How Training Masks Work
It’s important to reiterate that there were no changes in lung function, hemoglobin or red blood cell count among the group that wore the training mask. This is because training masks only regulate the amount of air flow (and therefore oxygen) available to someone exercising, and not the density of that air, as one would experience at higher altitudes.
For this reason, commercial training masks can’t really be called “elevation” or “altitude” masks. They are actually respiratory muscle training (RMT) devices, which target the diaphragm and intercostals in order to improve overall breathing function. These type of devices have been used to help athletes as well as individuals with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Although originally sold as the Elevation Training Mask, the marketing copy on the Training Mask LLC website now simply calls the device the Training Mask, and touts the findings of the Porcari study. The website no longer claims that the device improves lung capacity or simulates altitude. In fact, there is a disclaimer noting that the mask “does not change on the O2 molecular level.”
The masks do have multiple “resisted breathing” settings that were previously labeled to approximate breathing at different altitudes, but are now marked by a factor of resistance instead. In the ACE-funded study, test group participants increased the altitude setting (now known as the resisted breathing level) incrementally from the lowest setting to the highest in four separate training periods spread over the six-week trial.
It should be noted that exercisers in the test group reported ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) a full two units higher than the control group at identical workloads throughout the duration of the trial.
In another study, individuals who trained with a mask at maximum inspiratory pressure for six weeks and then performed an exercise bout with the mask off reported not only a lower RPE than when they’d done the same workout before training, but their heart rate was also significantly lower after training with the mask on.
This suggests that training with a mask on is not for the faint of heart, but if you can tough it out, the benefits could be significant.
At an average retail price of around $80, training masks are a fairly low-cost way to play around with training at different oxygen levels and improve breathing function.
Although more research is sure to follow, for now it appears that with a smart, progressive training regimen, RMT-style training masks can lead to favorable physiological adaptations that could very well boost endurance performance.
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