The latest product that is causing a lot of buzz around the fitness industry is altitude training masks. These masks fit over the nose and mouth and are designed to restrict the amount of air that comes into the mask, thus making inhalation and exhalation more difficult and decreasing the oxygen content of the available air due to decreased exchange with the air outside of the mask. As a result, the altitude training masks claim to simulate training at a higher elevation and increase lung capacity due to the restricted breathing.
Let’s tackle the altitude training claim first. The reason why many elite athletes use altitude training is the exposure to the decreased oxygen content in the air at higher elevations has been shown to cause an increase in red blood cell content of the blood. As the red blood cell is the oxygen carrying cell in the blood, an increase in aerobic capacity and performance is observed when returning to lower elevations.
However, those looking for these adaptations typically do not exercise at a higher elevation and spend the rest of their day at a lower one as would be seen when using an altitude training masks. Instead, typical training programs involve either living at a higher elevation and working out at a lower elevation or performing both at altitude. In fact, studies have shown that simply exercising at altitude is not enough of a stimulus to result in the adaptations typically seen when training at higher elevations.
In addition to a lack of scientific evidence that only training at elevation will result in adaptation, acute exposure to decreased oxygen content of the air can have some negative effects. Headaches and dizziness are common symptoms of acute exposure to altitude, which can decrease the effectiveness of a workout. Though the biggest detriment of training at altitude is a decrease in power output by the working muscles (also known as decreased exercise intensity). This is the reason why many elite athletes prefer to use the live at high elevation and train at a lower altitude as sacrificing the numerous benefits of more intense exercise far outweighs the limited value of training at altitude.
The other claim in regards to increases in respiratory abilities due to restricted breathing is more complicated. Studies have repeatedly shown that breathing with obstructive devices will increase minute ventilation (amount of air breathed per minute) and tidal volume (amount of air breathed in one breath). These studies have been conducted in non-exercise situations, though it is assumed that the same results would occur during workouts. However, the true question is whether these respiratory increases actually lead to increases in performance.
It can be concluded though the research that performance will increase in those in which breathing is a limiting factor. Studies with sedentary or mildly active individuals did show increases in performance in regards to their VO2 max and anaerobic threshold. In contrast, moderately to highly trained individuals who performed restricted breathing exercises improved their respiratory metrics but showed no increase in VO2 max or anaerobic threshold. This may suggest that their previous training improved respiration enough to no longer be a limiting factor in performance.
Other claims have included increased mental strength, focus and energy has a result of using this product. There has been no research based on these assertions and are solely based on anecdotal evidence. I would suggest that these results would be very individualized and negative feedback would not be published.
Altitude training masks may be the latest craze, but are ineffective when compared to scientific evidence. Only exercising in a higher elevation environment will not lead to the adaptations generally associated with altitude training. Investing in an altitude tent or a cabin in the mountains is more likely to increase red blood cell count than these masks. Although respiratory ability may improve with the resisted breathing involved with the masks, the effect on performance is dependent on training levels and these changes can occur with other devices as well.
These elevation masks will make your workout more difficult, but the resulting decrease in the exercise intensity can negate the progress that is truly desired. Decreased strength, power and caloric outputs are all likely when training with this device, thus reducing the effectiveness of the workout.