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The Science Behind Altitude Training Masks

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A high altitude training mask. Photo: Pinterest

Endurance athletes have long understood the concept of the “live high/train low” mantra to improve erythropoietic pathways and increase hemoglobin in order to enhance performance at sea level. Numerous studies have been conducted examining muscle buffering capabilities, increases in oxidative enzymes, and improvements in aerobic capacity by following this doctrine. However, a new trend is being followed by fitness enthusiasts in hopes of mimicking the altitude effect while at sea level. This trend entails the wearing of an “altitude” or “elevation” mask while training.

Numerous companies manufacture these devices and make bold claims about their effectiveness with little……..well……..with no scientific support to validate theirs boasts. The misguided theory is that by simply hindering one’s ability to breath during exercise will bring about the same effects as the “live high/train low” method. The glaring problem with this advertisement is that there is no change in the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) induced by merely wearing a mask over your naso and oropharynx. As we climb to higher elevations, the partial pressure of all the gases that make up breathable air decreases and this is what induces the physiological changes that endurance athletes are seeking.  Increasing respiratory resistance by mechanical means in no way mimics this effect. The hard truth of the matter is that these so called “altitude” masks are nothing more than another fitness gimmick promoted as a new way to increase performance.

So the next time you’re at your local gym or out for a run or bike ride and see an individual wearing one of these products, while laboring mightily to breathe during exercise, do not look upon them with ridicule or disdain but rather, extend to them a modicum of pity for being duped into purchasing a product that seeks to suffocate them with the promise of enhanced athletic prowess.

By Dr. Vincent K. Ramsey

Dr. Vincent K. Ramsey, is the Chair of Sports Exercise Science at the United States Sports Academy, and can be reached at vramsey@ussa.edu.

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