Have you ever seen someone working out at the gym with a mask on their face? Not a COVID-19 mask, but an elevation mask, made especially for imitating the air quality of higher altitudes by restricting the air flow coming in. You may wonder why on earth someone would put themselves through that voluntarily, but training at higher altitudes, where the oxygen content is lower, can have some very beneficial physiological effects on the body.
Hemoglobin is a specific part of your blood. Its job is to pick up oxygen at the lungs, deliver it to cells or muscles in the bloodstream, and pick up the excess CO2 released by your lungs, moving in this continuous circle.
When performing at higher altitudes, there’s far less oxygen for that hemoglobin to work with. As a result, your body stimulates an increase in respiration — you’ll breathe heavier, even if you’re just walking — to make up for the oxygen deficit. Initially, if you try exercising up there, you’ll feel like you’re moving slower, working harder, and breathing heavier.
But if you stay up there for a few weeks and continue training, you’ll soon see the difference and realise the benefits are worth it.
As you train, your body will adapt to the environment. Your red blood cell count will rise, causing an increase in hemoglobin. This means more carrying capacity for oxygen in the body, so it can store a little extra to use during exercise. Your body also stimulates the release of hormones and chemicals that play a part in how much the oxygen clings to the hemoglobin and how much gets released from the hemoglobin to send to the muscles. The more oxygen released to the muscles means a better workout.
Now your body has all this excess oxygen stored and ready to use. What happens next? Once down back at normal sea level, your body will keep the high levels of oxygen, despite there being much more in the air at a lower elevation. So when you do get your heart pumping, you’ll feel like a superhero with all this oxygen to utilize. The longer you stay at a lower altitude, the sooner you’ll lose the capacity to hold extra oxygen, but the benefits of high altitude training like this can last up to three weeks. If you’ve got a race or a competition coming up, this secret could give you the extra edge to first place.
We now understand why people wear those masks at the gym, but here’s the truth: masks don’t have any effect on the oxygen concentration in your blood.
They merely restrict the amount of air your body gets, making your breathing heavier. They may help improve your respiratory strength and endurance, but that’s about it. If you want oxygen saturated blood, you’ve got to get a little higher!
Maddy has worked in the health and fitness industry for 5 years. She has a bachelors in Exercise Science and has recently received her Masters in Exercise Physiology. She has worked with a wide demographic of clients as a Personal Trainer and loves helping people reach their goals and continue to grow. She is an outdoor enthusiast and dedicates her workouts to rock climbing, hiking and whatever new experiences may come her way.
Main Photo Credit: Standret/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: lzf/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Inu/shutterstock.com