For the last couple of months a partially written article along with scientific research has been sitting on my laptop. I have looked at it daily, trying to figure out the right context to write this article. In the end as more and more people are investing money on the newest craze, I hit a tipping point.
The fitness industry is full of devises that promise to boost this muscle, gain that six-pack, or improve training, many of which we find out later is nothing more than modern day snake oil. Obstacle Course Racing is a new sport and in that people are looking to make a buck, athletes are looking for the magic bullet to propel them to the top, and cottage industries are starting up. In 2011 – 2012, the device of the moment was a weight vest; people flocked to the store in droves after one of the top athletes used them in their workouts. There was the pet rock surge, no not the 1970’s fad but one spawned off a few YouTube videos, and one, which this author was greatly a part of. Both of which had well-intentioned useful roots, but have evolved into extremes as people latched onto them and felt they needed to be more “hardcore”. OCR is constantly about pushing boundaries and often times we take a useful training idea and push it beyond helpful into hurtful. But that’s another article all together. Now it seems 2013 is the year of the altitude mask. The newest craze across the fitness industry at least the OCR world.
Altitude masks hit our world in late 2012 or early 2013. Facebook photos starting popping up everywhere with athletes trying to gain the advantage of altitude training as the mask companies claimed. As more and more athletes strapped on a mask to go train, often spending $50 (for a cheap one) or more for a mask, the usefulness of this device came into question. Can you really replicate altitude training with the use of a mask? With all of these claims it makes it sound like this is the answer to all those living at sea level in increase performance, but do the scientists agree? Well, the science says no. After consulting one of the leading experts in the field of altitude and elevation training as well as some of the studies conducted by the US military on the effectiveness of these masks in training. The peer-reviewed science shows these masks do nothing, except increase lung muscle strength. You can visit their websites to find out the benefits they claim. Improved muscle strength means I can do more, well not really. If you are trying to come back from an accident, than maybe improving lung strength will be helpful or suffer some acute asthma maybe you will find a benefit but for the rest of us, it’s useless.
A Little Lesson in Oxygen and Atmospheric Pressure
Everywhere on earth there is 20.93% of oxygen in the air. No matter if you are in Death Valley or Mt. Everest. The amount of oxygen is the same the density is changed, making it feel like there is less. What changes when we go up in elevation is atmospheric pressure, as elevation raises atmospheric pressure decreases, which causes that shortness of breath at high altitudes.
When we go from sea level to elevation we get that, “oh sh*t moment, I can’t breathe!” This is due to the density of oxygen in the air being decreased. Our body reacts with a hormone called EPO, which stimulated red blood cells. The feelings we get at altitude really have to do with red blood cells; our breath feels strained as we try to saturate the red cells with more oxygen. Other things that happen when we are at altitude is the need to pee more, this is your bodies way of decreasing your plasma volume as it attempts to increase the red cell concentration. The breathing and the peeing are consequences of your body trying to concentrate red blood cells; it has nothing to do with training just physiology. The oxygen levels didn’t change but the pressure or density of the air did.
Back to the Masks…
What the masks do is make it hard to breathe, not change red blood cells, or any of the physiological adaptations the body undergoes when at elevation. Basically when you put on a mask it’s about the same as putting a bag over your head, all you are doing is decrease the ease of which you can breathe.
Further research shows to truly achieve a marked level of change in respiratory strength you would need much more resistance than any commercial mask offers today. So basically there is no benefit to you, and the masks in no way simulate training at elevation.
But wait cry the diehards, the disciples of these devises, they make me train harder. Well that my friend is in your mind; in fact it’s been shown that while wearing the mask many are not able to reach their peak potential. So wearing the mask, as hard as you think you are working, probably isn’t really your hardest!
But Wait! They cry again! It’s giving me an edge psychologically. I am tougher because I wear the mask. This is a completely personal thing, I am not about to get into an argument about who is tougher, some feel that they get more mentally out of training with the mask. If that’s the case, make your own mask, Tie a couple bandanas around your face, look like a robber, and go run around, don’t waste $50, $80 of more dollars on the product. Or like one friend suggested, stick a dirty sock in your mouth and marshmallows up your nose and go for a run. Bonus, you can eat the marshmallows at the end.
Bottom line, take off the mask! It makes you look stupid! It’s not badass it’s just stupid. It doesn’t make you a better athlete. It doesn’t make you hardcore. It is the newest in the ever-growing line of snake oil products geared at an industry where hard work is often shortcutted for the next magic bullet.
Ditch the mask, go train hard, push yourself, and if you are lucky find a hill or mountain to do repeats on. Back to normal life and here’s to hoping this craze dies out as quickly as it started.
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