Tag Archives: Altitude

Training masks; the science behind them!

People like new toys and gadgets, especially ones which can improve their performance. In recent years breathing masks and gas masks have become popular amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The idea originated from firefighters and the military who experience some extremely intense, physical situations while wearing breathing apparatus. The experience of wearing these masks in such scenarios can be quite overwhelming. In order to familiarize themselves with these situations they began to train while wearing their equipment. Obviously the more accustomed to something we are the more comfortable we are with it. Shortly, after we saw them to be used in the fitness community. They started to use similar equipment in search of more intense training methods.

In very recent years breathing masks have been produced commercially and specifically for the fitness and sports industry. Like any new training tool it comes with many benefits. This article is aimed at examining the physiological theory for the use of such masks. By understanding the physiological processes taking place we can make better use of such equipment.

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The major misconception which seems to have formed with the use of these masks is their ability to replicate high altitude. High altitude has been linked to many physiological benefits to cardiovascular conditioning. The concept of this relates to the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen (O2) molecules move from lungs to blood and the blood to muscle through a process of diffusion. The molecules travel across thin membranes from areas of high, to low pressure. If ambient oxygen pressure is low, as it is at high altitude, less molecules cross from lungs to the blood and so forth. The amount of O2 in the air remains exactly the same (20.93%) but overall air pressure (Barometric Pressure) is greatly reduced. In order to compensate, our body first increases breathing rate and take bigger breaths. This allows us to utilize a larger portion of the lung and alveoli allowing more O2 to diffuse into the bloodstream. Another reason is to excrete Carbon dioxide (CO2). By blowing off CO2 we drop the pH level of the blood and create something known as “Respiratory alkalosis”. This allows more oxygen to be absorbed by our red blood cells. This process occurs similarly at sea level.

When exposed to this over long duration (16hrs+ per day for a minimum of two days)(Chapman et al, 1998) our body increases a hormone called Erythropoietin (EPO). This hormone when combined with iron stimulates the creation of new red blood cells, a larger amount of which allows us to transport more O2 around the blood. In addition our muscles respond to training by increasing mitochondria and capillarization of the fibres. This allows our muscles to consume more oxygen. The issue with altitude training is that our breathing rate can only increase so much and the other adaptations are relatively slow to occur. As a result the intensity of our training significantly drops. This is why many athletes choose to live at altitude and travel to sea level to train. It allows the adaptations to occur without training intensity suffering. This limitation is well documented.

Breathing masks do not alter the partial pressure of O2. They simply restrict airflow. They do not specifically filter O2 from the air. We compensate for this restriction by breathing more forcefully creating positive pressure to overcome the resistance. This is similar to techniques adopted by individuals suffering with breathing difficulties such as asthma and COPD. Pursed Lip Breathing is an excellent example of a breathing technique used to compensate for resistance. It is also something we automatically do when wearing a gum shield or mouthguard. We do not experience any increase in EPO as pressure gradients are maintained. The processes taking place at altitude are different from the ones taking place when using these masks .

In order to compensate for resistance we must breath with more force, both when we inhale and exhale. We use the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. These muscles are like any other; they become stronger when a stress stimulus is applied. When using these masks we are in theory strength training our breathing muscles. This can allow us to utilize a larger portion of our lungs, making our breaths more efficient and deeper. It also allows us to develop our breathing muscles, which will make breathing easier in normal conditions. This is of great benefit to an athlete’s conditioning as the effort in breathing will be greatly reduced.

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In addition to physical adaptations we can also experience some mental benefits. In scenarios where breathing is restricted we get a sense of breathlessness. This often causes panic. In a competitive environment panic can be a debilitating experience. Like firefighters and military servicemen, becoming accustomed to that feeling can have a great benefit. Learning to be comfortable and to relax allows our breathing to settle. Having the experience to know how to breath efficiently in such a scenario can allow an athlete to maintain composure. I believe this to be a very significant benefit to the use of such masks.

Like any new tool or training method it is very important to understand the processes taking place and the adaptations that come with them. Unfortunately there is relatively little research available on the use of breathing masks. I believe them to be an effective tool when used for the right goal. With any training an athlete wants the best results. Examining the physiological process taking place we can often learn to make best use of the tool. While science cannot always give the exact answer it usually puts us on the right track.

The Great Offseason!

For many sports in the Northern Hemisphere we are now entering the offseason portion of the annual cycle. For some this is simply a period in which they can cut loose and not worry too much about their training. For others this offseason could be a make or break point in their career. It can be very hard for an athlete to make progress in their offseason for a number of reasons. A lot of athletes fail to stay committed and motivated when they are outside of their team environment or without any immediate competition scheduled, others can be over eager and try to do too much. This can often lead to overtraining and burnout despite being outside of the competition period. Planning and organization is key to a successful offseason. The following article will discuss how to get the most out of an offseason and hopefully allow athletes to step up their ability for next season.

Step 1: Analysis

At the end of a competitive season athletes and coaches should review the performance of the season. Often mistakes are pretty clear at this point and athletes will have a good idea of their weaknesses. In order to maintain motivation and commitment it is important to identify areas where progress can be made. There is nothing more disheartening than finishing a season and being clueless as to where to improve. Regardless of success or failure, the notion of progress is a powerful motivator. Honest analysis of strengths and weaknesses is essential at this point. Building an offseason program is relatively simple if an effective evaluation has been completed.

Step 2: Rest

Often the first thing we tell an athlete to do is rest. A few weeks rest can be very beneficial at this time. Mental and physical strain stacks up over a season and often a couple of weeks rest can have a major impact on an athlete. The amount of rest depends on the time available but even a week can be enough to reset the athlete. Often this rest also makes an athlete restless and eager to train. This can be beneficial in an offseason where there is no competition to create that eagerness to work.

Step 3: The Program

This is obviously a very important component and will depend on the outcome of their end of season evaluation. The offseason should be approached with a triage perspective. Take care of the biggest weakness first. One caveat to this is timing. Some adaptations occur over very different time frames. For example an athlete may be a little undersized but definitely too slow. Addressing speed is essential but should not be done until the athlete is at a consistent weight. Hypertrophy may take more time and energy from an athlete. Often it can be hard to address hypertrophy inseason relative to speed and so the offseason period is more suitable to address it. Speed can then become a part of late offseason/preseason period. Careful planning is essential to ensure that the focus on one ability does not overwrite another.

There is great debate on the structure of programs and their efficiency. We take an approach with our athletes where we utilize block periodization in the offseason and then move towards concurrent and/or conjugate style during preseason and in season. The reason is most athletes tend not to lose their strengths significantly and if they do they usually regain them quite fast. In the offseason we use block periodization to really focus in on their weaknesses and make as much of an impact as possible. Sometimes this may neglect some of their stronger areas. When we move towards a conjugate style we hit on a little of everything. We then see a rapid return in their strengths while maintaining the progress made in their weak areas. The offseason then serves to fill in the holes in their abilities. For the majority of athletes this approach is effective in improving their performance from one season to another.

The offseason period can make a huge difference to an athlete. If it is individualized and shows the athlete a genuine prospect for improvement then motivation won’t be a major problem. Diligent monitoring of program will then make the program effective as it can be tweaked where needed to suit the needs of the athlete. The biggest mistake to make is to use a generic program which does not address the individual. This often makes situations worse as the athlete may fail to fix his weaknesses. There is nothing worse than the feeling an athlete has where no progress is being made. Consecutive seasons of stagnant performance can be a death blow to many athletes careers.

Live High Train Low

Altitude has well established benefits for an athlete. Increased red blood cell production through increased erythropoietin (EPO) levels, results in a better ability of the blood to carry and deliver oxygen. Oxygen supply is one of the critical factors determining oxidative capacity and VO2max. At increasing altitude the partial pressure of oxygen decreases. This means that oxygen defusing from the lungs to the blood is reduced. Sensors in the body detect this reduction of oxygen dissolved in the blood. A series of physiological responses then act compensate. The magnitude and “shelf life” of these responses is dependant on the duration of exposure to a high altitude (hypoxic) environment. Most athletes therefore believe that the longer they stay at altitude the more beneficial it will be for them in terms of performance. A greater oxidative capacity is a major contributing factor in aerobic endurance and performance. While there is no doubt that altitude improves an athletes physiology and oxidative capacity, it may not always benefit athletic performance.

At altitude the poor supply of oxygen will make relative efforts more intense depending on the height above sea level. The higher an athlete goes the harder exercise at relative efforts will become. In some ways this is a benefit, as the athlete can improve both mentally and physiologically. With time it can also become a disadvantage. The athlete becomes accustomed to working at lower power outputs and pace in comparison to sea level. When they return to sea level they can struggle to maintain high pace even though they are physiologically capable. Technique and exercise efficiency can be greatly diminished by the time spent at altitude. For this reason an athlete will need to find a compromise between the physiological improvements and maintenance of technique. The live high, train low model is one such strategy which has shown success in overcoming this. An athlete will spend non training hours living in a hypoxic environment and will then return to sea level for training. They can also do this artificially by creating a hypoxic environment such as an “altitude house” or by sleeping in an “oxygen tent”. In either case the athlete is in an artificially controlled environment. They now can ensure sufficient duration in hypoxia to elicit a physiological response. They do not experience the issue with training intensity as they can complete their training at a sea level environment. When this method is adopted for a number of days or weeks the athlete can experience a significant overall improvement to aerobic performance. One exception to this theory is when an athlete is preparing for a competition that is at a high altitude venue. In this case the athlete must become acclimated to their competition environment. The loss in sea level performance is acceptable as the athlete must now focus his efforts around a performance in a new environment.

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Oxygen tent. Source http://www.snipview.com/q/Altitude%20tent

Depending on the goals and schedule of the athlete, altitude training can be a major benefit. Like with most training concepts there is a time and a place. Multiple factors must be considered in order to create an effective training strategy. We a constantly learning from science and real world experience. New technology such as oxygen tents can now allow us to make much better use of our knowledge of physiology and performance. Coaches and athletes should make a strong effort to stay informed about rapidly improving techniques.