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Do Altitude Masks Work?
The science of limiting air intake isn’t the same as decreasing partial pressure, so these training masks are less practical than advertised
Train high, compete low.
That’s what many elite athletes are doing when they train at facilities located at higher altitudes because it offers a decided advantage, especially for aerobic athletes. But that’s not necessarily practical for everyone. So, if you can’t relocate to the mountainous Rockies, is an altitude mask your next best option? And will it work even when training with weights?
THE SCIENCE OF AIR
When you breathe, your body takes in oxygen (about 21 percent, with 78 percent nitrogen and a mixture of other gases, including water vapour and carbon dioxide) and transports it to the lungs, where it travels through the bronchial tubes. At the end of these tubes are round air sacs that are covered in very small blood vessels called capillaries. At the capillary level, oxygen is moved into the blood to be pumped throughout the body by the heart. At high altitudes, the partial pressure of oxygen drops, resulting in less oxygen entering the body per breath. This puts the body into a hypoxic state, meaning that it’s low in oxygen, and activities that require it become far more difficult.
HOW ALTITUDE AFFECTS THE BODY
The activity of training requires you to take in more oxygen than normal and deliver it to the lungs and working muscles. When the oxygen concentration is lower, such as at a high altitude, your breathing rate compensates by increasing in an attempt to bring in more oxygen to the blood. Over time, the body adapts by producing more red blood cells and capillaries. These physiological changes can vastly improve athletic performance, especially when you return to sea level, in sports requiring cardiovascular endurance.
HOW A MASK AFFECTS THE BODY
Increased lung capacity, energy production, oxygen efficiency, and even improved stamina are some of the claimed benefits of altitude masks, regardless of where you live. Sounds like an easy way to boost your performance, especially with a price tag under $100. But are they addressing the specific issues related to altitude training?
Altitude masks cover the mouth and nose, with airflow occurring through adjustable valves that make it harder to get air into the lungs. The principle is that by hindering airflow, they force the athlete to take deeper breaths, training the body to use oxygen more efficiently.
However, high-altitude training is effective because of the physiological changes that occur. When you train at sea level, with or without a training mask, the air is still oxygen-rich. A mask can’t replicate the physiological impacts of a hypoxic environment. All these mechanisms aren’t working in the same manner. That is, limiting airflow doesn’t affect the body in the same way as decreasing the partial pressure of oxygen and, hence, won’t affect the body in the same ways.
DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH
One beneficial effect of a mask—regardless of altitude—is that you can make a shorter cardio session more challenging. Essentially, the mask can mimic the cardiovascular work of a longer endurance session in less time, saving an athlete’s joints from the additional impact and physical stress long training sessions can put on them. This physical relief can be advantageous for an athlete, especially as they get closer to a competition and need more recovery time. However, for those who are focused on strength training, a mask can be detrimental to your goals. A recent study showed that wearing a mask during a lower-body training session led to a decreased number of reps performed, but left the lifters feeling like they had exerted more effort. When strength or muscle growth is your focus, missing reps is taking you further away from your goal, so ditch the mask and load up the bar.