Training with an Altitude Mask: Does it Help in Climbing Kilimanjaro?
Training Altitude masks

If you’re planning to climb Kilimanjaro, you may have read that using an altitude mask might help you. Altitude masks simulate the effects of high altitude training, and it’s true that several studies have shown that high altitude training can be effective for improving performance at higher altitudes. When attempting to climb Kilimanjaro, the primary challenge that often prevents people from reaching the summit is the extreme altitude. To better prepare for the mountain’s lofty elevation, climbers seek ways to enhance their training. One common tool used during exercise is the altitude training mask, also known as the elevation mask. This mask is designed to mimic a high altitude environment. However, the effectiveness of altitude masks is a point of contention. Let’s delve into what these masks actually do. An altitude training mask covers the athlete’s nose and mouth, limiting the flow of air through an adjustable valve system. This restriction prevents air from freely entering and exiting the mask, thereby reducing the amount of air intake during inhalation. This practice is referred to as “restricted air training” or “inspiratory muscle training.” Additionally, the mask captures the air that is exhaled, resulting in an increased concentration of carbon dioxide and a decreased concentration of oxygen upon the next inhalation. So why is this significant? Well, at high altitudes, the availability of oxygen decreases. While the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere remains the same as it would at sea level (around 21%), there is less oxygen overall due to the lower air pressure. Oxygen molecules are more spread out, meaning that each breath contains the same volume of air but fewer oxygen molecules.

The altitude training mask aims to simulate the conditions of a higher altitude by reducing the level of oxygen available.

Being at a high altitude is well-known to stimulate the body’s natural production of red blood cells. This happens because the body increases its production of a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO). As a result, more red blood cells and hemoglobin are produced, which allows the body to deliver more oxygen to the muscles. This increase in oxygen delivery boosts athletic performance and endurance, as well as reduces the risk of altitude sickness for climbers. However, it’s important to note that this process of acclimatization takes time and requires prolonged exposure to high altitudes. Simply training in a hypoxic environment for an hour a day or using a high altitude mask is not enough to initiate these physiological changes. In fact, there is no evidence to support the claim that regular use of an elevation mask can increase red blood cell counts. The changes in the blood that enhance oxygen-carrying capabilities can only occur from living at high altitudes for weeks. Elite athletes have a training method known as “sleep high, train low.” They train at lower altitudes where oxygen levels are normal, allowing them to exercise harder and longer. Afterwards, they sleep at high altitudes to enhance their red blood cell count. Training is not done at high altitudes because the lower oxygen levels hinder performance and can negatively impact training quality. Using a restrictive air mask during workouts is counterproductive to improving overall fitness. Altitude masks may make workouts more challenging, but they do not contribute to acclimatization. Training masks, on the other hand, provide resistance to breathing. These devices can help strengthen the intercostal muscles and diaphragm, which are responsible for expanding and contracting the chest cavity and drawing air into the lungs. This can improve the strength and endurance of the respiratory system. However, this improvement does not address the root cause of altitude sickness, which is the lack of oxygen in the air at high altitudes. Even with a stronger respiratory system, one will still be breathing in less oxygen per breath at high altitudes. So, if elevation masks are ineffective, what can be done to prepare for high altitudes? There are two options. Firstly, one can live at high altitudes for several weeks or more, which will naturally increase red blood cell count and enhance the body’s capacity to carry oxygen. Alternatively, one can stay at their current location and sleep in an altitude training system for 6-8 weeks. Companies like Hypoxico offer tents that can be placed over any bed. These tents are equipped with generators that pump low oxygen air to create a hypoxic environment.

The best way to get your body used to high altitude levels is by doing some of your training at high altitude. This is why we recommend that you make use of a very large number of training circuits that can be completed at different altitudes. However, when you are at home and you cannot travel to high altitude for some training, there are not many alternatives available. Enter the altitude mask. If using the mask is somewhat effective, then you might not need to do a course of altitude-specific training after all. Lucky, isn’t it? You might be wondering why cycling fans like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Jonas Vingegaard, Lance Armstrong and Geraint Thomas might be seen pedaling away in the heat with their high altitude masks strapped on if the masks were not effective. That’s the thing though. The evidence at high altitude differs. In fact, there is no significant scientific evidence to support the use of the mask when it comes to training at high altitude. But what about when it comes to Everest Base Camp training? Because training with an altitude mask involves hypoxia, and there are some more studies showing its positive effects, perhaps masks can help with Everest Base Camp training.

Benefits of Training with an Altitude Mask

The problem with current models of altitude masks is that they only cover the mouth. Be aware that if you only breathe in through the nose, the mask will not be particularly useful when not speaking or engaging in focused breathing training. At that moment, in fact, most of the breathing air is inhaled through the mouth rather than the nose. Consequently, your entire breathing musculature that is stressed by their training smokes through the nose. The desired training effect or the functionality of the mask is perfidiously ineffective. In order to train the inspiratory muscles as effectively as possible, most models of altitude masks are equipped with a valve that can be regulated with an adapter in both inhalation and exhalation.

Can training with an altitude mask help me climb Kilimanjaro? Anyone interested in trekking Kilimanjaro cannot escape the subject of “acclimatization,” since inadequate altitude training is responsible for the fact that 3 out of 4 climbers fail to reach the summit. Altitude training using an altitude mask doesn’t always have the predetermined effect. In order to use an altitude mask effectively, you have to get some of your breathing muscles used to lower air pressure during training. You saturate other muscles early in training in order to have them available again during physical exertion. Due to the mask and the lower air pressure, you also breathe in less oxygen and need to make costly adaptations during training to prevent tiredness. Adaptations to be fit for the mountain? Such as muscle-strengthening exercises for the respiratory muscles.

1. Improved Oxygen Efficiency

So, does it work or not? Yes, if used in combination with an evidence-based system. No, if you think you can train your body’s oxygen efficiency and stimulate red blood cell production by using it around town!

The theory is that if you are able to train with the mask, you will also be able to simulate altitude by bringing the mask to every dinner party, a teenage music concert, and social gathering, right? You probably know from experience that this would be wrong because I’d like to see you arguing with your friends about what ambient temperature is acceptable to reach your house or wherever you are socializing! There’s only one way to benefit from hypoxic sessions: sleep high, exercise low! Unfortunately, without the ability to reduce low oxygen levels or to sleep at such an elevation, those old altitude masks, despite monumental strides in fabric design, simply cannot replicate elevation or elicit any physiological adaptations.

Pursed lip exercises can improve your oxygen efficiency through better breathing techniques when exercising and by getting your body more efficient at using oxygen. However, it can never actually increase your body’s oxygen stores or levels. Exposure to hypoxia can improve how well your brain and muscles can utilize oxygen, rather than providing long-term benefits to your body’s response to altitude.

It is believed that by training with an altitude mask that reduces the normal levels of oxygen, you will be able to exercise your lungs and improve your body’s performance in an oxygen-reduced environment. So, does it work? Yes, absolutely, but with a number of notes of caution.

2. Increased Lung Capacity

So training at high altitudes can boost your base red blood cell count, hemoglobin levels, and other important factors that help deliver oxygen to muscles when exercising. This is essentially your body’s natural response to acclimatizing to the low oxygen environment, so when heading from sea level to Everest Basecamp, for example, it takes approximately 13 days for your body to make a 60% adjustment to its oxygen carrying capacity (if all goes well). But put simply: in an ideal world, your blood would have a higher concentration of red blood cells than at sea level, carrying more oxygen to your exercising muscles, increasing performance. So assuming that you could slowly adjust at sea level to the training with the mask, which would in turn help performance on the mountain, there was no arguing the mask’s effectiveness at 13,000-17,000 feet (4840m).

Essentially, when the mask is placed over the nose and mouth and a filter is added that reduces the oxygen density in the air, the person must exert more energy breathing and inhaling air both in volume and strength. Over time, as the body becomes more adapted to training with the mask, it might help further boost the muscles’ ability to utilize oxygen and decrease the negative effects of lower oxygen level environments.

When climbers are looking to improve their performance on the mountain, be it heading to Everest or Kilimanjaro, they will often investigate whether training with a high altitude mask is worthwhile, to replicate the reduced oxygen conditions of the mountains. Essentially, the high altitude mask makes it harder to breathe when exercising. And the answer typically depends on your goals with the mask – are you looking to boost oxygen carrying capacity, muscle strength, or other areas? Be sure to understand the physiology behind wearing the mask at different altitudes prior to exercising.

3. Enhanced Mental Toughness

Whether you are attempting to climb a large mountain like Kilimanjaro, Everest, or Mont Blanc, you have to be mentally tough. You should be comfortable being outside your comfort zone, as well as comfortable pushing beyond your perceived physical limitations. The general consensus of the mountaineering community is that mental toughness is often more important for successful high altitude mountaineering than physical fitness. While I have never climbed Everest, I can certainly agree that in my experience, as with others that I have guided while working as a mountain guide in the Alps, those climbers that are mentally tough often do significantly better when the going gets tough. Though an altitude mask alone is not enough to make you more mentally tough, it can be a great tool to use as you train your body and brain to work together to be comfortable while training at higher intensities.

Training at high intensity means you have to push through high levels of discomfort. An altitude mask can decrease the amount of oxygen you are consuming when training and force you to take in less oxygen. This basically means that when you train at a high intensity in comparison to the same training session at the same intensity without a mask, the mask forces you to be comfortable with higher levels of CO2 in your bloodstream. Essentially, the altitude mask forces you to work on your mental toughness.

How to mentally prepare for your Mount Kilimanjaro expedition

Considerations Before Using an Altitude Mask

A popular misconception about the mask is that it reduces airflow to restrict oxygen input. In addition, increasing the resistance of breathing with a mask could simulate the function of being at a higher altitude. However, the air we breathe is rich in oxygen. This is not a real simulation of high altitude hypoxia, which reduces oxygen in our blood. Instead, the masks increase the amount of effort required to take every breath in. You are using the muscles in your abdomen and rib cage, muscles that would not be touched in a typical workout session. Even though this is physically exerting, it is a common belief that this can improve respiratory muscle performance. Since our respiratory muscles tend to be rather small, being able to train them efficiently to improve endurance could potentially be a beneficial by-product of air intake with this mask.

When most people want to prepare to climb Kilimanjaro, they think of methods like going to a local gym, running at high speeds, or simply climbing local mountains or hills. An increasing new trend has gained traction with an equipment called an “Altitude Mask”, a small mask that covers the mouth which pumps multiple resistance valves. The supposed benefit of this tool is to simulate the effects of hiking at higher elevations without all the hazards and gearing up. If you are considering using this method to prepare for a high altitude climb, it is important to know what exposure to this mask can entail, the science behind how it would benefit you on your Kilimanjaro climb, and the important safety precautions you need to take to minimize the several risks associated with its use. The most serious dangers you should consider are due to the breathing patterns, rather than their reduced oxygen availability. The two fatal conditions that have to be considered with training masks are Hypoxia and Hypercapnia.

1. Health and Safety Precautions

Engage in moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise for a total of at least 150 minutes per week, to help increase your stroke volume (i.e., the amount of blood that leaves your heart with each beat). Around 20-30% of your exercise time should be high intensity, but total daily workout time should not exceed 60 minutes. You can also do strength training that targets the legs, back, chest, core, and upper body to build up the muscle which will help you on Kilimanjaro.

Stay hydrated throughout your training and keep an eye on your urine color as an indicator of whether or not you’re drinking enough water. Your urine should be pale yellow or clear. If your pee is a deep yellow or golden color, you’re not getting enough fluids. Drink more water!

Get a medical checkup before you start training for Kili. This can detect any undiagnosed issues you might have, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, or other conditions that may impact the safety of your journey. You should also get checked out after you complete one of our altitude training camps, and again in the month before you leave for the climb. This will help ensure you complete this incredible adventure without any issues.

This should go without saying, but your health and safety are the most important part of this whole endeavor. If you are injured, sick, or otherwise not able to attempt the climb, you are not going to make it to the summit no matter how bad you want it. To minimize your risk of illness or injury (and make your climb more enjoyable in general), respect your health and body by doing the following:

2. Proper Training Techniques

One of the main issues with these training masks is the pressure of training. When an athlete conducts exercises while wearing one of these devices, the amount of oxygen intake is reduced and this, in turn, places the body into a state of hypoxic stimulus. There are two types of hypoxic stimuli that can occur as a result of these masks: (1) Hypoxia – the reduction in the partial pressure of oxygen in the air, and (2) Hypocapnia – the reduction in the partial pressure of carbon dioxide. In order to simulate training at altitude, both of these systems need to be experienced as a response to being in an environment with reduced air pressure. In short, in order to obtain the same physiological response as natural altitude acclimatization, which includes an increase in the concentration of RBC, hematocrit, and an increase in capillarization of the working muscle, one would have to exclusively engage in maximum exercise at simulated altitude while wearing the mask for approximately fifteen minutes a session.

In most combat sports today, more athletes are engaging in hypoxic conditioning as part of their workout routines. This is usually accomplished by training under simulated altitude conditions using a variety of different tools such as hypoxic tents, sleeping at altitude, portable altitude simulators, or by using a commercial training mask. The popularity of hypoxic conditioning has grown due to the numerous purported benefits an athlete can experience, such as increasing an athlete’s performance by up to 20% in most human performance activities, improving the efficiency of the heart, lungs, and vascular system, reinforcing management and utilization of oxygen stores, helping increase the number of red blood cells (RBC) and hemoglobin, all leading to improvements in oxygen delivery, multi-sprint performance, and overall endurance, and it can lead to cognitive improvements.

3. Individual Fitness Level Assessment

Upon requesting an appointment for a thorough assessment, your healthcare professional or certified trainer will have a meeting with you to give an overview of the plans for the assessment. As mentioned, the assessment measures will include a set of questions regarding health history, a resting heart rate and blood pressure, and/or evaluation of body weight, body composition, flexibility, aerobic fitness, muscular endurance and flexibility. The tests are designed to measure key aspects of physical development and will allow the trainer to understand a client’s current level of fitness. Further tests might be necessary to assess specific health needs for people with special health conditions. Once these layers and levels of understanding are addressed, a program of exercise will be created to meet your specific need, goals and objectives. The assessment report will be included in this program and will be used as a standard for ongoing progress.

Before you can create and embark on a fitness plan that meets your goals, you need to understand how fit you are right now. Individual fitness assessment is the most important step of fitness planning, regardless of whether it’s a standardized assessment given by your physician, trainer or other healthcare professional, or a personal assessment in which you evaluate your activity level and overall fitness. As uncomfortable as it may be, this evaluation measures your current level of physical activity and overall health. Your health provider will ask about your health, conduct various tests, and some regarding your physical activity and activity history. Taking this time to do a thorough evaluation of your activity level will provide an accurate snapshot of your fitness level, highlight your successes, and help identify areas in which you need improvement.

The best approach to training for Kilimanjaro

So what is the best approach to training for Kilimanjaro? The answer really depends on who will be doing this climb. If you are a no-excuse weekend athlete, follow with a 6-12 month program training cardiovascular fitness, leg strength, and arm and shoulder strengthening. There is in fact some evidence to suggest overtraining an altitude-motivated individual might actually be detrimental to altitude success. If you are a future Kilimanjaro climber hoping to solve the program with an altitude mask, remember this to help justify your purchase: Anything that gets you training is probably better than no training at all. However, when following an appropriate program, concentrating on a lot of different cardiovascular and strength exercises, it is proven that an elevation training mask is not only a waste of money, but it can be detrimental to performance. If you are a future Kilimanjaro climber hoping to solve the program with an altitude mask, remember this to help justify your purchase: Anything that gets you training is probably better than no training at all.

Fitness and Training Plan for Kilimanjaro Treks


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