Training Masks – Do They Work?

Training Masks – Do They Work?

The Truth Behind The Masks


During our training escapades, I am sure most of us have witnessed someone running or exercising with one of these high altitude or elevation training masks. My hopes are, you yourself were not the one donning this embarrassing facial apparatus. Regardless, we’ve almost all encountered these masks in one way or t’other. We can all agree they look ridiculous but do they actually do anything to benefit your training.


My first encounter with high altitude training masks came during my time playing junior hockey. A sport which Jordan, a man who only participates in sports where the required uniforms are tights, mocks as not being a real sport.


I digress.


Before a game one night, a few of my teammates and I walked by the opposing team doing their pregame off-ice warm up. One of the players was doing high knees and wearing this ridiculous looking mask. We immediately began chirping him, calling him Darth Vader’s retarded cousin and dishing out some other choice words for him and his teammates. Regardless of how foolish this guy looked, I was curious to what exactly it was he was wearing.


At the time training masks were relatively new, so there wasn’t a lot of information on them besides the company’s own claims of “research and testing backed by science”. Fortunately now, more extensive research has been done on these masks and the results give us more accurate information on what they actually do.


The claims were that these masks were supposed to simulate training in a high altitude environment, which there are many benefits to.


The air pressure is lower at altitude which results in less oxygen.


When training at high altitude our bodies acclimate to the lack of oxygen by producing extra red blood cells and forcing other adaptations which improve the delivery of oxygen to muscles.


The advantages of this show when you return back to a lower altitude, closer to sea level, and are able to more efficiently use oxygen for energy and perform at a higher level.


So, wearing a mask while training to simulate this would be beneficial. The only issue is, these training masks do not do this.


There can be some benefits to these masks but simulating high altitude training is not one of them.


You would need to wear the mask constantly to really see the benefits, not just during your training sessions.


One study done by The International Journal of Exercise Science proved that just wearing them while training will not simulate any type of adaptations one would get from training in high altitude.


“The biggest limitation during this study would be the total amount of exposure to the Elevation Training Mask during the training period. The participants that wore the mask only did so for one hour a day for three days. Due to the amount of time required for adaptive responses to occur, wearing the ETM for three hours each week may be considered by most, insufficient.”


Now, training masks do restrict your breathing, which essentially make efforts more challenging and this can provide some aid to your training goals. However, you can achieve essentially the same results if you just breathe only through your nose and increase your intensity.


So, save your money.


You don’t need a mask.


You just need to work fucking harder.


– Coach Morris

  • Good stuff. I guided week long backpacking trips up Elbert and Massive when I was younger and there’s a TON of information on how long it takes to make the physiological shift from flatlander to sherpa and dozens of attempts to hack it.

    The fact is that the reason it’s harder to breathe at altitude is because there are fewer oxygen molecules per liter than at sea level. With the breathing mask, it simply takes more effort to suck in oxygen-dense air and your exchange rate is lower (I believe that’s written correctly…basically, the mask increases the amount of dead air that’s not circulated when you breathe, increasing the CO2 levels.

    Any thoughts on hypobaric chamber training? The research over the last 10 years seems to be ALL OVER the place.

    • Atomic Athlete

      Mike, quick answer is “live high, train low.” Some athletes do this by sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, then training at the altitude they live – usually low. This is the best way to fulfill the live high, train low idea. However, this is really, really expensive and way too much for any athlete who isn’t getting paid to compete. Best thing for most athletes is simply to train smarter, and focus on the aspects of fitness that truly deliver results, e.g. aerobic base training, for the cardiovascular system, rather than falling into some marketing trap that looks stupid, doesn’t work, and is uselessly expensive.

  • Mike

    As a firefighter, I’ve often used a mask to simulate working while “on air”. When we’re clipped in and breathing through our SCBAs it’s very similar to breathing through one of those masks; albeit at a lower “altitude” setting. That’s about the only usefulness I’ve seen with them.

    • Atomic Athlete

      Yep. This is the sole type of exception for these masks – where a very specific, usually job-related, application makes the mask appropriate and gym-manageable for the on-the-job experience. This direct carry-over makes sense. However, it still won’t give you high-altitude adaptations, as the article and first commenter noted.

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