In this episode I discuss Altitude Masks (also known as Elevation Masks) and whether they are an effective training tool for hikers, trekkers or mountaineers heading off on a high altitude adventure.
One of the most common questions I hear from aspiring trekkers is:
"Should I be training with an 'altitude mask'. Will it help me?"
Now on the off chance you haven't seen one of these, they are the big black gas mask looking things, which people strap to their face while they train. Due to some clever marketing (using professional athletes) these things blew onto the scene a few years ago and have become super popular.
Everyone is always looking for an 'edge' to their training. And for anyone who is trying to train for altitude without any mountains, in theory, it might be a good option. But in practice, do they actually work?
In this episode, we explore:
Today we are talking about so-called altitude masks and whether or not they are relevant for hikers, for trekkers, or mountaineers who are going up to high altitude. Now, this is one of the most common questions I hear from people or I see on the internet when they're leading up to a big altitude trek. Usually, the question goes, should I be training with an altitude mask? Will it help me? Now, on the off chance you haven't seen one of these things, they're basically these big black gas mask looking things which people strap to their face while they train.
Due to some really clever marketing when they're first released and ongoing using professional athletes and doing training video montages and all of this jazz, these things blew onto the scene a few years ago and have become really, really super popular for people in general sports training, but specifically for people going up to high altitude, because initially, they were billed as these altitude training masks, which was supposed to simulate the effects of altitude to improve your performance in a whole bunch of different ways and people thought they were going to help up on the mountain.
As always, everyone is always looking for an edge in their training. Sometimes if you can find something that's relatively passive, meaning you just strap it on and it's going to make your workout more effective, of course, people are going to go down that route. In theory, these masks might give you an edge in your training and in very, very, very theory, it might help you up at high altitude, but in practice, the question is, do they actually work? So, today I'm going to be breaking down how they work, what they actually do for you, and whether an altitude hiker, an altitude trekker, or a high-altitude mountaineer should consider using one of these in their training. So, to start off with, how do they work?
So, simply put, these masks restrict your breathing. Now, when you wear one, basically you strap it to your face and there's an adjustable valve in which you breathe against. What this basically does is it makes your breathing harder. That's about it. Individuals can progress the resistance to simulate apparently ranging from 900 to 5,400 meters above sea level, and it's basically adding that resistance into the breathing, so it gets harder and harder for you to actually breathe. The idea behind that is it supposed to improve pretty much everything under the sun. They're said to improve your endurance performance, improve your interval performance, improve your mental strength, improve your lung function, and many people equate this to improving their performance up in altitude. But, as I said before, in theory, it does sound great, but in practice, not a hundred percent sure.
So, I'm going to break down each of those claims right now, just to give you a little insight into what the evidence out there is surrounding these masks and whether or not they're appropriate for any of those things I mentioned. So, to start with, the big one is high altitude. Will one of these elevation or altitude masks help you up at high altitude? Now, when it comes down to it, these elevation training masks do not produce a low oxygen stimulus great enough to elicit the necessary physiological responses associated with high altitude. Bit of a mouthful there, but basically what that means is training with these will not change any blood oxygen saturation in your blood. They will not improve red blood cell count, hemoglobin, or any other adaptation which is associated with acclimatization and high-altitude performance.
So, while marketed as a high altitude mask or a high elevation mask, these things will do absolutely nothing to prepare you for the mountain air, to reduce your risk of altitude sickness, or to improve your performance on the mountain. There is no evidence to support that it does. It's just pure, pure marketing. So, that's claim number one. High altitude, cross that out. They're not going to help you.
Number two, endurance performance. So, a lot of the claims around improving insurance performance with these elevation masks are just not supported with evidence. There's so many claims out there that it'll improve your VO two max, improve your running time, improve your cycling time, and all of this jazz. Most of that is relevant to hikers and trekkers and mountaineers, but when it comes down to the evidence, the majority of the studies using them have shown either no change in your VO2 max or similar change in your VO2 max compared to a group which didn't use the mask, which means when it comes down to your actual aerobic performance, it doesn't really make any difference between training as normally or training with a mask strapped to your face. Pretty straightforward there.
There are a few relevant markers of endurance performance that are seen to be increased, which include ventilation threshold and respiratory compensation threshold. So, basically, two points in which your breathing becomes faster and you can exercise at a higher intensity at these thresholds. And power output at the above-mentioned threshold. Is that relevant for hikers, trekkers, and mountaineers? No. Who would that be relevant to? Well, for someone who's going really, really, really, really quick for a moderate to long period of time. So, someone like maybe a 1500-meter runner where they're really pushing the pace for a bit of time. For hikers and trekkers who are working at lower intensity for the majority of it, who won't be working around those thresholds a huge amount of the time, it's not incredibly relevant. So, for endurance performance for hikers, for trekkers, and mountaineers, I'm going to say a big fat no, and I'm going to say it's not incredibly relevant.
So, the next one is respiratory muscle strength. So, one common point which is often raised with these masks, is they may actually act as a respiratory training device, meaning that they train the muscles associated with breathing, which can increase oxygen efficiency over time. Now, if you are interested in this subject and you haven't listened to the previous podcast I did with Fletcher about this, I highly recommend you stop listening right now and go back to that because that was an absolute cracker on this subject. But basically, training with a mask. Is it going to help your respiratory muscle strength? And there is a little bit of evidence to support that it potentially can, but there are two main drawbacks with this.
Number one, wearing a mask to train the breathing muscles during training is going to limit your performance in other areas. Meaning, if you're going out for a run or you're going out for a hike or you're going out for a cycle and you're wearing one of these masks, it might apply a little bit of stimulus to your breathing muscles to add a bit of extra strength there and endurance there. However, the rest of your training is going to suffer. And there's no point in you limiting your running, limiting your hiking, limiting your cycling, just to train your breathing muscles, because it's not the main priority. So, it's going to affect your other areas of performance. It's also thought, according to a reasonable amount of research, that resistance associated with these masks is just simply too little to be an effective stimulus on respiratory muscle strength.
You sort of think about this with the analogy of if you're trying to increase the strength of your muscles. If you're using a lightweight and you're doing 30, 40, 50 repetitions, yeah. It might get you strong to a point, but it's not going to be incredibly effective because it's just not very much weight. On the other hand, if you're lifting heavy weights and you're progressively increasing that, that's going to be way more effective increasing your strength.
It's pretty much the same with respiratory muscle strength. If you are looking to improve your breathing strength, you probably want to get a breathing training device, something like a power brave or an air fit, in which you can get a reasonable amount of resistance. With these things, they probably just don't have enough resistance to be effective there. So, what does this mean? Simply put, these masks might be effective at respiratory muscle training, but there are other much more efficient ways of going about this and it's going to restrict your performance in your other training. And I don't think this is incredibly relevant for you. So, respiratory muscle strength, if you're using this for that, I don't really recommend it. I don't think it's going to be very effective for you and there are better ways.
The final thing I want to break down today is mental strength. So, one common claim about these masks, which people who've sort of seen the light, that there's no evidence to improve its endurance performance, there's no evidence to improve your performance at altitude, and there's very minimal evidence around respiratory muscle strength. They say, "Look, fair enough, but it improves my mental strength. It makes things tough and it makes me mentally tougher so I can perform better." There's no doubt this can be true. Strapping something that's going to restrict your breathing to your face and try to train is going to be tough and you'll rate perceived exertion, meaning how hard everything feels, is greatly increased when using these masks, which makes sense. In theory, it can be good for mental strength, but again, the big drawback is here is it's usually going to reduce your other performance during a training session.
So, you might be improving your mental toughness, but you're going to be restricting the intensity you need to reach the best physical benefits out of the session. So, if you're doing sprints, you're not going to be able to go as fast. If you're running, you're going to tire quicker. If you're hiking, you're just not going to be able to go at a steady pace for quite as long. It's just going to restrict the benefit of those sessions, and it's just not incredibly effective. So, there's so many other ways that you can improve mental toughness, which are much more relevant to hikers, which aren't going to reduce your performance. You might be doing something that's called a grind session in which you do a specific mental strength session, which you might get a sled, or you might get some type of exercise and just do it for a long period of time, which is monotonous.
It's boring. You just keep on going and going and going. It might be a night session, which you're waking up at 2:00 AM to start hiking or start running. It might be rain sessions and just going out in the rain or in the bad weathers. It might be those extended sessions where you just try to move for 24 hours if you're doing an incredibly outrageous climb. All of those things are going to be much more effective at mental strength, much more specific, and they're not going to affect your other training quite as much. So, all in all, am I a big fan of these elevation masks or altitude training masks? If you haven't realized so far, I am not a fan. I don't think they're very relevant for hikers, trekkers, or mountaineers. They're not going to help you with altitude, and for all the things they are claimed to help with, they're much more effective and much simpler ways of going about it.
So, if you have been tossing up whether you want an altitude mask for your upcoming adventure, I would say, save your money, put your time, put your effort, put your money somewhere else, because there's going to be better ways of going about it. So, if you do have any questions about this episode and you want to go and explore a little bit more detail, maybe want to follow up on some of the research or anything like that, feel free to reach out to me in the training, the hiking, and trekking Facebook group. You can come on the group, post up your questions. I'm more than happy to explore anything in depth over there.
So, feel free to get involved there. I would absolutely love to see a few more listeners shooting out their questions in that group. So, thank you so much for listening. I do hope you've gotten a little bit out of this today. I hope it's cleared up a few things around these masks and a few misconceptions you might have possibly been carrying, or if one of your friends start asking about one of these masks, hopefully, you can send them this episode and they can get a bit of an insight around it. So, thank you again for listening. I hope you all have a lovely day and we'll talk to you very soon. Bye.
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Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.