The altitude mask for training fighters: when nothing is better than something.

Today’s write up will be about the popular ‘bane mask’ (altitude mask). Despite noticeable evidence diminishing the presented benefits of wearing the mask, we continue to see it being used by some of the best athletes in the world. In saying this, let’s dive a little deeper.

In 1968 at the Mexico Summer Olympic Games, there were a number of endurance athletes who under performed. Scientists then began to attribute this to a possible factor- ‘The effects of altitude’. Here after, sports scientists began to experiment with altitude simulation. Fast forward to 2019 and its use is still very prevalent.

Some of the selling points are improved oxygen uptake, improved aerobic/anaerobic capacity and increased lung capacity by way of adhering to the ‘LIVE LOW TRAIN HIGH’ method. Let us tell you why this ISN’T the case:

1. The mask claims to put you into a ‘Hypoxic state’, which essentially means limiting relative oxygen availability, to enhance athletic performance. Our body therefore adapts, OVER TIME, by increasing EPO (Erythropoietin)= increase Red Blood cell production= better muscle oxygenation. After testing the hypoxic simulation of the device, a study by Jagim AR in 2018 showed that “wearing the ETM does not produce a hypoxic stimulus great enough to elicit the necessary physiologic responses experienced at true elevation”.

So, what is the mask actually doing to you?

2. By reducing breathing frequency, the mask can have effects on peripheral air resistance (essentially making your ‘breathing muscles’ work harder= therefore getting stronger), however, there is also inconclusive evidence to prove that this is actually the case.

3. By decreasing ventilation, subjects will report higher perceptions of effort, most likely as a result of decreased oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide removal, and this is an apparent contribution to one of many performance improvements such as increased aerobic performance (Vo2max), even though the evidence suggests otherwise.

Simply put, the claims to replicate an altitude like environment is non-existent when using the altitude mask. At best it can serve as a device to strengthen respiratory muscles by way of making ventilation difficult, and even the possible benefits due to this are inconclusive.

We actually think it might be doing more harm than good. Here is how:

1. Breathing patterns are important during athletic movements, especially when we consider recovery and sympathetic/parasympathetic regulation, as well as maximum oxygen uptake through optimal diaphragmatic function (expansion and relaxation). During intense exercise the need to inhale is dramatically increased. Wearing the mask makes this task more difficult, and so we spend less time exhaling due to the challenges presented to inhale oxygen. Thus, we begin to rely on accessory breathing patterns to optimise our respiratory expansion. Doing this for a prolonged period of time can interrupt with efficient diaphragmatic function and encourage issues elsewhere (neck, shoulders).

2. Mental toughness: the training mask definitely increases the perceptual difficulty of breathing during exercise. We’re significantly concerned if a reputable coach is justifying the use to increase the resilience of their athletes by way of essentially reducing the available oxygen to them. In fact, our goals should be to optimise the efficiency of our athlete’s energy systems to utilise oxygen as efficiently as possible to improve athletic performance.

To end what we started as a great Bane joke, the so-called altitude mask in fact does not replicate an environment of true elevation, and therefore it cannot adhere to the claims of improved performance as such. If you want to improve performing at altitude, then train at altitude under specific conditions and time frames. Also, the improvements seen through its use as a respiratory training device are too, inconclusive, and so we are left with the verdict that there are many more efficient and timely strategies to optimise athletic performance........ unless of course there is a team Halloween part (sorry not sorry!).


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