You are here

Darth Vader in running clothes

Friday, May 23, 2014
Dirt Under the Nails
A runner using an elevation training mask.

It seemed as though I was in a Star Wars movie. There he was, approaching me. Darth Vader in running clothes, sweat dripping from his garments, looking like he had been just stabbed with the light saber of Luke Skywalker, and was about to die. His breathing was laborious, heavier than his usual huffing and hissing, (if one can imagine anything noisier than Darth Vader’s breathing) and something you could hear a mile away. I WAS in a Star Wars movie!


When I finally overcame my initial shock at this oddity, and returned to Earth, I realised that Darth Vader was actually a runner wearing an altitude training mask. I wondered at its purpose because he was running so slowly, yet breathing with such difficulty. This prompted me to delve a bit deeper into the science behind these expensive pieces of equipment to determine if they are worth the suffering.


The altitude training mask is proposed to simulate hypoxic (with low oxygen) training. During hypoxic training, the percentage of oxygen in the air is decreased, carbon dioxide is increased and the result is an acidic environment in the body. The body’s natural response is to decrease the concentration of carbon dioxide, and therefore over time, it begins to produce more red blood cells which can carry more oxygen. 


There are many studies with conflicting results on the effectiveness of hypoxic training, but they all agree that one must “sleep high and train low” in order to best achieve this effect, as it takes time for the body to adapt. One will achieve a much better effect by sleeping for eight hours with low oxygen than one would get from running for two hours with a training mask. 


Furthermore, an athlete will experience a drop in performance when training with low levels of oxygen because the body just cannot perform when there is not enough oxygen available. Hence “Darth Vader” struggling to maintain a respectable pace during his run. 


In essence, someone will not provide a training stimulus to his/her muscles, simply because the lungs cannot deliver the oxygen the muscles need in order to perform at a faster pace. 


Even if one spends a month at altitude, the benefits only last about a week after one returns to sea level. That said, in order to achieve a reasonable effect from your US$80 “altitude training mask,” you would have to wear it for eight hours a day for 90 days. Even after all that, you only have one week of results. We begin to see the idiocy of these training masks now, and realise that they are just a fad. 


To make matters worse, these masks do not even simulate training at altitude. Hypoxic training involves working out with a decreased percentage of oxygen, but the volume of air one breathes stays the same. These masks limit the actual volume of air entering the lungs, and this volume of air has the same percentage of oxygen as normal air. It is normal air, just less of it going into the lungs. 


The mask restricts the air one can push out the lungs, so there is more residual air left in them. This means that there is less room for fresh air to be inhaled. The muscles of the lungs then have to work harder to try to expel the air and then bring in more fresh air. One article I read likened the experience to trying to breathe with a boa constrictor wrapped around the ribcage. 


Personal reviews about this altitude training mask are mixed, with more negative reviews than positive ones. I have a sneaky suspicion that the placebo effect had a great part to play in the positive reviews. 


However, these positive reviewers may also have felt the effect of stronger lungs which is about the only good thing about the mask. It improves the strength of the diaphragm, which must work harder to bring air into the lungs against the resistance of the mask. One may therefore be better able to process oxygen. Despite this, there are no scientific studies to show that it improves performance.


VIbram, the company that manufactured the Five Fingers minimalist shoes, was sued for making false claims that the shoes actually improve foot strength, foot health and spinal posture. The makers of these altitude training masks would be wise to review their marketing, as they are diving into murky waters with their own false claims. 


The mask does not provide similar training effects as one would get at altitude. There is just no substitute for hard work. Forget the short cuts. The training you’ve been avoiding while shopping for your mask is your Luke Skywalker light saber.