Training masks are becoming increasingly popular among athletes who want to improve their athletic performance. The device is marketed as a tool to simulate high-altitude training. Studies have shown an improved VO2 max with high-altitude training. However, there is inconclusive evidence if training masks truly improve performance. Do training masks enhance the respiratory system? This article will explore what a training mask is, its uses, and its benefits.
Training masks are marketed as a training tool that simulates high-altitude training.
Studies on what physiologic responses are seen with training masks are inconclusive and further research is needed.
While some studies show increased respiratory function with training masks, other studies show that training masks alone cannot improve respiratory function without the addition of breathing exercises.
Some studies suggest that training masks act more like respiratory muscle trainers than an altitude simulator.
What is a training mask?
A training mask is a mask that is marketed towards athletes for use to simulate altitude training at sea level. Research indicates that exercising at high altitudes can increase your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. Additionally, it can improve other physiological adaptations, such as muscular power and hypertrophy.
Training masks have become increasingly popular for their convenience compared to training at high altitudes, where athletes are exposed to colder environments, harsh terrains, and low oxygen pressure. Some studies have shown that training masks improve athletic performance by increasing endurance and VO2 max and improving lung function. The idea is that a training mask simulates high altitudes and induces a normobaric hypoxic condition.
So how do training masks work? Training devices cover the user's mouth and restrict air intake. They have adjustable resistance during inspiration and have a set resistance on expiration to simulate high-altitude training. The mask utilizes flux valves to regulate the flow of oxygen, limiting the amount of air that enters both the mask and the lungs. Users can gradually increase the resistance to simulate training 3,000–18,000 feet above sea level.
When would you use a training mask?
Training masks can be beneficial to athletes wanting to improve their athletic performance or those who are training for events that will be at higher altitudes. Studies have shown that athletes who train at high altitudes have increased sea-level athletic performance. Training at high altitudes and with low oxygen pressure leads to physiological responses driven by hypoxia. As your body adapts to the high altitude, your VO2 max improves, meaning that your body can more efficiently utilize oxygen so you can perform longer with less oxygen.
Training masks reduce airflow, decreasing oxygen intake. Some studies show that this cannot create a drop in blood oxygen saturation alone. Studies have shown that training masks increase endurance, improve lung function, and increase VO2 max. However, the decreases in oxygen saturation seen in the blood were small when wearing the mask, much less than what a person experiences when training at higher altitudes. Users should also practice breath-hold exercises to get the greatest benefit of the training mask.
The breath-hold exercises create a hypoxic/hypercapnic effect and provide the following benefits:
- Improved diaphragm strength
- Facilitates production of new red blood cells
- Helps increase the production of erythropoietin
When you combine the breath-hold exercises with wearing a training mask, you not only intensify the effect of exercise but also produce the same physiological adaptation seen when training at higher altitudes.
Benefits of training masks for the respiratory system
Training masks have been shown to provide respiratory benefits to athletic performance.
Simulate training at high altitude
While additional research is needed to determine if wearing the training mask simulates training at high altitudes, studies have shown that the training mask valve system and resistance caps can reduce breathing frequency during exercise. This could lead to arterial hypoxemia and a rebreathing of expired carbon dioxide.
Strengthen the respiratory muscles
Research suggests that training masks may directly stress breathing musculature, acting more as a respiratory muscle training device. Respiratory muscle training devices may induce respiratory muscle fatigue and increase respiratory muscle strength, lung capacity, and oxygen efficiency over time. This results in improved respiratory muscle strength and endurance due to increased cellular oxidative adaptations, which can lead to delayed onset of metabolic acidosis. This can lead to an increase in physical performance.
Increases stamina and improves endurance
Training masks have been shown to cause arterial hypoxemia due to inadequate ventilation. This results in an imbalance between oxygen uptake and CO2 removal and can lead to hyperventilation. Results on training masks increasing VO2 max are inconclusive. Some studies found no significant difference in VO2 max, whereas others saw an increase in VO2 max in subjects wearing the mask. Additional research is needed to know if training masks can cause physiologic adaptations that mimic training at high altitudes.
Additional research is needed
While training masks appear to have benefits, specifically for the respiratory system, additional research is needed to determine the actual mechanisms behind the simulated altitude training and how effective it is compared to other hypobaric methods. More research is also necessary to show the relationship between the training mask and athletic performance. There needs to be more research to establish which athletes or sports may benefit the most from this training method.
Further research is necessary, but it appears that the training mask functions as a device for respiratory muscle training rather than an altitude simulator. Manufacturers of training masks market it as a tool to improve endurance and strength capacities. However, recent studies have inconclusive results.
- Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. Effect of Wearing the Elevation Training Mask on Aerobic Capacity, Lung Function, and Hematological Variables.
- International Journal of Exercise Science. The effects of an Elevation Training Mask on VO2max of Male Reserve Officers Training Corps Cadets.
- International Journal of Exercise Science. Effects of Simulated Altitude on Maximal Oxygen Uptake and Inspiratory Fitness.