Altitude masks are supposed to recreate the effects of training in high altitude. Very interesting, but do they really work?

Many of you will already be well aware that altitude training has been very popular with endurance athletes for decades. elite sportspeople are regularly taking themselves away on altitutde camps.

Now there is an opportunity for us regular folk to experience all of the proven benefits of altitude training. And here’s the bets bit – we don’t have to fly to anywhere lofty and remote. We can do it for just £70!


The masks work by restricting the amount of air you can breathe in, thereby making your lungs work harder. This is very different to how altitude training actually works, but more on that later.

The mask claims to condition the lungs and strengthen the diaphragm, which again is not what altitude training does.

So what is altitude training?

Coaches use altitude training with their endurance athletes because it is a legal way to increase Erythropoietin (EPO – a hormone) without resorting to blood doping.

It takes a long time (think weeks or months) of living at high altitude before you will see any adaptations. Hypoxic conditions (where the body has lower available oxygen than usual) will stimulate the release of Erythropoietin which will increase red blood cell production [1].

This means that when the athlete returns to sea-level the increased red blood cells will result in increased total blood volume which means more oxygen being carried to the muscles whilst exercising.

Negatives to altitude training

Sadly the many downsides to training at altitude (loss of muscle mass, decreased V02 max, and lost body weight) may nullify any benefits received.

And as Friedmann et al (2003) [2] discovered there is a lot of variation between athletes as to how effective altitude training even is, whilst some participants experienced considerable increases in EPO, others experienced only small changes.

As Chapman, Stray-Gundersen & Levine (1998) [3] found there are many athletes who do not respond to altitude training at all, this is due to their bodies not releasing the same amount of EPO when subjected to altitude.

Also significant was how fit the athletes were, basically if you are not particularly fit to begin with then you will not be able to perform well enough at altitude to gain any benefits.

Live high, train low

“The poorer performances of men and women at middle-distance and distance running and swimming during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (altitude 2300m; 7546 ft) resulted from the small reduction in oxygen transport at this altitude” (McArdle, Katch & Katch 2007) [4]

Because a lot of coaches now agree that training at altitude is more trouble than it is worth, many have adopted the live high, train low principle.

altitude mask training_3This is where an athlete will live, eat, and sleep at altitude or in a hypoxic environment (tent, chamber etc) to get the benefits of living at altitude but will train at sea-level so that they can train without experiencing the negatives associated with training at altitude.

So increased total blood volume but no loss of performance, the coaches realised that you should be training in the best conditions to get the best results.

So, returning to the masks …

Now that you have a better understanding of the theory behind altitude training you can understand why the masks have nothing to do with it.

Even if the masks worked, you would need to be wearing them 24/7 for a sustained period of time, then you would take the mask off and begin training (if you followed the live high, train low principle).

To simulate the conditions of living at high altitude you would need a device that either lowers the pressure of inspired air or decreases the concentration of oxygen in the air [5].

Altitude masks do neither of these things, they just restrict air. So whilst the masks may strengthen the diaphragm they probably won’t give you any performance improvement, and they definitely won’t simulate living at high altitude.

How do I simulate altitude training then?

Okay first question – why? Why do you want to simulate altitude training in the first place?

altitude mask training_4Do you have a Tour de France spot you’ve been preparing yourself for? Or are you running in the marathon in Rio?

Yes, I get the idea that you want every advantage available to you but surely there is a limit to what you are going to benefit from here.

95% of us will NEVER see any benefits from altitude training because we are amateurs.

We have not reached the upper limit of our abilities so do not need that extra 1% to make all the difference.

Altitude training is not going to transform you from an amateur to a professional, nor is it going to knock 15 minutes off your 10km run time. At best it will make little to no difference and worst case scenario it could have a negative effect on performance.

Instead of spending money on masks, Hypobaric chambers or altitude tents why not spend your money on a running coach?

Surely improving your running technique would be more beneficial? And you would be able to see the difference much quicker.

My advice, if you want to become a better runner then there are many ways you can do so which are cost-effective and proven. The number one way to improve running performance will always be practice, so why not go out and run and leave the masks for Halloween?

Connect with Expert Matthew Smith


[1] Wilmore, J., & Costill, D. 2004 Physiology of Sport and Exercise 3rd Edition. Illinois: Human Kinetics. pp 348-349

[2] Friedmann, B., Frese, F., Menold, E., Kauper, F., Jost, J. & Bartsch, P. 2005 Individual variation in the erythropoietic response to altitude training in elite junior swimmers British Journal of Sports Medicine 39(3): 148-153

[3] Chapman, R., Stray-Gundersen, J. & Levine, B. 1998 Individual variation in response to altitude training Journal of Applied Physiology 85(4): 1448-1456

[4] McArdle, W., Katch, F. & Katch, V. 2007 Exercise Performance and Environmental Stress 6th Edition. Maryland: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

[5] Girard, O., Brocherie, F. & Millet, G. 2013 On the use of mobile inflatable hypoxic marquees for sport-specific altitude training in team sports. British Journal of Sports Medicine 47: 1121-1123

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