Altitude training masks are designed to make breathing more difficult when exercising. The idea being that this strengthens your respiratory muscles and improves cardiovascular fitness and efficiency. It’s also claimed that they can simulate the effects of altitude training.
But is that really the case? And do they provide any benefit for endurance athletes?…
So, what are altitude training masks?
Scientifically, they’re described as a “flow-resistive respiratory device”, but they’re more commonly known as a high-altitude, or elevation training mask.
The mask itself, covers your mouth and nose, restricting the flow of air into your lungs, and forcing your lungs and cardiovascular system to work harder during exercise. For this reason, they’re often marketed as a form of resistance training for your lungs. Another claim is that training masks simulate the effects of altitude.
The main marketing claims for these masks are…
- Increased aerobic and anaerobic endurance
- Strengthens respiratory muscles
- Simulates altitude training
But is that really the case?
The reality is: training masks appear to affect exercise in the following ways…
- Firstly, it’s true that your respiratory muscles will have to work harder in order to inhale sufficient air into your lungs.
- However, as a consequence of the reduced air flow, your exercise intensity (in terms of muscle work of your major muscle groups) will be lower when wearing a training mask – if you can’t inhale enough air then work intensity must decrease.
- Blood CO2 levels will also increase
One important point to note: training masks do not actually simulate altitude (Poracri et al., 2016).
Before we take a look at some recent research, here’s three points to consider:
#1 Training masks compromise exercise intensity
The first important point to note is:
wearing the altitude mask during training sessions, will compromise the effectiveness of your workouts. Put simply, you won’t be able to maintain the same power output or speed during these sessions.
Why is that important?…(well), endurance exercise performance is determined by the amount of physical work that you can complete – as an example: the average power that you can maintain when cycling or rowing. As such, one of the primary goals of endurance training is to improve your ability to sustain a high work rate. Since training masks reduce exercise workrate, they limit the effectiveness of these key training sessions. Sure, there may be a small cardiovascular benefit, but they’re less beneficial at improving your ability to sustain high workrates.
This is one of the reasons why elite athletes often live at altitude, but then return to lower altitudes to complete their most intense training sessions. They’re well aware that completing intense training sessions at altitude is less effective.
So, while training masks make workouts harder, they also reduce workrate, and in doing so they limit their effectiveness.
#2 They’re not as effective at strengthening your lungs as you might think
While the training masks, increase the work-rate of your respiratory muscles, is this really the best way to develop strength?
Think of it this way: when endurance athletes look to develop strength, the best approach is to incorporate specific strength exercises, involving just a limited number of repetitions – weight training exercises, plyometrics, hill sprint workouts etc. By doing this, the primary focus is placed on increasing your strength and power.
In contrast, advocates of training masks wear these during sustained workouts. So why is that a problem?…(well), by taking this approach, it shifts the emphasis away from a purely strength focus, and towards more of an endurance focus.
For this reason, we could say that training masks place greater emphasis on muscular endurance rather than strength.
#3 When it comes to strength training, “Inspiratory Muscle Trainers” are more effective than masks
If you’re looking to develop specific strength in your respiratory muscles, then using an inspiratory muscle trainer is a better option.
These are special resistive devices that allow you to breath in against a set resistance. Although, this sounds similar to training masks there’s a couple of significant differences:
- Firstly, this type of training is completed when at rest. In this way, it doesn’t interfere with endurance training. It also allows you to work against a greater level of resistance.
- Secondly, this involves a significantly reduced number of repetitions (normally 30 breaths twice daily), so it’s more inline with traditional strength training. Again, this allows a greater level of resistance compared with the altitude masks.
Taken together, this makes inspiratory muscle training more effective for strengthening your respiratory muscles. It also means they don’t interfere with (or limit) your endurance training workouts.
The reality is…
Research does not currently support the use of altitude training masks
You don’t need to just take my word for it, recent research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology concluded that training masks provided “no benefit to 5km performance” (Faghy et al., 2020).
During the research, the participants were separated into three groups:
- Mask training group: completed HIIT workouts with the mask
- Control group: completed HIIT without the mask
- Inspiratory muscle trainer (IMT) group: completed the HIIT without the mask, but used a Powerbreathe device to complete 30 resistive breaths, twice daily.
In each case, the participants completed 3 weekly HIIT workouts over a 6week training block.
Here’s the interesting part: while the training mask provided no benefit over HIIT training, supplementing training with a inspiratory muscle training device – for 30 breaths, twice daily – improved 5km running performance more than just HIIT.
This really shouldn’t be surprising since we know that:
- Training masks can compromise your workout intensity
- In contrast, using the IMT device doesn’t compromise training and also provides a stronger strength training benefit for your respiratory muscles.
Importantly, this research is not alone. In fact, several other studies have also failed to find a significant benefit from altitude training masks (Porcari et al., 2016; Biggs et al., 2017; Sellers et al. 2016)
Inspiratory muscle training devices provide a greater benefit for endurance exercise performance than training masks.
They appear to provide a greater strength training benefit for your respiratory muscles, and (importantly) they don’t compromise your endurance workouts.
So, if you want to strengthen your respiratory muscles and improve endurance exercise performance, without compromising training, then an inspiratory muscle training device appears to be a more effective option.
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