Originally these masks were marketed as a training aids that mimic the benefits of exercising at high altitude. The supposed key benefit of training at higher altitude is producing and circulating more oxygen-rich blood: better performance blood. This kind of better blood is found in the highest caliber athletes. But these masks have garnered a bit of controversy on the topic (ie. performance enhancement?). As a result they’ve cleaned up their marketing a little.
Here’s a pretty good article debunking the presumed benefits:
The first mask I purchased (I have three) looks like a slightly modified gas mask. I can’t see very well, I can’t hear very well, I can’t smell very well, and I obviously can’t breathe very well. As it turns out, the first mask I bought is also the most ridiculously awesome mask I bought. I’ll explain why later.
I live at altitude and train where I live. If I want to make my workouts harder I simply go higher, where it’s “harder to breathe.” I bought the first mask originally because it takes time and effort to get to higher elevation. If I could simulate higher elevation near where I live I’d save myself a lot of time (I train often!). I hike regularly at higher elevations so that benefit is obvious. Lastly, if I could create better blood, wouldn’t that help for a 90+ mile run?
The Mask In The Beginning
For the first 6 months I wore the (gas) mask at least once a week during training. After that I was wearing it almost every training session. Eventually I decided to test myself by wearing it during one of my regular hikes to 10,000 feet. The goal was to survive or pass out. To my surprise neither had to happen.
After scaling in the usual amount of time I was even able to do pushups with ease –while still wearing the mask– at the top! By this time I presumed I would be passed out due to intollerable levels of oxygen restriction, so naturally this was a huge boost for my ego! But, the feeling of success was short-lived. What I experienced proved to be an antithesis of the masks’ benefits. Or, rather, I found a key limitation of the mask’s abilities with regard to my specific training. It works better at lower elevations, and basically doesn’t function at all at very high elevations.
The air is very thin at high altitudes which greatly deemphasized the air restriction components of the mask during my hike. For example, breath through a straw at sea level, then breath through a straw at 10,000 feet. At 10,000 feet it should be much easier. Call me crazy, but I had really hoped the mask would have made me pass out. Boy was I wrong! Science 1 — Me 0. Let’s fast forward a few weeks…
The Mask Today
I didn’t give up on the mask. After giving it some serious thought I realized that during my time training with the mask I found a liking for it’s ability to limit my sight, hearing, and smell. Wearing the (gas) mask put me in what I call, “100% in touch mode,” which forces me to focus almost exclusively on what I feel as I run. Honing in on this sensation brought about new and unanticipated benefit.
As it tuns out, the (gas) mask is a great “governor” for endurance running training! When endurance training, if I am affected (if it becomes very difficult to breath) by the mask this means I’m over-exerting myself. The mask has taught me better identify and improve performance below the level at which it’s hard for me to breathe through the mask. I find it invaluable in this context, personally, and use the mask durring most training sessions now. Improving performance below the “redline” has proven to be not only sustainable for extremely long distances, but also safer in terms of injuring myself by over-exertion.
What I ultimately use the mask for today has nothing to do with why I bought it.
Is the elevation training mask a scam? In my opinion it’s no more a scam than those five finger shoes. If you bought the Vibram FiveFinger shoes because you believed they would improve your posture or reduce your injuries related to running/walking, you were mislead. If you wear a training mask because you think it’s a shortcut to unlocking a Lance Armstrong-like ability, you are mislead. There are no shortcuts to better performance blood by way of a mask that deprives you of oxygen. High altitude isn’t about getting less oxygen. It’s an atmospheric elemental makeup thing, which this mask can’t even begin to simulate. Science 1 — Mask 0.