You’ve seen them around the gym; the people walking around dressed as Bane from Batman.
But what are they? What do they do and do they have benefits?
Training, or elevation, masks are marketed as a way to simulate training at high altitude, which can reap additional benefits compared to training at sea level.
Sadly, this level of elevation training can only be performed in specific locations around the world, which has led to the creation of elevation or altitude masks, “bringing the mountains to you”.
In this article, I will breakdown the research and potential benefits of altitude masks, seeing if they are actually worth the investment.
What is altitude training?
When living or training at higher altitudes, the atmospheric pressure and partial pressure of oxygen is reduced. This gives the feeling of breathing in “thinner air,” which makes it more difficult to breathe and exercise at high intensities.
This is caused by a reduced availability of oxygen in the body and therefore less fresh oxygenated blood. In turn, this leads to less oxygen being transported to and utilized by working muscles, thus causing the body to fatigue quicker, especially when training.
Over the long term, the body adapts to this to create more red blood cells to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity1,2. Eventually, these positive adaptations provide an athlete with aerobic performance advantages when competing at sea level.
The key benefits of altitude training include:
- Increased hemoglobin concentration
- Increased capillary density
- Increased mitochondrial volume and elevated buffering capacity
This provides a similar, but legal, effect to what occurs with “blood doping,” which the well-known cyclist Lance Armstrong, among other Tour de France athletes have been charged with.
As mentioned, the main problem in real life is that it can take weeks of living and training at high altitude in order for the body to acclimate to these conditions and thus, receive the benefits. While this can work ok for elite athletes, who have the ability and funding to travel the world and train, it’s not as possible for the everyday individual.
Further still, these benefits generally do not last for more than 3-4 weeks, which is why a lot of top athletes will train at a high altitude before their main competition.
Despite the impressive benefits of altitude training, logistically it can be very tough to obtain them in day to day life. As you can see, this left the market wide-open for the introduction of a product which we now see in gyms on a regular basis.
So, can a simple $200 mask really replicate all the benefits of being 3 miles up a mountain?
Let’s find out…
Altitude Masks Don’t Simulate Altitude
Sadly, the research and mechanisms show altitude masks simply can’t stimulate the real life adaptations of altitude training.
Why? Well, elevation masks do not change the partial pressure of incoming air, they only restrict the influx of oxygen. Imagine running a marathon while only breathing through your nose, this is basically what an altitude mask does.
Therefore, by wearing a mask, it restricts the amount of oxygen flowing into your body, thus forcing your core, abdominals and diaphragm to work harder to increase respiration. This is known as “inspiratory muscle training.” and although it provides benefits, it’s important to understand that it does not simulate high-altitude training or the benefits you would obtain from it.
With that being said, it can bring about improvements in inspiratory muscle strength and endurance3,4 for some individuals; however, this generally is not the case, when regarding exercise performance in an athletic population training at a high intensity4-8.
In short, endurance training is not limited by the amount of air you get into the body, but rather the amount of oxygen in that air. By limiting the amount of oxygen you can consume without changing the partial pressure in the air, (as you would see at higher altitudes), all you are doing is improving the strength and endurance of your respiratory system.
Importantly, normal high intensity training alone can improve the strength and endurance of your respiratory system, so, is there really a need for altitude masks?
Oxygen Restriction and High Intensity Anaerobic Training / Weight Training
Although originally designed for endurance exercise, many people have now started using these masks for short duration, anaerobic exercise.
While this seems to be a common sight in and around commercial gyms and weight rooms, it is actually counterproductive and can even impede your progress if your goals are fat loss and/or increasing lean mass.
As mentioned above, the training masks restrict air flow, thus causing you to fatigue quicker. If you are incorporating resistance training while utilizing the mask, this will probably reduce your overall training volume for the day.
In addition, if utilized while performing multi-joint movements, this can increase your risk of injury as it is more difficult to perform the Valsalva maneuver correctly, therefore putting unnecessary strain on other joints and/or ligaments in or around your spine.
So sadly, performing high intensity exercise using these masks will do nothing more than reduce your training volume and performance and, furthermore, will not provide any specific benefits in the long term.
Research on Training Masks
From a physiological perspective, there has yet to be any scientific evidence produced supporting the claim that these training masks imitate high-altitude training.
In a very recent study, the results showed no differences between groups (control vs. Elevation Training Mask 2.0) over a 6-week time span while measuring performance and biological markers during high-intensity cycling9.
The table below shows all the pre and post results; as you can see, they found no statistically significant changes between groups, not even in VO2Max (the main marker of aerobic fitness).
Specifically for altitude training, changes in lung / cardiovascular function and blood variables over the course of the training period showed virtually no difference between participants using the mask and those who didn’t.
Finally, while biological / blood markers went unchanged over the course of 6-weeks, the training-mask-group did report a higher Rate of Perceived Exertion in every interval, as seen in the graph below. This means that while they were working at the same level of intensity as those without the mask, it felt harder.
In other words, the mask made their training session harder, without providing any benefits outside of respiratory muscle endurance. For this reason, it’s clearly a bad idea to use an altitude mask for weight training, or any other activity where you want to improve a skill, VO2 max or strength.
Take Home Points
In theory, an altitude mask would really transform training for many athletes, especially those at the elite level. Sadly, the current masks cannot mimic true altitude training and for now, the only way to reap these benefits is to train a couple of miles above sea level.
In summary, here are some key points to remember:
- Altitude training occurs at a high altitude above sea level, usually 1-2 miles high. The higher above sea level, the more physiological changes occur that can be advantageous to endurance athletes.
- At high altitudes above sea level, your body produces more red blood cells to improve the oxygen-carrying capacity to working muscles, combating the quicker fatigue seen at these elevations.
- Only when these physiological markers occur over a period of time, will athletes see endurance performance improvements. Furthermore, they will only last a few weeks when training or competing back at sea level.
- Training masks have continually failed to show they can produce similar results, so for now, it’s physically impossible to mimic the effects of real-life altitude training.
- While training masks do not readily change blood markers in this fashion, they can increase the endurance and strength of your respiratory muscles. Although this has benefits in specific populations, producing stronger and more forceful respirations, it can reduce metabolic efficiency, especially in elite endurance athletes.
- If your goal is fat loss and/or gains in lean mass, these masks can be counterproductive to your goals as they can greatly diminish your overall training volume for the day. Remember, more training volume = more muscle mass = higher metabolism = more fat burned at rest.
- McKenzie, D. C. (2012). Respiratory physiology: adaptations to high-level exercise. British Journal of Sports Medicine, bjsports-2011.
- Naeije, R. (2010). Physiological adaptation of the cardiovascular system to high altitude. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 52(6), 456-466.
- Berry, M. J., Adair, N. E., Sevensky, K. S., Quinby, A., & Lever, H. M. (1996). Inspiratory muscle training and whole-body reconditioning in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 153(6), 1812-1816.
- Williams, J. S., Wongsathikun, J., Boon, S. M., & Acevedo, E. O. (2002). Inspiratory muscle training fails to improve endurance capacity in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(7), 1194-1198.
- Hanel, B., & Secher, N. H. (1991). Maximal oxygen uptake and work capacity after inspiratory muscle training: a controlled study. Journal of Sports Sciences, 9(1), 43-52.
- Inbar, O., Weiner, P., Azgad, Y., Rotstein, A., & Weinstein, Y. (2000). Specific inspiratory muscle training in well-trained endurance athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(7), 1233-1237.
- Riganas, C. S., Vrabas, I. S., Christoulas, K., & Mandroukas, K. (2008). Specific inspiratory muscle training does not improve performance or VO2max levels in well trained rowers. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 48(3), 285.
- Langer, D., Charususin, N., Jácome, C., Hoffman, M., McConnell, A., Decramer, M., & Gosselink, R. (2015). Efficacy of a Novel Method for Inspiratory Muscle Training in People With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Physical Therapy.
- Porcari, J. P., Probst, L., Forrester, K., Doberstein, S., Foster, C., Cress, M. L., & Schmidt, K. (2016). Effect of Wearing the Elevation Training Mask on Aerobic Capacity, Lung Function, and Hematological Variables. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(2), 379.