Altitude Training Masks
Times sure have changed… growing up, as a kid today is a hell of a lot harder than when I was a kid. Now a days kids need to be worried about their Pre-school test grades, monitoring their blood sugar levels, downloading the latest Ipad apps all while trying to not end up on the next episode of To catch a predator. Must be tough. When I was growing up the only danger I had in my life was if somehow a plastic grocery bag made its way around my head while I was running amuck around the house…didn’t notice said grocery bag… and suffocated… Even at the tender age of five I knew that this was a stupid idea, and figured that Darwinism would quickly eliminate the gene that compelled kids that thought this was a good idea.
But I guess a couple of those managed to survive, and instead of running around their living room with a plastic bag on their head, they are running around gym’s with silicon and plastic masks over their face like they missed that last bus out of Chernobyl.
The real science
There is without a doubt a proven benefit to real elevation training, you’ll find the most elite athlete training facilities in cities like Colorado Springs CO, Lake Tahoe CA or Flagstaff AZ. The reason these lofty cities are the destination for high-end athletes is because of the reduced partial pressure of oxygen.
The best way to understand this concept of partial pressure is to draw a comparison between water in the ocean and air on land. We can assume that the deeper we go in the ocean there is more and more pressure acting on us, because the water above compresses the water below, this weight of the water and its subsequent pressure associated with it at any particular depth can leave us to assume that the molecules of water are more tightly packed together the further you descend. The same phenomena is true about air; air is at its most dense at sea level, due to the entirety of the air that lies above. So as you leave sea level and begin to ascend the availability of oxygen as a ratio to the other compounds remains the same (21%), but due to a decrease in pressure with an increased altitude the air gets “thinner” which means it is under less pressure. So the relative amount of oxygen stays the same, but the absolute availability of oxygen is reduced relative to the decrease of overall air pressure at that particular altitude.
What affect this has on our body…
Prolonged exposure to this decreased partial pressure of oxygen forces our body to adapt. And this adaptation occurs at a cellular level. With a decreased ability to perfuse oxygen to the tissues of the body, a hormone is released from the kidney called erythropoietin (EPO). EPO then stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells (RBCs), which are the oxygen carrying cells of the body. This increase in RBC’s will provide for adequate perfusion of oxygen in relation to the availability of oxygen at that given altitude.
Some of you may have recognized the acronym EPO, and rightfully so. Erythropoietin is responsible for one of the largest sports doping scandals of all time. Cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to taking exogenous, synthetic EPO and was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories. More recently EPO has also made its way into the UFC world; with fighter Chael Sonnen testing positive in 2014.
Now if you’re like most people, and moving to Arizona or Kenya isn’t in the immediate plans, and the idea of injecting synthesized kidney hormones into your body doesn’t seem appealing, the elevation-training mask seems like the perfect solution… Operative word being “seems”.
The altitude simulation training contraptions you see strapped to the faces of the Bane look-a-like in your local gym does not stimulate this physiologic response. The research put forth by these companies is flimsy at best.
A closer look at their “science”
The one published case study which directly pertains to the products you see on the shelves holds as much scientific merit as saying “ it happened to a friend of a friend of mine”- borderline anecdotal.
Before we dissect the research article you first must understand the hierarchy of research.
Systematic reviews and Meta analysis: This lies at the top of the pyramid and is the gold standard of research evidence. These are in-depth calculated reviews of all the research on a particular topic, each study is rated on its design, methods, power, and its outcome is weighted and compared with all other research on the topic to come to a clear consensus.
Randomized Controlled Trials: used often in medicine, a RCT usually compares an intervention against a placebo and can equate for human error by varying the information given to both the subject as well as the administration.
Cohorts: cohort studies can be prospective or retrospective in nature, but are usually large in scale and are used in epidemiological studies to consider long-term effects in cohorts of people- hence the name.
Case Study: Bringing up the caboose of the research train is case studies; these are usually small in scale and hold very little academic merit when compared to the aforementioned methods. It’s barely science at all; think of case studies as more or less, well documented observations.
After clarifying research nomenclature I’m going to let you guess what kind of research methods were used to give credence to this latest in the fitness industry…
You guessed it…
A single individual case study followed the progress of one 46-year-old ovo-lacto vegetarian as he embarked on a 6-week training-mask, training regiment. Pre and post blood chemistry and spirometer readings were used as objective measures of the training program. Here are the most glaring improprieties of the study
No control group; we have nothing to base the success or progress of the outcome measures on. There is no second individual performing the training regiment from a similar demographic to see if the progress made was in fact due to the mask, or just a normal physiologic response to a strict 6 week exercise regiment.
No mention of where the study was done: If the case report was undertaken at a place of significant elevation; the physiologic changes of the subjects blood chemistry could be attributed to the decreased partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere and have nothing to do with his 5 weekly training sessions where he wore the mask 50% of the time.
“Altitude Resistance “: The mask can apparently be changed to mimic the oxygen availability of different altitudes. And by week 6 the mask was set to mimic the oxygen consumption equivalent to 18,00 feet of elevation. To give some context; that would be very similar to working out atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Not likely.
Subjective benefits: The study included perceived psychological benefits of the training mask saying that more “mental focus” and “toughness” was achieved from training with the mask. Subjective benefits are non-quantifiable and non-reproducible which in short means they’re not scientific.
It’s safe to say that the silicon and plastic mask doesn’t change the chemistry of the air we breathe in. At best it limits the amount of total air intake, leaving us oxygen deprived. Which could actually have some physiological benefits if that were all the mask did. But, we must consider past inhalation, the same mask that limits the amount of air (and therefore oxygen) we breath in, also limits how much carbon dioxide we can disperse when we breathe out. The mask not only limits oxygen uptake, but also traps expelled carbon dioxide and leaves it readily available for re-inhalation. This puts the body in a state of hypercapnia (Greek translation; too much smoke), which essentially means that there is too high of a concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. This hyercapnic state is seen commonly in sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
I’m not going to try and sway you from buying this product, but I just want you to know what you’re getting into. If you think you’re fastening Mt. Everest to your mouth and huffing and puffing your way to performance enhancement. Think again. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again you cant supplement hard work, or in this case wear it on your face.