The elevation mask is a popular fitness tool. But can it ever reproduce the benefits of training at altitude? Let’s find out!
The beauty of breathing exercises (aside from all the beneficial changes for body and mind) is that, once you’ve learned them, they’re free to practice. Unlike many training methods, you don’t need any expensive gear to get results. At the same time, there are a few accessories that can help you get more out of your breath work training. Whether your focus is athletic performance, health, or a bit of both, SportsMask elevation mask is one tool we recommend.
You may have noticed the Oxygen Advantage® includes some breathing exercises that use the mask. So, let’s find out more…
First, let’s bust a few myths…
If you’re interested in fitness, it’s likely you’ve seen, or perhaps tried, an elevation mask. But workout masks aren’t just for sports. They have many uses for health. And even for people in physically challenging professions like emergency first response.
Many people use the training masks in the belief that they simulate high altitude. This is a misconception. No mask, on its own, can create the physiological adaptations associated with training at altitude.
What’s more, if you use the mask incorrectly, you could do more harm than good. According to Dr. Mitch Lomax, of Plymouth University’s Department of Sport and Exercise Science:
“If it isn’t done right, there is the risk of hyperventilating and passing out. Technique with these devices really matters because they can also cause injury or strain if they aren’t used correctly .”
What is a training mask?
An elevation training mask is a device designed to strengthen the breathing muscles. It works by adding resistance to breathing, improving respiratory muscle fitness.
Used correctly, alongside breathing exercises, the mask will trigger physiological adaptations that improve power, endurance, oxygenation and breathing efficiency. It progressively strengthens the diaphragm in the same way weightlifting builds muscles in the arms.
In order to stimulate any muscle to adapt and become stronger, you need to work that muscle harder than normal. The problem is, it’s very difficult to work the breathing muscles in this way. Exercise intensity and duration is largely determined by the limits of your respiratory system. Once those muscles tire, you can’t just keep pushing through.
The benefits of a training mask for diaphragm muscle strength and sports performance
More than half of healthy athletes develop diaphragm fatigue after bouts of high intensity training . Which means that a stronger diaphragm can help you reach your fitness goals.
1. A twelve-week program of inspiratory muscle training resulted in better respiratory muscle strength in handball athletes. It also improved their aerobic physical performance .
2. A ten-week program of inspiratory “resistive” loading improved respiratory muscle strength in cyclists by 34%. Endurance increased 38% and scientists recorded an increase in diaphragm thickness. These improvements translated into a 36% increase in cycling time to exhaustion at 75% of VO2 max. During the cycling trials, heart rate, ventilation and perception of exertion were all lower in the cyclists who took the inspiratory load training .
3. When the diaphragm begins to tire, the brain redirects blood to support breathing. To do this, it prompts blood vessels to the arms and legs to constrict . This means that the fitness of your diaphragm will impact your performance. Meaning performance capacity is dependent on what your brain will allow your body to do.
4. In a study of cyclists participating in a 6-week high-intensity ergometer training program, scientists confirmed that the elevation training mask does not act as a simulator of altitude. Instead, it behaves more like a respiratory muscle training device. They concluded that wearing the training mask “may improve specific markers of endurance performance beyond the improvements seen with interval training alone .”
What are the health benefits of an elevation mask?
Altitude training masks are primarily discussed in terms of sports and fitness. But there are plenty of reasons they can boost your health too. Especially if you use them correctly to simulate training at high altitude. Not least because altitude training improves disease resistance.
Between 1965 and 1972, scientists studied a group of 20,000 soldiers stationed at altitude of between 3,692 and 5,538 meters above sea level .
Not only were they living in hypoxic conditions, but the men had limited access to basic personal hygiene for a significant time. They rarely took baths or changed their underwear. You might expect these conditions would result in reduced performance and poor health. Instead, after two or three years, the men suffered significantly fewer illnesses like respiratory infections, hypertension, diabetes, asthma and skin diseases. The number of mental health disorders was more than halved.
This could suggest that, when used to support altitude simulation training, an elevation mask may have benefits for general health.
The mask is helpful for functional breathing too. During use, carbon dioxide (CO2) pools inside the mask. This causes you to inhale higher concentrations of CO2. When you regularly expose your body to higher levels of CO2, your sensitivity to changes in CO2 decreases. Your BOLT score increases and breathing becomes more regular. This is important for health conditions including sleep apnea, anxiety, panic disorder, epilepsy and asthma. You can read more about the benefits of reduced chemosensitivity to CO2 in our science pages.
The mask also boosts diaphragm strength. We’ll look at why this is important for general (and very specific) health conditions a bit further on.
How to use the elevation mask to effectively simulate training at high altitude
A training mask reduces airflow. This means your oxygen intake decreases.
However, this alone cannot create the intermittent drop in blood oxygen saturation you need to replicate altitude training.
One study of workout masks discusses claims by manufacturers that wearing an elevation training mask will increase endurance, improve lung function and increase VO2 max . In a report in Ace ProSource, the study’s authors describe how:
“The name of the device and the settings it provides would make you believe that the mask simulates different levels of altitude training. However, the decreases in saturation of oxygen in the blood were small while wearing the mask (2%), which is far below the desaturation experienced when a person actually climbs to higher elevations.”
To simulate training at high altitude, you need to practice the breath hold exercises that we teach as part of Oxygen Advantage®.
These exercises create a hypoxic/hypercapnic effect.
Hypoxia occurs when blood oxygen saturation drops below 91%. Hypercapnia is high blood carbon dioxide. The combination of the two causes the hemoglobin in red blood cells to release oxygen to the tissues and organs (the Bohr effect). You can read about this in detail in our science pages.
The exercises work in at least 3 ways:
1. They provide a strategy to improve diaphragm strength
Used alongside the Oxygen Advantage® exercises to simulate high altitude, the elevation mask provides a meaningful strategy for the long-term improvement of breathing muscle strength. You can use the vent in the mask to alter airflow, adding an extra load in a controlled, sustainable way.
2. They trigger the production of new red blood cells
The exercises cause spleen contraction, generally within around 30 seconds of the breath hold. The spleen is an organ that acts as a blood bank. When the body signals an increased demand for oxygen, the spleen releases stores of red blood cells into circulation. The red blood cells are important. They carry oxygen around the body in hemoglobin. Increasing the number of red blood cells in circulation enhances your body’s oxygen-carrying or aerobic capacity.
3. They allow you to safely and legally increase production of EPO
Intermittent hypoxic/hypercapnic training triggers synthesis of EPO (erythropoietin) in the body. EPO is a hormone secreted mainly by the kidneys in response to hypoxia of the cells. It stimulates the bone marrow to mature red blood cells. When you have more mature red blood cells in the body, oxygen carrying capacity increases. This is an important differentiator for elite athletes.
The mask intensifies the effect of the exercises. But if you use the mask without practicing the breath holds, it will not produce the same physiological adaptation. You can read all about how these adaptations can improve running endurance and speed in our science pages.
How the elevation mask can help with health conditions from lower back pain to erectile dysfunction
Diaphragm strength is important for core stability. A strong diaphragm can improve conditions as diverse as urinary incontinence and lower back pain.
Many of us believe that in order to strengthen our core, we need to exercise our abdominal muscles. But the breath, and particularly the diaphragm, is also integral to core control . The diaphragm supports functional movement and posture. If the posture is good, breathing will be healthy too. And healthy breathing is reflected in good posture and ease of movement .
Poor control of the pelvic floor muscles contributes to urinary incontinence. In both men and women, the diaphragm is connected both structurally and functionally to the pelvic floor by fascia and muscles . These include the pubococcygeus muscle, which controls the flow of urine. The same structures are important for sexual function. They contribute to the ability to maintain erection and prevent premature ejaculation in men. During sexual arousal, the pelvic floor muscles apply internal pressure to the veins of the sexual organs, ensuring enough blood flows to the area .
The close connection between the pelvic floor and the diaphragm suggests that the training mask could be useful in preventing or treating a widespread number of common conditions associated with poor pelvic floor dysfunction.
A different kind of face mask…
The altitude mask could also be helpful for people who have to wear a protective face covering due to COVID-19 or job regulations. This applies to medical workers who need to wear PPE, and to retail staff who must wear a mask throughout their shift. Many people find it difficult to breathe in a mask. And masks can cause breathlessness and headaches.
Factors that contribute to breathlessness in a face mask include:
- Poor diaphragm function
- Heightened chemosensitivity to CO2, and
- Fast, upper chest mouth breathing.
Your protective face mask adds some resistance to breathing. Because of this, it’s tempting to switch to mouth breathing. Chemosensitivity to carbon dioxide causes feelings of breathlessness and suffocation. Hot, humid air trapped against the face can disrupt the body’s temperature sensors. Scientists have found masks cause no increase in core temperature. But the stress response can manifest as hot flashes and sweating.
When you train your breathing using an elevation training mask you will:
- Expose your body to higher levels of CO2, decreasing your chemosensitivity to the gas. This reduces air hunger and breathlessness,
- Enhance diaphragm strength, making breathing less effortful,
- Boost oxygenation to energize your brain and body,
- Improve cardiorespiratory fitness,
- Build aerobic capacity
- Slow your breathing, activating your vagus nerve and improving resilience against stress.
Why emergency workers use the mask to train their breathing
Oxygen Advantage® instructors, Dirk Van Spitaels and Pieter Libot of Breathe and Connect in Antwerp, Belgium, work with emergency rescue professionals including firefighters. Dirk explains why he uses the training mask to replace traditional training equipment:
“In a small study we came to the conclusion that a good breathing pattern, after a long-term training, can allow us to work 15 minutes longer with breathing apparatus.”
In emergency situations, this extra 15 minutes could mean the difference between life and death.
What can you expect from Oxygen Advantage® SportsMask?
SportsMask is a patented training mask designed for use during even the most vigorous training. The vent on the training mask can be opened or closed to add more or less load, so you can control the intensity of training.
SportsMask encourages nasal breathing because we know healthy breathing is through the nose. Despite this, many breathing muscle training products use a mouthpiece. A recent scientific study into loaded breathing muscle training concluded that nasal breathing is better for the respiratory system .
If you would like to add a load to your breathing exercises or physical training, head over to our store to buy SportsMask.
To find out more about the benefits of functional breathing training and simulation of high altitude training for health and athletic performance, don’t forget to visit our science pages.