What’s the use of elevation masks? For those who don’t know what that is, it’s an awesome looking fitness accessory that makes you look like Bane from Batman. Other than making you look like a complete bad-ass in the gym and your morning/late night runs, does it have any real purpose?
The answer is yes! But not for what you think it is. You’d think it’s in the name right? But in reality, elevation masks do nothing for the body as elevation training. It acts more like a respiratory muscle training device (Porcari, 2016, p.379); it adds resistance to inhaling and exhaling. It’s the exact same principle as increasing the weight when you biceps curl to make stronger bigger biceps.
So will this respiratory muscle training produce the same results and benefits of training or living at altitude?
We’ll figure that out today. We’ll look at the most up to date research and figure out if this costly device (ranging anywhere from $80 - $200) is worth purchasing to give you an edge in any upcoming race in altitude, make any high altitude hikes easier, or make breathing in general easier in daily life and training.
The most up to date studies of elevation mask effectiveness comes from a 2016 study from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine conducted by John P. Porcari and his colleagues. They put twenty-four moderately trained subjects through a 6 week high-intensity cycle ergometer training program. The subjects were randomized into a mask or control group, twelve in each group. The study found that there were no significant differences found in pulmonary function or hematological variables between or within groups. They did however find significant improvements in ventilatory threshold, power output at ventilatory threshold, respiratory compensation threshold and power output at respiratory compensation threshold from pre to post testing.
So what does all this gibberish mean?
In simpler terms, training in a high intensity cycling program with an elevation mask improves breathing rate and the power one can produce when gassed out by around 10-20% more (Porcari, 2016, p.379) compared to someone who doesn’t use an elevation mask.
This study is currently one of the best studies I’ve read as it’s not funded by an elevation mask company and not funded by an opposing party. It’s funded by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a universal leader in personal trainer certification, group fitness and health coach certifications.
Other studies like a 2002 study by researchers at Texas Tech University and a 2000 study by Victor Conte of BALCO fame are incredibly biased towards finding results without a comparison to control subjects.
Now we know that there are improvements that come with using the elevation mask when training. But is it really effective? Yes, it does increase your breathing “strength” (how hard you can breathe in and out) but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your running performance, hiking, and daily breathing will get any easier. Since no matter how much air you breathe in, if you’re not efficiently using the oxygen in the air you just inhaled it won’t do you any good if you can breathe a lot of air in. It’ll only be effective if the oxygen in the air efficiently diffuses into your blood, and then putting that oxygen towards a useful purpose like your leg muscles for running. Improving your lung strength and being able to exhale and inhale more forcefully won’t help you with using oxygen more efficiently.
A different training method has to be used for your body to efficiently process oxygen and utilize it to its full potential.
So are elevation masks worth it? Yes and no. If you are an elite aerobic athlete (a marathon runner, triathlon athlete, etc.) yes it will benefit you as most likely your body is incredibly efficient in utilizing oxygen during performance. Increasing air intake no matter how little will give you an edge in performance by increasing your oxygen supply with every breath. But for the general population who only want to get stronger, more fit, and more healthy it’s not really an investment that would be worthwhile as the improvements made are not very significant for you. You would be better off spending that extra $80-$200 on a gym membership or new running shoes.
1. Can Altitude Masks Really Replicate Altitude Training? (2016, June 10). Retrieved September 01, 2017, from https://runnersconnect.net/altitude-masks-running.
2. Cress, M. L., Forrester, K., Probst, L., Foster, C., Doberstein, S., & Porcari, J. P. (2016). Effect of Wearing the Elevation Training Mask on Aerobic Capacity, Lung Function, and Hematological Variables. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,48, 1040-1041. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000488131.38685.16
3. Williams, J. S.; Wongsathikun, J.; Boon, S. M.; Acevedo, E. O., Inspiratory muscle training fails to improve endurance capacity in athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2002, 34 (7), 1194-1198.
Erick Jarder is a 4th year student at Douglas College. He is pursuing a career in the health industry and currently is a Personal Trainer for the City of Surrey.
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