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Do Elevation Training Masks Really Work?


My friend recently bought a training mask and he was telling me how wearing it can simulate the effects of high altitude training on the body. He is an avid climber, Jiu-Jitsu fighter and all around fit guy. So I decided to strap on this silly piece of equipment and run the Stonewall-Panoramic Trail across the street from my house in Claremont Canyon. Let’s see if it really works.

I felt like I was preparing for the role of Bane in the next Batman reboot. Everyone at the trailhead was shooting me dirty looks and left me hanging when I attempted my standard inspirational high fives while passing them. The overall appearance of the Friend Repelling Above-water Breathing Apparatus (or FRABA for short) was strike 1. People know bullshit when they see it.

About halfway to the summit, I began dramatically losing my endurance, almost to the point of needing to remove the mask. I had to slow down to a snail’s pace to catch my breath through the small oxygen-impeding openings. This is a trail that I run regularly and only stop to enjoy the breathtaking panorama of the bay area. On this run, the mask was the only thing that took my breath away. Bu-dum Tshhh. Cutting my workout almost in half, strike 2.

After returning home, I decided to look into the so-called “elevation” training masks on the internet. I’ve done a lot of hikes at high altitude (between 8,000 and 12,000 ft.) and the lack of oxygen in the air can really be draining on the body. I thought hey, maybe it worked! Maybe that was the extreme fatigue I felt on the mountain with the mask. I found a great article by that sites multiple sports medicine and training journals, so you know it’s legit. Here’s a quick recap of its findings.

At high altitudes, there is less atmospheric pressure. This means that the partial pressure of oxygen (total units of oxygen per given area) is also reduced. The thinner air makes breathing more difficult. Consequently, the reduced oxygenation of the blood means less oxygen is transported to your working muscles. Your body responds by increasing myoglobin/hemoglobin and capillary density, which increases the oxygen transport to your muscles. This physiological adaptation is what drives athletes to train at high altitude, but usually takes weeks – or even months – of living at high altitude to achieve.

Training with an elevation mask only reduces the total amount of airflow to the lungs. The reduced partial pressure of air at altitude is much different than restricting air intake by using a mask because it doesn’t change the partial pressure of incoming air. Ciaran Fairman, who has an M.S. in Kinesiology, explains that “the intensity and workload you could achieve without the mask would be of much higher quality and allow for more adaptation than any training you would achieve with it.”  Failure to pass my post-run research standards, strike 3!

Does this mean there is no evidence that training masks improve performance? Not necessarily… Restricted-air training also called “inspiratory muscle training ” is an incredibly effective and well-utilized tool for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can bring about improvements in inspiratory muscle strength, endurance and exercise performance. Unfortunately, I don’t have COPD and I don’t think I’ll be using a mask to train ever again.

Think I’m wrong? Leave a comment and let me know how you use masks in your training routine.

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CJ is StokeShare's Marketing Director. He's either working, snowboarding, backcountry hiking, or climbing (terribly).

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