"Altitude training" masks - worth it?
by on Thursday, March 3, 2016  (7 comments)

I've recently seen several people ask about "altitude training" masks. Recently, I was asked by a runner I coach. Because this seems to be a hot issue, I thought I'd cover what I've seen as of now.

What is an altitude training mask?

First, what is an altitude training mask? This is the one I've come across in discussions. Maybe you've seen them around. I've never yet seen someone running with one but I have seen a couple people wearing them while weight training at the local Y.

What's the goal?

Next, let's have a quick review of what endurance athletes are trying to accomplish when going to altitude. We are trying to live in air with relatively low oxygen levels in order to stimulate the production of red blood cells as well as their ability to carry oxygen. In recent years, it's been discovered that you can get the benefits of altitude while living at altitude without suffering the drawbacks (primarily not as much oxygen available) if you travel to low altitude for training. That's why we have the concept of "live high, train low" and why quite a few elite runners these days have altitude tents in their bedrooms. They can sleep at simulated high altitude but train at low altitude.

Altitude training? Not quite...

This specific mask's promotional material states:

Training Mask 2.0 does not "change on the o2 molecular level" however your body does make adaptations for this "Simulation" to be considered "Altitude Training" also known as the "BOHR EFFECT"



So it's not reduced oxygen. That's a good thing because, if you were reducing oxygen levels, wearing the mask while running would have the opposite effect of what you're looking for. You want to "live high, train low" and this would have you living low, training high if you wore it while running and not at other times.

Resistance training? Possibly...

But what does this mask actually do, then? It appears that the claim is that it simulates high altitude by restricting your air flow.

Elsewhere on the same site, I see the claim of resistance while breathing building diaphragm strength and surface area and elasticity of alveoli, improving anaerobic thresholds and lung capacity. They mention studies but don't offer references.

Well, that's not what training at altitude does. Instead, the mask is a type of resistance training. The restricted airflow would add resistance that your respiratory muscles have to overcome. While that's not altitude training, is there a benefit to this?

I have now come across some references that help answering this question. In re-reading Science of Running by Steve Magness, I came across the topic of "respiratory training".

As Magness notes (with references, unfortunately, to studies I can't find online) a study by Romer evaluates the effect of respiratory muscle training and finds that it improves 20km and 40km cycling time trials by 3.8% and 4.6% respectively.

However, Magness also notes that similar studies have had mixed results and it appears the benefits are less significant in less well trained runners.

As noted in the book:

As we have seen, the degree to which the respiratory muscles contribute to VO2max varies based on training level. ... For this reason, higher-level runners should consider respiratory training, while lower level runners probably will not see the same degree of benefit.



Note: The site mentions building surface area and elasticity of the alveoli, improving anaerobic thresholds and lung capacity. The anaerobic threshold claim would seem to have some credence based on what I noted from the Magness book. I still have found no evidence for the claims related to the alveoli and lung capacity.

Conclusion

At this point, given the science I've seen and what we currently know about the benefits and drawbacks of altitude, I see limited benefit in this product. In fact, it might be counterproductive for some if used while running.

For the record, I attempted to contact the company linked to above so I could discuss benefits and concerns with them directly but, over a year after my first attempt to contact them, I never received a response.

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7 comments
Tony Munroe (Guest)

Ok well Im the owner of one of these said masks. My job means Im stuck on a ship for various lengths of time which means my only form of run training is in the ships gym on a treadmill. It gets pretty boring after a while so in an attempt to vary things I got one of these masks. I run ultradistance and ironman events.
I do not use it every training session but what I do find is that indeed I have to work pretty damn hard at sucking in oxygen. I try and do a normal workout on the treadmill while I wear it. I am very aware of my body and its functions and at the end of the session what I find is indeed I feel that my lungs feel more inflated that I have really had to work at sucking in the air (have it set on 9000ft) I do think it does strengthen the diaphragm.
Whether it is doing me any good or not I cant say. But I do feel pretty damn good after a session with it.It feels really easy to breath and the next session on the treadmill feels easier. Long term....not sure...

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Ryan

Tony, thank you for the comment. I appreciate hearing from someone who has used the product. I did ask someone at the local Y about the mask and his description was similar to yours. I appreciate that something is going on there. I just don't see the connection with improved performance that they claim. I can't find any studies backing the claims, either through that site or in my own searches. When claims such as this are made to sell a product, I believe some evidence supporting the claims should be produced.

If you feel good with it, great. What concerns me are the claims of performance improvement with no evidence to back them up.

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cesar

I have seen a couple of people running with those and did not know what it was, until I read this and google the term " alttitude mask", that was when I realized that what I saw was actually that. I see no point in using those! if you want to difficult the air consumption, just run v02 max workouts or hill repeats. In my opinion, that is another trend!

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Ryan

Cesar, I suspect a lot of it is sales pitch. When I first wrote the above a little over a year ago, I was sure it was completely a hyped up sales pitch. I still see a lot of sales pitch and over the top claims but there appears to be some legitimacy to the practice.

Just like hill repeats or strength training to overload the muscles of the legs, this would overload the respiratory muscles, most notably the diaphragm. That makes sense. I just question whether wearing one while running, except maybe on an occasional easy run, is the wisest way to make use of the mask. As always, I also wonder if some people are focusing on incremental gains while missing the big picture and significant gains that may come elsewhere.

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cesar

Thats true Ryan!! Maybe the improvement They are experiencing is due to the training as a whole, rather than the mask alone.

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Ben (Guest)

The mask look like a cloth to cover your face. Once, I ran in the winter with a scarf over my face and I found I have difficulty breathing, so I took the scarf off.

Until there are scientific evidence to back up any claim from wearing the "altitude mask", I would not consider it. And, from reading this, I may do more running with a scarf covering my face.

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Ryan

It is more than just fabric over the face but I'm not sure it is a whole lot different. Here in Wisconsin, I'm sure many runners who run through the winter have worn a scarf, balaclava, or some sort of ski mask over their faces. It's probably a similar but not quite as extreme effect.

The evidence is pretty scant right now. If the evidence changes, I'll update here. Until then, I'm not bothering with it and that would also be my recommendation for others.

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