I’ve been working out with an elevation training mask.
And if I go black and white and putz with the filters and levels, I can really look like a badass. See?
I wanted to get the elevation training mask because I have a stair race next month in Denver, and I want to be ready. They don’t call Denver the Mile-High City for nothin’! I’ve raced in Colorado before – my sister and I did the BolderBOULDER 10k a few years back, and I’ve done a few Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5k races, too, but stairs is a different animal than running. Stair racing is brutal in coastal cities, like Los Angeles and Seattle… so it could be an absolute beast when you’re starting the race a mile above sea level… and then climbing another 700 feet!
Exercise, of any kind, is tougher in higher altitudes because there’s less air pressure, so your body has a harder time absorbing oxygen from the air you’re bringing into your lungs. An elevation training mask replicates those conditions by restricting the amount of oxygen you can breathe. The mask forms a seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth, and the only way air can enter (and exit) is through the three white valves.
There are different caps you can put on the valves, to replicate different altitudes. My mask can be set in increments of 3,000 feet, starting at 3,000 feet above sea level, and going up to 18,000 feet (almost as high as Denali/Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in the US, which is just over 20k feet).
My goal with the training mask is to get used to exercising with less access to oxygen, so my race in Denver doesn’t blindside me. I don’t think the mask will make my Denver race any easier, but then again, stair racing is grueling no matter what, so nothing will make it easier. I train for all races so I’m accustomed to the difficulty and familiar with the pain, and so I can practice pushing through it. Same goes for the mask: I want to know – and feel – how decreased oxygen will affect me in the stairwell, and I want experience in dealing with it, so it doesn’t wallop me in Colorado.
I decided it would be smart to ease myself into using the mask. So, the first night, I just played with the straps until it fit well, and got used to it by doing a bunch of breathing exercises and simple movements (stretches, sit-ups) that were recommended in the manual. I’ve used it four times since then, all in the last week, with the mask always set at 3,000 feet.
Workout #1: I started off light, and aimed for 10 moderate minutes on the elliptical. I felt pretty good with it on, and ended up doing 20 minutes.
Workout #2: I wore it on my Bowflex MAX Trainer. I did the Calorie Goal program, where you go and go until you burn 300 calories, which took me 27 minutes. The program has a couple high-intensity minutes built in, but apart from that, it was pretty moderate. But since the MAX Trainer is tougher than an elliptical, I was definitely feeling the mask’s effects, and was absolutely breathing harder than I normally do.
Workout #3: Time to see how long and how hard I could go with the mask! I chose the elliptical at the gym, so other people would be around in case I collapsed or something (wasn’t planning on it, but, you know, safety first). There was nothing moderate about this workout: I set the machine at the levels I normally do (levels 13-15 for both incline and resistance) and went to town. I lasted 45 minutes, with nearly 40 of it (excluding some warm-up and cool-down time) going hard. Taking that mask off afterward was a relief!
The biggest difference I’ve noted while wearing the mask is how much more I’m focusing on my breathing. No breath – nor any part of any breath – goes unnoticed, because I can hear all the air entering and exiting through the valves. It kinda sounds Darth Vader-ish, although my voice, when I wear it, goes higher, not deeper.
It reminds me a lot of scuba diving, another activity where you can hear yourself breathe, except that scuba is all about mindful, slow breathing, and these workouts, well, aren’t. Breathing is more labored with the mask on, for sure, and I found myself taking longer, deeper breaths with it on than I normally do (or at least that’s what it seems like).
With those three workouts under my belt, I was ready for to try it on some stairs. My timing was perfect: last night was the first training session for my upcoming Aon Center race, here in Los Angeles. On certain days and times, registered participants have access to the stairwell in the building where we’ll race in April. We can climb from the 4th floor to the 55th, and I’ve been taking advantage of these training sessions for a few years.
Workout #4: Normally, three climbs up the building constitutes a good training session for me, so I decided to do three climbs with the mask on (set to 3,000 feet). Man oh man, I started feeling the difference after 5 or 6 stories during the first climb. My heart rate races when I’m climbing stairs (well into the 160s while training, even higher during races), so even without a mask, I’m sucking in air quickly to keep oxygen flowing into my blood stream. With the mask depriving me of some of that oxygen, it became a struggle to keep up my moderate pace.
I climbed 51 stories in slightly over 14 minutes with the mask on the whole time.
Then, after a 10-minute break, I climbed a second time with the mask. It was harder than the first time, but I made it up 51 floors in almost exactly 15 minutes.
I climbed the third time with my pal Jeff, and although we entered the stairwell on the 4th floor, we climbed down to street level first, so this climb was a true 55 stories, and not 51. This climb was downright torturous. I paused on lots of landings, just trying to gulp down more air, but I kept going. 19 minutes and 20 seconds later, we were on the 55th floor. I couldn’t wait to rip that mask off my face! And then put it back on for this photo:
157 total floors, with the elevation training mask on the whole time! Damn.
Moving forward, I want to set the mask for 6,000 ft and give it a whirl at the gym and on my MAX Trainer – easing into that altitude level, of course. I don’t think I’m ready for a 6,000 ft setting in a stairwell just yet, but we’ll see!
Keep it up, David!