Save Your Money on Training Masks

Gimmicks in the training world are nothing new. Every day it seems some new gadget or miracle pill is being introduced which claims to deliver all the results you seek, and faster than you thought possible. Today I wanted to address elevation training masks as they seem to be gaining traction in the training world.

Oxygen dissemination in the body operates on a gradient. Oxygen enters the lungs, where it awaits de-oxygenated blood being pumped through the body. When the blood reaches the lungs, the pressure of oxygen in the capillaries is lower than it is in the lungs. So the oxygen moves from the higher pressure in the lungs to the lower pressure in the blood vessels. In the blood, the oxygen must bind to hemoglobin in order to be carried around the body. At sea level, due to the partial pressure of oxygen, roughly 98% of the binding sites on hemoglobin will hold onto oxygen. However, as we go higher in elevation, due to the lower partial pressure of oxygen, a smaller amount of oxygen will bind to each hemoglobin molecule. As an adaptation to this, the body produces more red blood cells. So even though each cell carries fewer oxygen molecules, the extra number makes up the difference.

Once they go back to normal altitude, the adaptations of extra red blood cells and a higher blood volume persist for a short time before the body normalizes. In well-trained athletes, this is good because they still have more red blood cells and total blood, however, at normal altitude, each blood cell can now carry more oxygen molecules, which means more oxygen can be carried through the blood and to the muscles.

Where this matters less is in athletes who are not as well-trained, because if the athlete does not have the appropriate “machinery” in the muscles to utilize the oxygen being delivered, then all the extra oxygen is unnecessary. It will not be used. I should note that only the very highest-level competitors truly have the aerobic machinery necessary to efficiently process and use the extra oxygen.

Aerobic performance can be thought of thusly – central adaptations which improve oxygen delivery, and peripheral adaptations which improve oxygen utilization. The problem is, most people don’t have the necessary machinery at the peripheral level to truly take advantage of the oxygen being delivered to it. Thus, improving oxygen delivery is an exercise in futility because all of the oxygen being delivered isn’t being used. It is no different than the football players you may see who use oxygen masks when coming off the field. While the higher concentration of oxygen may yield better delivery to the muscles, the players do not have well-enough developed aerobic machinery at the peripheral level to actually utilize the oxygen when it gets there.

Another point to be made is that merely training at altitude is not sufficient to spur these adaptations. Living at altitude for an extended period of time is necessary. Short exposures during training sessions are not sufficient. Thus, the recommendation is often “live high, train low.” Living at altitude will promote the necessary adaptations in red blood cell count and blood volume, while training at lower altitudes will eliminate the possible issues associated with lower levels of oxygen that come with being at altitude. This will result in better training sessions and a better training effect.

It should also be noted that all of these recommendations are for endurance athletes. Sprinters and lactic athletes may find some benefits of training at altitude. Lactic athletes in particular, because training at altitude, void of the adaptations of living at altitude, means less oxygen is delivered to the muscles, and lactic enzymes are developed to cope with the stress of not having adequate oxygen available.

All of this is also said assuming the masks in question actually change the partial pressure of oxygen, as opposed to simply restricting air flow. If it is the latter (which is most likely), it does nothing to change the partial pressure of oxygen, and therefore there is little need for more red blood cells. It will almost certainly strengthen the lungs and breathing musculature, but will do little to nothing for the actual aerobic performance of the body.

This post is merely meant to be informative as to the efficacy, or lack thereof, of popular training gimmicks. It is not meant to be a comprehensive article outlining the complexities of aerobic metabolism and adaptations. Undoubtedly, training masks make training harder. But that doesn’t automatically mean better. So what’s the point in all this? Save your money, and train smarter. There are no shortcuts. Just consistent, hard, smart work.