Less oxygen for more results?

Less oxygen for more results?
1st April 2016 FUEL10K

Fitness trends come and go like fashion trends, with every season. From drastic diets, eating windows post workout, to whether the benefits of jogging is just a myth. More recently how wearing masks that (almost) recreate the sense of exercising at high altitude, can enhance your workouts. FUEL10K investigates.

People love outdoors sports for a reason, it brings us closer to nature and when in sports (or hobbies) such as mountain climbing where nature is the main purpose of doing it, it becomes even more fulfilling. Hanging around at high altitudes have both pros and cons, the major pro for athletes being that after your body gets accustomed (which normally takes up to a few weeks) to breathing in air with reduced pressure of oxygen, you will perform better closer to sea level. On the basis of this, the fitness market has recently been flooded with elevation masks. The purpose of the mask is to recreate the effects of hypoxia (although primarily the sensation of it, really), with the intention of increasing our performance as we work out.

Hike in Himalayan
Many athletes, primarily Olympians, train at high altitude as it increases haemoglobin (our best friend, as we want that oxygen to go to our muscles) and the overall lung capacity – but only after successful acclimatisation, however this adaptation is only temporary, you’ll feel like Superman – for a few weeks tops. Bummer, right?

Are we using it correctly?
There’s plenty who sing the praise of this mask, but there seems to be even more who are less than impressed. Essentially, the usefulness of these elevation masks depend entirely on what you want to achieve with it. It will make it easier for you to perform once you take it off, your airflow is no longer restricted – we don’t need to be a physiologists to see the logic there. Whether it will improve your performance or endurance is more dubious.

One of the main issues with the hypoxic masks is how they are used, and for the amount of time. For the reduced air supply to make a difference to the ease with which you breathe without it, it requires to be on for longer period of time. A study was conducted on two groups at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences where they had one of the groups perform endurance training under hypoxic conditions – where they were exposed to the low air pressure from 10 minutes before and 30 minutes after the workout. In the end they showed increased haemoglobin but little other physiological benefits.

What is it used for? Anaerobic exercise like weights and general body building, does not require hefty amounts of oxygen to begin with, sure, there’s some huffing and puffing involved, but your lungs will not tire from it.

To avoid saying that it does not work, lets instead conclude with what the mask could do for us. It will make it easier for you to perform without, because, you know, your air supply is not blocked. But it will not increase haemoglobin production as the percentage of oxygen in the air that you take in will still be the same.

So wear it, by all means, and running a 20 mile marathon without it will all of a sudden seem like a breeze. Placebo or not, if it gets easier, it gets easier, right?