Altitude training has been around for awhile. When done correctly, it can increase red blood cell (RBC) count which means better performance due to more oxygen. In order to save you time of traveling to high elevation, companies have released "altitude training masks". These do not work to increase your RBC count, but rather make you tired. They can actually hinder your performance. Here's the science simplified:
Is There Less Oxygen Up High?
First of all, let's dismiss the myth of there being less oxygen at higher elevations. There is less pressure in higher elevation which just makes it harder for oxygen to move into the blood stream. So in short, in higher altitudes there is the same amount of oxygen, but less pressure to allow the same amount of oxygen to bind to RBCs.
How is Oxygen Important?
Oxygen is needed in order for muscles to function and energy to be maintained during exercise. RBC's have the ability to bind oxygen to themselves, and distributes the oxygen to muscles through capillaries. You breathe more/harder during exercise because your muscles need more oxygen to perform at a higher intensity.
Live High; Train Low
Now that you know what oxygen does, and what happens at higher elevation, let's talk about training. Because oxygen has a more difficult time binding to RBC's, your muscles can not function due to the lack of sufficient oxygen. If you were to go up high, you would become tired faster, and simply won't be able to perform at the level you could in lower elevation. How do you train properly?
We know that the body will adapt to even things out. The best way is to stay a few days or weeks up in higher elevation, then train. By that time, your body will have adapted to create more RBCs so that more oxygen can bind (diagram below). After your body has adapted, you can train at your normal intensity in the higher elevation. Even better, you could return to lower elevation to perform better (explained in the diagram below).
Why Elevation Masks Don't Work
Elevation masks restrict your oxygen. If your muscles do no get enough oxygen, you won't perform well. wearing could possbily mean you're only able to perform at 80%, but if you're tired and training at 80%, how will you get better? Even if you wanted to have the same adaptation as altitude training you would need to wear the mask for days or weeks. All it's good for is some form of torture or to look really intense in the gym (but not really).
That's the mechanism to altitude training, and that's how those altitude masks work (or don;t work). Let us know if you have any questions!
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