As technology advances, physical trainers are constantly seeking new ways to improve their clients training so that they can become the best athletes in sports. A relatively new device, the elevation training mask, has been developed in an attempt to mimic exercise at a high elevation, where the air is thinner and less oxygen is present. Training at high elevations has been shown to cause physical adaptations within the human body to compensate for decreased oxygen levels. Evidence shows that there is an increase in production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body, and this increase results in improved efficiency of the body’s utilization of the oxygen present.
In its attempt to simulate these conditions, the elevation training mask has received mixed opinions from doctors, athletes, and trainers. Dr. Teo Mendez, a New York based sports medicine doctor has claimed that the device is actually “unlikely to cause adaptive change, such as an elevation of hemoglobin or blood oxygen carrying capacity.” He claims that this is due to the fact that the air being breathed through the mask still contains the same concentration of oxygen as the air at sea level elevation. On the other hand, the Seattle Seahawks former running back, Marshawn Lynch, used the device during the teams run to Superbowl XLIX. Lynch has praised the device and claims that it has improved his endurance and gives him an extra “boost” when using it to warm up minutes before the game. So why does Lynch praise the device, while Mendez claims that it cannot mimic altitude training effectively? Here’s what the evidence has to say.
In 2016, the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine published a study in which 24 participants completed a six week training program of high-intensity exercise twice a week. The experiment was designed to measure the maximum volume of oxygen a person can use (VO2max), pulmonary function, ventilatory threshold, and hemoglobin levels before and after training. The results showed that the mask improved the participants’ VO2max as well as their ventilatory threshold, the point at which oxygen exchange in the lungs is occurring faster that the intake of oxygen, and their power output at this point. However, the mask did not result in any differences in pulmonary function or hemoglobin levels.. In another study, nine participants completed a six week exercise program and the masks were tested as a breathing resistance device. The results of this study showed that the participants’ ventilatory thresholds went up, as well as their maximal voluntary ventilation, which is the maximum volume of air inhaled and exhaled during one minute. Both studies, though, do have several limitations that arise, the biggest one being a small number of participants. This does not allow them to look into differences between genders, age, and physical builds. However, they do show similar results in that the training masks are effective at increasing the user’s ventilatory threshold and voluntary lung capacity increased.
Based on the evidence provided, the elevation training mask has failed its intended purpose. The mask cannot simulate high altitude training and does not result in increased red blood cell production because the air being inhaled contains the same percentage of oxygen as does the air at sea level. However, the mask is effective at improving training and the endurance of its user. The mask adds resistance while breathing that strengthens the user’s diaphragm and other respiratory muscles which lead to the ability to take deeper, fuller breaths. These larger breaths increase VO2max and push the ventilatory threshold higher as there is more available oxygen to combat the rising exchange rate in the lungs as exercise continues. Essentially, the device mimics the training of swimming, and cause the body build stronger respiratory muscles that allow for larger breaths of air and so more oxygen can be delivered. So while the mask does not fulfill its intended purpose, it is beneficial for endurance training in a similar way to swimming exercises.
Recommended Further Readings
Kido, Satoshi et al. “Effects of Combined Training with Breathing Resistance and Sustained Physical Exertion to Improve Endurance Capacity and Respiratory Muscle Function in Healthy Young Adults.” Journal of Physical Therapy Science 25.5 (2013): 605–610. PMC. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
Porcari, John P. et al. “Effect of Wearing the Elevation Training Mask on Aerobic Capacity, Lung Function, and Hematological Variables.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 15.2 (2016): 379–386. Print.