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Nov
02

Elevation Training Masks – Risk Not Worth Benefit!

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumEveryone knows a competitive athlete, not only Olympic or professional, but high school, college, or weekend warrior, who seems to enjoy taking their bodies to the maximum level in order to improve performance. Billions of dollars are spent each year to buy the best equipment, travel to the best facility, eat the best food and sometimes take unproven supplements and drugs to enhance performance. Well, the latest product on the market to get a lot of attention is “The Elevation Training Mask.” The mask, designed to simulate oxygen deprivation at high altitudes, is placed over the mouth and nose while exercising or training and creates resistance to breathing air in and out of the lungs. Consequently, less oxygen enters the lungs during activity with the hope of attaining the advantages of training at high altitudes such as the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

What is High Altitude Training?

Altitude training is used by some endurance athletes to stress their bodies to the maximal possible training with less oxygen available. In most cases, the training centers are above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level such as in St. Moritz for the Swiss Olympic Training Base or Colorado Springs, Colorado for the US Olympic Training Center. At these altitudes, the barometric pressure of oxygen and overall percent of oxygen is reduced. In response, when training in these conditions, the body acclimates to the lack of oxygen by increasing the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin (the part of the blood responsible for carrying oxygen to the muscles and other tissues of the body). Therefore, if an athlete trains at a high altitude and then competes at a lower altitude, the increase in red blood cells and hemoglobin will provide a competitive advantage in sports requiring endurance. This effect can last for 10 to 14 days after leaving a high altitude for a lower one. Attempts to simulate the affects of altitude training have been made in the several ways such as: “altitude simulation tents, rooms, or mask-based systems.” More recently, it has become available to the general public and sold on-line or at Dick’s Sporting Goods. One such product is the “Elevation Training Mask 2.0” which sells for $79.99.

Elevation Training Mask Claims

According to the manufacturer claims regarding the Elevation Training Mask, “this resistance training device helps condition the lungs by creating pulmonary resistance and strengthening the diaphragm, making your workout seem like its being held high in the mountains.” “When the air is thinner, your body works harder, increasing your ability to process oxygen. When you return to lower elevations, your performance will show substantial increases in strength, endurance and speed.”

The Research

It is well documented that the body acclimates to living or training at high altitudes (2,400 meters or 8000 feet), where the barometric pressure of oxygen and overall percentage of oxygen is reduced, by increasing the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin. However, the cause and effect to transfer to athletic performance is not as clear. In fact, according to more recent studies, elite athletes who benefit from the effects of high altitude training do not exercise at high altitudes on a regular basis. These athletes LIVE at high altitudes but exercise and train at lower altitudes for the following scientifically supported reasons:

    • Exercising exclusively at a high altitude does not stimulate adaptive changes positive for performance.
    • Acute exposure to training with less oxygen causes headaches and dizziness which can negatively affect training sessions.
    • Muscles are unable to be trained with intensity without adequate oxygen and therefore training sessions cannot be as intense at high altitudes. Ultimately, this has a negative impact on strength and performance.
    • Training mask studies have found some improvement in breathing (VO2 Max) of sedentary or mildly active individuals, however, no improvement was found in those who were moderately or highly trained.
    • There is no evidence to support the claim that training masks increase mental strength, focus or energy levels in users. Risks – Side EffectsIn addition to health risks, especially for those in poor physical condition, several side effects of altitude training will actually have a negative impact on physical training and conditioning:
      • Stress on the Heart – with an increase in red blood cells, the blood is thicker and blood flow is sluggish.
      • Difficulty Breathing
      • Weight Loss – Muscle Atrophy (wasting) – due to increase demand on the body to provide energy.
      • Weakened Immune System
      • Altitude Sickness – headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath.

Conclusion

Current research does not support the effectiveness of altitude training masks to improve physical conditioning or athletic performance. In fact, there is more evidence that supports the fact that it may actually have a negative impact on physical training and conditioning. Elite athletes who benefit from the effects of high altitude training do not exercise at high altitudes on a regular basis. These athletes LIVE at high altitudes but exercise and train at lower altitudes.If the goal of a training mask is to create an additional challenge to an exercise or conditioning program in order to improve fitness or performance, one might consider more traditional and proven methods such as: increasing time, resistance, incline, speed, variability and frequency of the activity. Additionally, consider using muscle groups in different ways: plyometric, eccentric, isometric or ballistic training techniques. Contact a certified trainer or physical therapist for more information.   Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

 

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum”  in the Scranton Times-Tribune.

 

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: drpmackarey@msn.com

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.