You may have seen people lurking around your gym looking like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman's Bane. It may seem odd, but those weird masks are useful for more than scaring people away from the squat racks. They're elevation training masks, which simulate training at higher altitudes by limiting air flow to the mouth and nose.
The idea: Hypoxic (oxygen-deprived) conditions increase red blood cell production, increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Blood with a higher oxygen-carrying capacity has been linked with improvements in VO2 max and endurance performance, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). While high-altitude training has definite positive effects on athletic performance, scientists are still trying to pinpoint the best way to tap into these effects—including figuring out whether these elevation training masks actually work. The latest research by the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and commissioned by ACE shows that these masks just might have some performance-boosting benefits. (Research shows that exercising in the heat might give you those same benefits too.)
In the study, 24 moderately trained college students were tested with a cycling ergometer test, and researchers measured their VO2 max, ventilatory threshold (VT), respiratory compensation threshold (RCT), maximal heart rate (HR), and maximal power output. Then the subjects completed a six-week high-intensity cycling training program. Half of them wore the Elevation Training Mask 2.0 and half did not. The elevation masks were set to 3,000 feet above sea level, then progressed to 6,000 feet, 9,000 feet, and 12,000 feet over the course of the program. (For reference, Boston sits at about sea level, Aspen is at about 8,000 feet, and the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is at about 19,000 feet.) Then the participants completed the same cycling ergometer test that they did before the experiment.
Though the company promises the mask will increase VO2 max, overall power output, and lung capacity, the study's findings didn't exactly support that. However, the masks did improve two important athletic performance factors: overall RCT (the amount of time each participant could exercise without getting winded) and power output at RCT (the level of exercise intensity each person could handle without getting winded). Translation: Elevation training masks could help you go a bit longer and harder when it comes to exercise.
But being a better athlete isn't as simple as popping on a scary-looking gym accessory. It's going to take some more research to determine whether the improvements seen in the lab can translate to real-world training, said John Porcari, Ph.D., head researcher for the study. It's also worth noting that peoples' blood oxygen level was only diluted by about 2 percent with the masks, which is far below the desaturation experienced when you're actually at a higher elevation. So if you're training for a high-altitude race, don't rely on a mask for the real feeling of being in the clouds. (High-intensity interval training could also help you get faster and stronger, as demonstrated by this study on ultra-marathoners.)
The bottom line? Elevation or high-altitude training is still super complex—it's tough to replicate being in an actual high-altitude environment, said ACE Chief Science Office Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., in the press release. So you can grab a mask if you want to look tough at the gym, but you're better off hopping onto the nearest mountain or moving to Colorado for the best altitude performance benefits.