Elevation Masks: Are They Worth It?
Elevation (or altitude) training is nothing new. For decades, athletes and coaches have known about the benefits of training high up in the mountains. But doing so has one fatal flaw: It requires mountains.
And many athletes don’t have the time or resources to disappear for weeks at a time to train in the majestic heights. So, in an effort to simulate the extreme benefits of elevation training, some individuals have started using so-called “elevation masks.” These products, which generally use a complex system of valves to restrict air flow claim to offer to same results as a week in the mountains.
But is there any science to these claims? With many organizations – including police and fire departments – using these masks in addition to athletes, this could be a pretty tempting training tool. Let’s take a look at the research surrounding both how for-real elevation training works and how these masks compare.
What Elevation Training Does
To fully understand the issue of whether or not elevation masks actually work, it’s important to first be clear about what they’re trying to recreate. What actually happens when you train at high altitudes?
Starting at about 5000 feet about sea level but peaking above 8000 feet, your body starts to undertake some pretty major adaptations. Up at those heights, the concentration of oxygen in the air is greatly reduced. Which is what people mean when they say that the air is “thinner.” Since oxygen is actually what you’re looking for when you inhale, each breath is suddenly only providing you with a fraction of the substance that your body needs to continue working.
To compensate, your body begins to release more of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) which stimulates red blood cell production. With more red blood cells flying through your system, your body can make better use of what oxygen it does have.
Once these changes have been achieved, an athlete who returns to a lower elevation will now be a highly efficient machine. At least when it comes to oxygen use. Now back in their normal, oxygen-rich environment, those athletes will be able to work harder for longer since their muscles will have more fuel and will be able to quickly remove any waste products.
What Elevation Masks Do
Now, let’s look at how elevation masks work.
As mentioned, these masks use adjustable valves to limit to amount of air that you’re able to breath in while working out. But, that’s not how elevation training works.
Remember, the key factor in the success of elevation training was not a lack of air but a lack of oxygen. The adaptations that athletes are working for are in response to there being too few oxygen molecules entering the body with each breath. These masks, though, do not reduce the amount of oxygen that the wearer gets.
Or at least, not by enough. At 8000 feet, for example, oxygen saturation can drop to about 65 percent. Research into elevation masks, however, has found that users still had saturation levels of about 98 percent. These changes, then, are simply not enough to stimulate an increase in red blood cell production.
And, by those standards, elevation masks don’t work.
Does that mean, however, that elevation masks are useless? Not according to a 2016 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
To test the efficacy of elevation masks, the research team separated 24 volunteers into two groups. One group wore elevation masks and the other did not. Both groups completed an identical 6 week long, intense cycling training program during which their heart rates and Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) were measured.
Before and after completing the program, both groups also underwent a huge battery of tests that looked at their power output, the function of their lungs and the efficiency with which their blood transported oxygen.
As you might have guessed, the masked exercisers didn’t experience any changes in oxygen transportation. But, you might be surprised to learned that working out with the mask did offer some pretty significant advantages.
The mask group saw major improvements in both lung function and power output – likely because working out with restricted air intake made their bodies work that much harder.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, then, elevation masks simply do not simulate the complexities of a high-altitude environment. As such, they cannot offer the same adaptions or athletic advantages.
The masks, however, do succeed in making workouts harder through the rather unpleasant means of restricting air intake. In this way, the masks can help you to make faster improvements in your lung strength and efficiency. You might even see some increases in your strength when using the mask. (Although, I’m not convinced that isn’t just because they make you look like Bane.)
So, no. Elevation masks aren’t useless. But they also don’t do what they promise. Interestingly, then, these masks could actually be powerful training tools, if only they didn’t carry such a misleading name.
Be aware, though, if you do decide to use an elevation mask, that things will be much more challenging. This strategy should not be undertaken by beginners and you should gradually work your way up to more and more difficult workouts. Depending on your style of training, you may even have to greatly reduce the frequency, duration and intensity of your workouts.
Many of the masks on the market also give you the ability to adjust the level of restriction. So, start easy and work your way up.
It’s also important to consider the goal of your training. As mentioned, rescue organizations like Fire and Police departments often use elevation masks. And, considering that these individuals may very likely be required to perform physically in environments where it is difficult to breath, this makes sense. For the majority of athletes, however, the situation will very likely never happen.