You see them all over the place at the moment, there’s someone in every gym with one, they’re all over instagram and you can even spot them in hollywood blockbusters like Southpaw. I’m talking about altitude training masks. That guy in the gym who looks like Bane and sounds like Darth Vader swears it’s the same as training in the Himalayas, but what’s the obsession with training at altitude? And what’re the benefits to using an altitude mask?
When your muscles work they use oxygen and glucose (from the food you eat) to provide energy. The more you workout the more oxygen your muscles need, and the harder your body has to work to provide this. Oxygen is transported from the lungs by red blood cells, and pumped round the body by the heart. This is why you get out of breath during exercise, it’s your heart and lungs working to take in as much oxygen as possible. Eventually you’re going to run out of capacity to move more oxygen, or breath more in, which is when you begin to fatigue. So how does altitude training come in?
Altitude training works because the higher up in the atmosphere you are the less oxygen you have available to breath in. Your body’s response to to optimise itself for transporting what little oxygen there is around the body, by increasing production of red blood cells. This process happens quite rapidly – blood tests show that red blood cells can increase by about one percent per week spent at altitude (between 6000 and 10000 feet above sea level) which can translate into a one to three percent improvement in race times for runners – and when you come back to sea level you can push yourself harder for 10-14 days, before your body adapts to being at sea level again.
The companies selling altitude training masks claim that they can replicate hypoxic (low oxygen) training as well as strengthening the muscles you use to breath inhale and exhale – your diaphragm and the intercostal muscles between your ribs. But there are a few problems with this.
High altitude training works because there physically aren’t as many oxygen particles in each lungful of air, but when you’re wearing the altitude mask you aren’t lowering the amount of oxygen in the air, you’re just making it harder to fill your lungs each time so they don’t truly recreate training at altitude. What they can do pretty effectively is train the muscles you use to breath, your inspiratory and expiratory muscles – but the benefits of this on athletic performance is very debatable, it’s been shown to improve the respiratory function of athletes but has been argued to have a minimal effect on the actual performance at any intensity.
My main defence for wearing a training mask during my cardio sessions and HIIT training is anecdotal. I feel that strengthening my inspiratory muscles makes recovery between rounds easier – I feel that I can physically drag more air into my lungs during the break between rounds than I was able to before. Whether this is based in a physiological benefit or is a placebo effect I don’t know, but I do know that I’m willing to do anything for a tiny advantage in the ring. There’s also a psychological element to training with the mask, every session is that much tougher and you have to force your body to work harder and pushing yourself to the limits strengthens the mind. There have also been reports from MMA fighters who say that it gives them a psychological advantage training with a mask as it duplicates the effect of an opponent trying to restrict their breathing in the octagon.
So for the true benefits of training at altitude you need to actually train at altitude, but if you’re looking to gain even a slight advantage recovering between rounds, or make your workouts that bit tougher and push yourself to the limit, then an altitude mask could be exactly what you need.