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Elevation training masks: Bringing the mountains to sea level and improving performance?

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Army Capt. Matt Doellman plans to use the Training Mask 2.0 ($80) elevation mask to train for the Leadville, Colo., 100-mile race this summer.

Army Capt. Matt Doellman is using the Training Mask 2.0 ($80) elevation mask to train for the Leadville, Colo., 100-mile race this summer.

A new workout accoutrement is appearing more frequently at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall gym and elsewhere: sleek masks that look like modified M40 gas masks — streamlined, high-tech and just a little creepy, a la Hannibal Lecter.

Elevation training masks — the latest workout gear must-have — purport to simulate the effects of high-altitude training by restricting air flow to the lungs. Manufacturers say that by reducing air intake, the body works harder, increasing its ability to process oxygen and reaping benefits of ultimate fitness when the mask is removed.

But do they work? Depends on the definition of “work.” Manufacturers’ claims range from helping a user pre-acclimate to high altitudes and simulating health benefits that occur during a “live high, train low” conditioning program to strengthening the diaphragm and lungs by making them work harder.

Elevation masks can be adjusted to simulate altitude changes from 3,000 feet to 12,000 feet, but they don’t actually reduce the amount of oxygen in the air as a real altitude adjustment would. Instead, the user gets the same amount of O2 in ambient air — albeit at a filtered, restricted rate — so you’ll miss out on the red-blood-cell boost that happens during real altitude training. Some studies show the masks do slightly reduce susceptibility to altitude sickness and that they also can improve sleep breathing at high altitude — if a user wore one while sleeping before they travel.

Masks do force a wearer to suck wind if worn during a workout, and that challenge is why Army Capt. Matt Doellman was thrilled to get one as a birthday present this year. Doellman is preparing to run the Leadville, Colo., Trail 100 through the Rockies. He’s run it before — once successfully after a deployment to high-altitude Afghanistan.

Doellman, a nurse, has no fantasies that wearing the mask will cause the physiological changes needed to bolster his race time. But he does believe it will help exercise his diaphragm and force his lungs to work harder, giving him the strength he needs to get through grueling climbs.

“My plan is to use it three or four hours a day on the StairMaster several times a week. I haven’t worn it running yet, but most of my focus is going to be for using it on the climb,” Doellman said.

In a review written for the Defense Department’s Human Performance Resource Center, Stephen Muza of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine said no reports indicate that wearing a mask can be harmful to one’s health. He cautions that using a mask dialed up to altitudes of 10,000 feet without getting used to it first could cause dizziness that could lead to injury.

Muza suggested the masks could be useful for personnel stationed below 5,000 feet who want to reduce their risk of developing altitude sickness when traveling to mountainous regions. But troops should not “expect [such] a conditioning program to produce any improvement in physical work performance at high altitude,” he wrote.

Doellman says his biggest concern is the claustrophobia he feels while wearing one.

“To be honest, it’s very, very hard. Kind of like a wearing a CBRN mask. I have the half-mask style, but if you are claustrophobic, it’s still  not that great,” he said.

But still, he’s excited to give it a try. After successfully running Leadville, he failed to finish it the following year while stationed in the 772 feet-above-sea-level town of San Antonio, Texas. He’s hoping that an $80 mask may improve his chances of crossing the finish line.

“I’m not an elite athlete. I just want to run smart and run straight,” Doellman said.

Patricia Kime

Patricia Kime is a health writer for Military Times. Reach her at pkime@militarytimes.com.