being able to take in full breaths of air during training will greatly surpass any possible benefits wearing a training mask will grant you by a large margin. The one or two exceptions to this would be athletes who live at low altitudes and need to train for a game in a high altitude region or a fighter who needs to simulate being pinned in a position where their breathing would be restricted during a match. But for the other 99% of athletes (professional or not) in the world, these masks will not be of any practical use and any benefits felt are no more than an expensive placebo.
Take Home Message
Besides looking like a villain from a superhero movie, these masks will have no positive impact on your performance, and in most cases will actually decrease productivity as well as lead to less growth over time. While real high altitude training and living in a chamber that mimics the lower levels of oxygen will provide athletes with a slight, legal edge over those who have not adopted this style of training (or simply can’t afford it), elevation masks simply cannot replicate this slight edge. Beyond its inability to do so, the premise of using the mask during training is the opposite of what these athletes do, as they train in lower elevations where it’s easier to breathe and will give said advantage!
When we get down to it, anybody who isn’t endorsed or paid to use one of these masks (i.e. everyone who has paid for theirs), are much better off concentrating their efforts on getting stronger and faster, something that elevation masks only impair the body’s ability to do. In this writer’s opinion, I recommend eating right, training hard, and avoiding fads that simply look cool and will only hurt your performance and wallet.