If you enjoyed my article on CrossFit, then you are in for another stellar review. We’ve all seen those guys at the gym or on TV wearing what looks to be like Bane’s morphine mask from The Dark Knight Rises. The product itself is what manufacturers call an altitude simulation mask (or just altitude mask). They claim that the settings can be adjusted to simulate being at higher altitudes to elicit a training effect that would occur if you were training thousands of meters above sea level. Since this training effect is so highly sought after, every rising star and gym nut run to the nearest Sportchek to grab one of their own. This product (like so many others) either neglects or bends research to support why their claims are true. If you’re short of time I’ll make this brief. It does not work. Without further delay, let’s dive a little deeper into altitude training.
The science of utilizing altitude for performance enhancement is based around the body’s production of red blood cells. More red blood cells mean the body has more carriers of oxygen resulting in a higher stamina. This slight physical advantage can be the determinant of athletic success or failure hence why many people look to capitalize on it. The USA Olympic Training Center is based in Colorado because the altitude is significantly higher. At sea level, oxygen content is approximately 20.95% of the dry air we breath. Looking at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, the oxygen content is approximately 17% less than sea level!
What does this have to do with red blood cells? Everything. Your body is constantly adapting to the environment in which it resides. When you transition from sea level to higher altitude, oxygen becomes more scarce in the air you breath. Your body immediately kicks in to action and signals the red blood cell production hormone, erythropoietin (EPO). When required, EPO signals for a higher production of red blood cells in order to meet the body’s demand for oxygen. Put simply, you are suffocating and your body is ensuring you can return to a comfortable state.
Now, this doesn’t happen within a few hours. The effects of altitude take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks before demonstrating any physiological changes. It is for this reason many elite athletes live out their careers at higher altitudes in order to gain an edge over their competition. Naturally, many sport equipment companies took notice of this and wanted to offer the advantage of altitude right here at sea level. There are two big problems as to why the altitude mask is garbage so pay attention.
First off, the effects of altitude training occur because the percent of oxygen in the air is decreased and barometric pressure reduced. The altitude mask does not decrease oxygen percent, it restricts air. Let me rephrase that point. When you wear your altitude mask, oxygen content is still 20.95% of the air you breath. You are only breathing LESS AIR! What this means is you are essentially suffocating for no reason whatsoever. EPO isn’t signalling for more red blood cells, your lungs are signalling for more air. Let that sink in a second before you continue reading.
Some product companies have smartened up and now state that their masks are used for respiratory training to increase strength and size of the diaphragm (breathing muscle). Although this is true, the effects on performance have proven to be INSIGNIFICANT. That means studies were performed and the results indicated a stronger diaphragm did not correlate to improved performance. So you suffocate yourself thinking you are in the mountains and all you get is a stronger diaphragm. Wasn’t that a $100 well spent?
Before I let you altitude mask junkies recover, here are some more facts. Science has proven the best method for improved performance utilizing altitude is the live high, train low method. This involves the athlete residing in a higher altitude state and travelling down to sea level to train. Think about that. Elite athletes are only living at high altitudes meaning they sleep, walk their dogs and drive to the store at high altitude. THEY DO NOT TRAIN AT HIGH ALTITUDE! They train at sea level like everyone else. Why? So their practices and techniques don’t suffer. They still need to practice perfection in order to become better. So my question is this: why the heck are you meatheads trying to simulate training at altitude when the best in the world come down to sea level? The answer is you saw the mask, thought it looked cool and decided to buy it because that’s what every other gym junkie was doing. Game, set, match.
For those looking to get an edge over the competition, do your research. The tried and proven methods seem to always render the best results. Even though you think you need altitude to get an edge, the truth is you might not. Yes, it works however it only counts for a small fraction of the overall performance. It doesn’t account for poor mechanics, weakness or lack of power. Those elements are built at sea level in a gym or training room. Focus on the basics as they are what win championships. Everything else is supplementary and not necessary. Altitude is nice to have, but not exactly needed. OK mask purchasers, catch your breath now.