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If you’ve never seen or used a training mask before, you might wonder why someone would strap a mask over their face to exercise. Wouldn’t that make your workout that much harder?

That’s actually the point, according to people who use training masks.

Also known as altitude masks or elevation training masks (ETMs), these masks are used to simulate conditions at higher altitudes to stress the body during exercise.

Ideally, using a training mask helps you increase physical performance and achieve increasingly challenging goals.

But how effective are these training masks at improving your performance? And is it safe for you to use one? Read on to learn more.

A training mask is designed to help you re-create the conditions of high altitudes when you can’t physically go high above sea level.

Wearing this mask while exercising is believed by some to help you achieve the same benefits you might achieve if you were training at these high altitudes.

A training mask looks very different from a surgical mask or even an N95 mask.

Like those masks, a training mask covers your mouth. However, it also features adjustable channels or valves on the front to restrict the amount of oxygen that you receive, as well as a valve where exhaled air exits the mask.

When you wear the mask, your body begins to adapt to the reduced oxygen intake, making your heart and lungs work harder.

Then, when you take the mask off, you’ll get a big boost — your body has adapted to the restricted oxygen and is able to use the oxygen more efficiently, which helps you perform better.

After using a training mask for some time, you may feel like you can run faster, jump higher, or bike for a longer duration. If you’re a competitor, this may give you an edge over the people you’re up against.

Here are some of the specific benefits that proponents of training masks typically cite.

Builds aerobic capacity

VO₂ max is essentially shorthand for your maximal oxygen intake. This refers to the uppermost limit for the amount of oxygen your body is able to use during exercise. You may also hear it referred to as peak oxygen intake.

Training masks are supposed to help you achieve your VO₂ max, but scientific research shows mixed results. In a 2016 study, for example, training masks helped wearers increase their VO₂ max. A 2017 study, on the other hand, showed no real benefit.

Builds lung function

You may often hear that training masks help improve your lung function. But research suggests that might not be the case.

The 2016 study mentioned above compared one small group of “moderately trained” adults who used ETMs with a control group that didn’t use masks.

The study didn’t find any difference in lung function between the two groups.

Induces hypoxemia

Hypoxemia is the state of having below-normal levels of oxygen in your blood. Essentially, training masks are supposed to help you achieve this state because their effect is similar to what you might experience at high altitudes.

But the question still remains: Do ETMs really help you achieve the same benefits you’d receive from training at high altitude?

The aforementioned 2016 study shows that these masks aren’t actually effective altitude training devices after all. Rather, they’re more effective as respiratory muscle training devices.

The 2017 study mentioned earlier notes that the limited duration of time that a mask is typically worn may limit its potential benefits.

When you train at high altitudes for a certain length of time, your body is constantly exposed to the reduced oxygen levels. So, there’s time for your body to adapt, even when you’re not exercising.

But wearing a training mask for only an hour-long workout three or four days per week, for example, may not be sufficient enough to form a good comparison.

These masks may or may not be effective, but it’s also important to consider the safety factor. Elite athletes may see some benefits from them, but should amateur athletes give them a try, too?

People who use these altitude masks may experience some benefits, like improved lung capacity. But they may also experience certain side effects, according to 2018 study of 20 male weightlifters. These side effects may include:

The weightlifters in the study used the masks during training, and researchers found that the mask wearers lost some degree of alertness and focus toward their tasks due to reduced oxygen intake.

Even without any underlying health conditions, you should be aware that it’s possible to hyperventilate or faint when using a training mask. If you do have health concerns, like high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, your doctor will likely advise you to steer clear of these masks.

If you’re concerned about whether your health is good enough to consider using a mask, check with your doctor first.

If you’re in good health without any underlying conditions that might preclude you from a training regimen that utilizes a training mask, consider these steps:

  1. Check the fit. Make sure the mask fits correctly. It should fit snuggly over your nose and mouth.
  2. Start slow. Don’t put on the mask and head out to run five miles. Wear it around your house for a little while, perhaps while trying out some activities like light housework. You might feel a little lightheaded at first because the mask restricts your breathing, so be mindful.
  3. Ramp up gradually. Consider scaling up your regular workouts before adding a mask.
  4. Adjust the valves. Some ETMs will let you tinker with the altitude settings quite a bit. Choose a low level until you see how you react, and gradually work your way up.
  5. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Remove the mask if you’re feeling lightheaded or faint.

Depending on your health and fitness goals, a training mask might not be the right option for you. Or you may simply decide that you don’t like the idea of wearing a bulky mask while you’re exercising.

Plus, there are other options for working up to a more challenging workout routine that builds over a longer period of time. It may take a few weeks to see how your body reacts before you notice any improvements in your aerobic capacity.

Interested in trying a training mask? Their benefits seem attractive, but they may not deliver exactly what you envision.

Evidence for training masks is still inconclusive. However, these masks can make some workouts harder, providing some benefit for aerobic workouts.

The bottom line is that more research seems to be needed — particularly since most of the existing research focuses on people who are athletes or military personnel — in order to see whether training masks provide real benefits.