Don't Bother Taking A Face Mask To The Gym

What you should know about training in a face mask

Wearing a face masks in the gym is unnecessary. Although they have increased in popularly over the past few years, the masks are ineffective and do not deliver as intended/promised. This is not the result of poor design - just human and exercise physiology. 

Do they make training harder? Yes

Do they make you look more like Bane than you currently do? Yes

Do they facilitate adaptations you would otherwise not get? No.

There we have it - they don't allow an adaptation you would not otherwise get. For those interested in why - read on for a full description.

 

WHAT'S THE IDEA?

Face masks are promoted as being able to stimulate the same physiological response and adaptation that happens when the body is exposed to altitude.

You might have experienced physical activity at high altitude before (1600m+), and found that breathing was an issue. It can feel like you breathing through a straw and can be described as similar to breathing while anxious - increased heart rate, shallow breaths, etc.

You might also have heard about athletes going to high altitude for training camps before returning to sea-level for major competitions. Whilst this is still a common practice,

If athletes use altitude training, why shouldn't you use a face mask? The answer lies within the fact that face mask do not simulate altitude. Let's look at the mechanics of breathing to get a better understanding of why this is the case.

 

HOW BREATHING WORKS

When you breath in air enters the lungs. But this is just the beginning. From here, oxygen must enter the blood stream to be used by the body.

For this to occur, pressure (more particularly partial pressure) is the key.

Here are some important numbers to consider.


The composition of air

  • Nitrogen - 78%

  • Oxygen - 21%

  • Argon, Carbon Dioxide, Others - 1%

 

Partial pressure of Oxygen

  • Sea level - 760mmHg

  • 1600m - 746mmHg

  • 2000m - 577mmHg

  • 8848m - 246mmHg

  • Venous blood - 30-40mmHg



The venous blood (blood returning through veins - oxygen has been mostly used up) maintains a consistent partial pressure (30-40mmHg). Since the pressure of oxygen at sea-level is (760mmHg) there is a strong differential between the two.

In the lungs, oxygen from the air comes into contact with venous blood, where it can diffuse across and into the bloodstream. As the oxygen moves from high to low pressure, fresh oxygen is transferred from the lungs into the blood stream.

Oxygen then binds to red blood cells and is transported to where it is required. Then the oxygen is taken from the blood, swapped for carbon dioxide (CO2), circulates the body and return to the lungs to get fresh oxygen.

At the same time as the oxygen travels from the lungs into the bloodstream, the opposite is happening to carbon dioxide. Since the blood CO2 is high (CO2 has been picked up from tissue) and the air CO2 is low (<1% - refer to table above), CO2 is transferred into the lungs and the breathed out into the environment.

This whole process is called gas exchange and is the only way to increase oxygen and/or decrease carbon dioxide in the body. 

 

WHAT CHANGES AT ALTITUDE

When you travel to altitude, the composition of air remains the same. What changes is the partial pressure (jt gets lower - refer to above).

We know gas exchange occurs via the movement of high to low pressure. As the air pressure lowers - getting closer to the pressure of the venous blood - less oxygen is diffused in the lungs. This means the less oxygen is available for the body. 

The effects are increased respiration rate (less oxygen going in per breath, so must breath more to compensate) and a potential feeling of breathlessness.

The body eventually responds by increasing red blood cells, which means there are more available to carry oxygen, allowing respiration rate to decrease. This make the body more effective (but not more efficient) at getting oxygen from the lungs to tissue, as there are more cells to bind to.

This decrease in pressure from sea-level increases with altitude (-14mmHg at 1600m, -183mmHg at 2000m). The reason that you cannot breath on Mount Everest (-514mmHg at 8846m) is the lack of pressure. Oxygen is still there - in the same composition as sea-level - but it cannot diffuse across the lungs. Therefore, you need tanks to provide pressurised oxygen.

 

WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO THINK

The benefits of altitude training are primarily acclimatisation (you get used to it) and potentially performance enhancing (increased red blood cells). The theory is that increased red blood cells acquired at altitude will lead to greater oxygen-carrying capacity at sea-level. However, whether the benefits are maintained, and whether they outweigh potential detraining effects of lowered training capacity, remain up in the air (so to speak).

Note: when I last looked into altitude strongly, the research was positive, but not conclusive, about the long term performance benefits. However, as altitude training (real altitude training - not masks) is now more prevalent, this may have changed and support is stronger.

 

WHAT REALLY HAPPENS

The problem with a mask is that the pressure of air does not change, the volume of air does. There is no need to increase RBC - because there is less oxygen to transfer. If anything, RBC might decrease because full capacity is not being used (although this would only occur if ALWAYS wearing training mask).

In addition, less air intake lead to a decreased work output which can cause a detraining effect.  This is an issue with legitimate altitude training also, which has lead to the idea of live-high train-low - whereby athletes train at sea level while sleeping in simulated altitude living (barometric tents). Again, I am not sure how effective this is and what the literature says, but it is certainly not relevant to general population clients. 

The only application of training mask is to military or police who might conduct high-intensity operations while wearing gas masks for protection. Firefighters using controlled breathing apparatuses might be the same, but I believe the oxygen flow can be controlled on these, which would alleviate this issue.

 

SO YOU'VE WORN A TRAINING MASK - ARE YOU A FOOL?

No. The idea is sound and it is very easy to buy into. You can train with a gas mask and still be very fit - but realise that this is in spite of, not because of wearing the mask.

 

SUMMARY

Altitude training has potential benefits for high-end sporting performance. However, since gas masks do not actually replicate altitude training, they are not of benefit. Even if they did, the detraining component would be an issue and they would not have an application to general population clients.

 

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