Recently I was at the gym and I saw 5 different people in the cardio room wearing elevation masks. Now, first of all, these things just make you look like you are about to bring your workout to the next level. So, aside from their awesome factor, what are elevation masks really doing for you when you wear them?
Diaphragm Training Mask
I am not sure where the term elevation mask came from. The person who named the mask must not have understood what really happens to the body at elevation. These devices cannot mimic the absence of atmospheric pressure. But they can help you train your diaphragm muscles.
Your diaphragm is the primary muscle group responsible for your ability to take in large strong breaths. What "elevation masks" do is restrict air flow. This causes your diaphragm muscles to go into overdrive working to take in as much air as they can. They are not changing the volume of oxygen in the air you are breathing, or the air pressure on your body. But they are changing the force it takes for you to breathe.
This change allows you to increase your respiratory muscles. The harder you have to work to suck in air and blow out air the more you will build your diaphragm and supporting muscles when using an elevation mask.
What Would An Actual Elevation Mask Do?
If the science were there and we were able to create an actual elevation mask here are the things that it would do. It would decrease the pressure around your body thus decreasing the total volume of oxygen available in the air you breathe.
The decrease in available oxygen at elevation is where the magic happens. Your body responds to the lack of oxygen by increasing the size of red blood cells in your body. You also get an increase in the number of capillaries you have in your muscle tissues. In addition to these you will also get a decrease in the rate your body produces lactate and an increase in your total hematocrit.
All of these physiological adaptations (and more) are called altitude adaptations. They can begin to take place at about 4 days above sea level. Some of the adaptations can take months to take place. Others may not happen unless you live at high elevations most of the year.
The length of time it takes for these adaptations to take place is one reason why the saying goes "train high, compete low." Anyone who has high elevation physiology is going to out perform someone who has low elevation physiology. They will have higher O2 exchange rates, produce less lactic acid and be better able to provide nutrients to their muscles. Wearing an elevation mask can't do this for you.
What Should We Call Them?
In reality the masks should be called respiratory muscle training masks or diaphragm training masks. That doesn't sound quite as awesome as an elevation mask though. So even though the science didn't quite back up the results. The name elevation mask stuck.
Do They Work?
The jury is still out on this factor. Elevation masks are very helpful for populations who need to train their respiratory muscles to function properly. People who would likely benefit from them the most are those with chronic conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or Emphysema. These diseases weaken the muscles that allow you to breathe. If you are not able to take long deep breaths, then an elevation mask is going to help you train those muscles.
The other thing that elevation masks are great for is increasing intensity of workouts. Let's say you only have 20 minutes instead of your usual hour of cardio. You put on an elevation mask and you have significantly increased the difficulty of your workout. If you are using it in this capacity it makes sense to purchase an elevation mask.
While it won't change your physiology the way living at elevation will, an elevation mask can help you train weakened pulmonary muscles and increase your workout intensity. Choosing whether or not those are goals you need to achieve will ultimately allow you to determine whether or not an elevation mask is right for you.
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