The fitness industry is awash with fads, gimmicks and whims. When a new product hits the market I for one am quick to scrutinise anything that tries to replace good old fashioned hard work and determination.
The latest craze to hit the scene with huge popularity are High Altitude Training Masks. Now other than making you look like Bane from Batman, what are the positive performance benefits to these and are there any detrimental side effects?
But firstly let’s look at why these masks have come about: The 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City (2240 metres above sea level) saw dramatically lower than record performances in endurance based events whilst sprint based events continued to break records. These Games inspired research and studies into high altitude’s effect on performance and how can we can use high altitude to our benefit.
From here Altitude Training was born. The premise of this is athletes training and/or even living in high altitude. High Altitude (1500 metres and above sea level) is where the pressure of the air is reduced and therefore oxygen pressure reduced meaning less oxygen for athletes to utilise, this is also described as “thinning of the air”. The body then acclimatizes to this lack of oxygen by creating more red blood cells and haemoglobin (transporters of oxygen in the blood), so when competition time comes athletes can benefit from this increased capacity to uptake oxygen via red blood cells.
So now we know how and why altitude training came about where do these training masks fit in?
Well short of moving to the mountains there are relatively few choices to mimic the conditions of high altitude. Prior to the masks athletes have trained in altitude simulation tents and some have even gone to the extreme of sleeping in an altitude chamber!
In Steps the High Altitude Training Mask
Firstly, High Altitude Training Masks are just a simulation of high altitude and because of that are slightly different to actually taking yourself up the mountains. What the mask actually does is force you to breath against resistance thus making it harder to uptake oxygen rather than actually thinning the air like in high altitude.
Seems simple… put something over your mouth and its harder to breathe, but how does this actually benefit you?
This breathing against resistance is known as pulmonary resistance. It’s this pulmonary resistance that actually helps condition the lungs and helps strengthen the diaphragm (a muscle that helps control breathing). It is also helps increase lung capacity by forcing your body to inhale deeper and fuller. As you adapt to this new stimulus (the mask) your lungs will be trained to take bigger breaths and utilize oxygen more efficiently. In turn this will help stretch out the lining of the lungs allowing for more blood flow, an increase in red blood cells and oxygen transportation via the increased surface area of the alveoli in the lungs (tiny air sacs where oxygen exchange takes place).
Few studies have actually been conducted on the masks at this point. One by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology studied men and women using the masks twice a week for 5 weeks performing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) on bikes, they found that the masks increased maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max) and increased athletes power output whilst decreasing heart rate post exercise.
The Negatives of High Altitude Training Masks
So you don’t have to relocate and you can reap performance benefits whilst looking like a batman villain… but are they any negatives?
As previously discussed when training at altitude the pressure of air is lower and thus there are fewer air molecules overall including oxygen. An athlete using a high altitude mask not at high altitude (sea level) will still be exposed to the same pressure of air thus negating the whole point of altitude training. Secondly the vast majority of studies on altitude training have shown it’s the prolonged exposure to these conditions that actually cause an adaption and therefore an increase in performance. So wearing the training mask a couple of times a week isn’t going to recreate the same effect.
Are High Altitude Training Masks Worth It?
Well they have been shown to increase power output and maximum oxygen consumption as well as decreasing heart rate which are all positive effects when it comes to performance. And as long as you don’t mind the aesthetic appearance of them, prices starting as little as $30 are a small cost to pay. But ultimately if you’re looking for the full effects of altitude training… you’ll still need to move to the mountains.