Training masks are also sometimes referred to as ‘altitude masks’ and are the latest unusual-looking accessory to start popping up in gyms and on YouTube.
The basic concept is simple: the mask is designed to restrict airflow and thereby to make breathing more challenging during exercise. This results in a higher heart rate and potentially improves the aerobic efficiency of the athlete when they’re not wearing the mask.
It’s a great theory. But does it really work? Let’s find out…
Hypoxic Training VS Restricted Airflow Training
The main manufacturer of these training masks (that make you look a little like Bane) is a company called ‘Training Mask’ (at least it is if you look on Amazon’. The mask comes with a picture of some mountains on it and is called the ‘Elevation Training Mask 2.0 Altitude Mask’.
With a name like that, you might suspect that this device was intended to simulate training at altitude. This is a technique that is well known to improve athletic performance in a number of ways. Specifically, altitude training can lead to improved oxygen transport by increasing the amount of myoglobin/haemoglobin in the bloodstream and by increasing capillary density. This is called ‘hypoxic training’.
Unfortunately though, this isn’t actually what the mask does at all. In order for something to genuinely simulate altitude training, it would need to reduce air pressure. That means that the oxygen particles in the air would need to be thinned out – that’s what the air is like at altitudes.
What these masks do on the other hand is simply make breathing more difficult – a little as though someone was holding a pillow over your face. This means you’re simply working harder to get the same amount of oxygen into your lungs and that in turn can lead to hypertrophy in the muscles. In other words, the muscles that you use to expand and contract your lungs increase in strength to help improve your sucking power.
This is called ‘restricted airflow training’ and is what these masks actually help you achieve.
So with the dubious marketing aside, that still sounds pretty good, right? Strong lungs = more oxygen = more energy and greater fat loss… Right?
The Problem With Restricted Airflow Training
There’s just one small problem with restricted airflow training… and that’s that it is largely useless. It is true that restricted airflow training can increase the strength of your lungs and help you to breathe more powerfully and efficiently. And this alone is enough reason for many people to assume that restricted airflow training must be useful.
But in reality this is not the case. Why not? Because your lungs are actually big and strong enough already. In fact, your lungs are bigger and stronger than they need to be for any athletic exercise you might engage in.
That’s because the lungs are only one small part of a much larger ‘chain-like’ system. And as with any chain, this system is only as strong as its weakest link.
No matter how much oxygen your lungs bring in, you are still going to be limited by how much of that oxygen your lungs are capable of absorbing into your bloodstream. Likewise, no matter how much of that oxygen your body is capable of absorbing, it’s still going to be limited by how quickly it can get around your body and to your fat stores.
So the bottleneck isn’t your lungs. And when you breathe in large amounts of air, you will already be breathing back out the vast majority of the air you breathe in. In other words, breathing in more air will have very little impact on your athletic performance, energy levels or fat burn.
But My Heart Rate Gets Higher!
Another reason people assume that restricted airflow training masks are good for them is that they lead to a higher heart rate. Wear one of these bad boys and your heart rate will be a good 20-30bpm higher than usual during your training. That has to mean more calories burned, right?
Sadly not. Unfortunately, all this tells you is that your body is working harder to get more oxygen around your body. In this case, that’s because you have less oxygen available and so you need to circulate it faster to get it where it needs to be.
There is not more oxygen being used and as such, there is not more fat being burned.
In fact, the fact that you can’t breathe as well during your training means that you’re probably going to find your workouts suffer. You’ll stop running sooner on the treadmill, you’ll lift lighter weights and fatigue faster and you’ll be more likely to use bad form and injure yourself. This will all mean you’re actually likely to burn fewer calories in total throughout the workout.
And as though all that wasn’t enough reason to stay away from these masks, let the final nail in the coffin be the roughly $99 price tag. That’s $99 for a mask that makes you look ridiculous, uses false advertising and doesn’t really work.