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Elevation Training Mask
Simulating High Altitude Training

Will wearing a mask that makes you look like Bane, help you build more strength?
Will wearing a mask that makes you look
like Bane, help you build more strength?

Making sure you get enough oxygen is critical to completing a proper workout. That's why I was surprised to hear of a product that's designed to LIMIT how much you can breathe. It's called an "elevation training mask." It's a mask that goes over your nose and mouth, with valves you can adjust to limit how much air you can breathe in.

Adjust the valves to be more restrictive and it's supposedly like working out at a higher altitude. To simulate lower altitudes, increase the airflow. By making workouts more difficult, the mask can supposedly help improve your overall fitness.

The concept is simple but ignores a couple of important facts about training in higher altitudes. The first is the mistaken belief that the composition of air is different as you go higher or lower. It's not. By volume, dry air is made up of about 78.09% nitrogen, 20.93% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.03% carbon dioxide and small amounts of other gases. It doesn't matter if you're measuring the air at sea level or a mile up a mountain.

What changes is the WEIGHT of the air. The higher you go, the less weight the air exerts on you.

Think of it like a diver going underwater. The deeper a diver goes, the more water that's over his head and the greater the pressure. When you're at sea level, there's a whole lot of air over you and a lot of pressure being exerted. As you move to higher altitudes, there's less air on top of you and less pressure bearing down.

It's the pressure that determines how much oxygen our bodies take in. When you take a breath, the oxygen goes into the blood. The absorption of that oxygen takes place because there's a difference in pressure. As pressure decreases, we aren't able to take in as much. Go really high, and we need extra oxygen to make up for the decreased air pressure. That's why mountain climbers carry tanks of oxygen as they climb to the top.

A mask that limits how much air you can take in, can't change the surrounding air pressure; but it can hinder your workouts. When our bodies are deprived of oxygen, we can't run as far, exercise as long or lift as much. It makes us weaker. The whole point of exercising is to get stronger, not weaker.

That leads me to the second mistaken belief that mask promoters have, how long it takes your body to adjust. Researchers who've studied training at higher altitudes, found that it takes about two weeks for our bodies to adapt to the conditions of living at 7,500 feet above sea level. Every 2,000 feet higher adds an additional week onto the total.

That adjustment happens with your body living in those conditions, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even if you wore a mask for four hours a week, it would take over a year and a half to rack up the same amount of oxygen deprivation time that happens in 14 days living at a higher altitude. You simply can't wear the mask long enough to make much of a difference.

To see if the masks work, we should look for a study that has people breathing through a device that can be adjusted, to allow lots of air in or severely restrict it. Then see what the differences are between the restricted and unrestricted air groups. Fortunately, just such a study was done with a device called the PowerLung.

Subjects were instructed to use the PowerLung five days a week, for five weeks. The resistance was changed once each week to make it increasingly harder. However, the subjects in the control group had a PowerLung that maxed out at 15% of the resistance compared to the normal PowerLung.

At the end of the study, there were no significant differences between the two groups on ventilation (VE), the volume of oxygen that can be utilized in one minute during exhaustive exercise (VO2 max) or the volume of air displaced while breathing normally when extra effort is not applied (VT).

In simple English, restricted breathing didn't help the athletes performance.

There's a simple solution for companies selling elevation training masks. Test them in a controlled manner. The gold standard for scientific testing is something called a "double-blind" test, where one group gets the real thing and another group gets a placebo. Conduct that kind of test on those masks. Here's how.

First, start with a group of at least 50 people who are similar in age and physical capabilities. Then split them randomly into two groups.

Build 50 elevation masks, but REMOVE any air restrictions in half of them. That way half the masks restrict airflow, half do not. Then make sure to cover that up with some sort of mesh or cloth so that you can't tell if a particular mask restricts the air or not.

Have medical researchers meet the subjects at regular times and put the masks on before a workout. When the exercise is finished, have the medical personnel remove the masks so you can be sure the subjects never see if their mask is a restricted one or totally open.

Tell all the subjects the same thing. Let them know they are part of a test to see if restricting airflow can improve exercise performance. Do not tell them that some will receive masks with normal airflow and some with restricted airflow. They should all believe they are wearing restrictive masks.

After 8 weeks of regular exercise, at least 3 hours weekly, test both groups. If the group with the restricted airflow tests at least 5% better in aerobic capacity, power or another standard measurement, then the masks may provide some benefit. The reason we say they have to be 5% or more is because that's the level medical researchers believe is required to prove that a new therapy is better than a placebo.

Don't be an unpaid guinea pig for the mask companies. Wait until one of them conduct and publish a double-blind, placebo-controlled study WITH RESULTS that proves the money you spend on a mask is going to help you.

In the meantime, companies trying to sell you a mask that limits how much you can breathe during exercise are relying on your gullibility. They want you to buy the masks without proving they work. Don't give them your money or let them waste your time.

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Updated 9/28/2020