Oxygen Deprivation Training: Benefits, Risks, & Recommendations

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Oxygen deprivation training, also known as hypoxic training or altitude training, has become an increasingly popular technique among endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

But what exactly is this type of training, and is it safe and effective?

In this post, we will break down the pros and cons of oxygen deprivation training, as well as the best practices and tools, to help you determine if it could benefit your workout routine.

Let’s get started!

What is Oxygen Deprivation Training?

Oxygen deprivation training involves exercising while limiting the amount of oxygen that you breathe.

You can do this by either training at high altitude or using special devices that restrict airflow and simulate high altitude conditions.

The goal is to force the body to adapt to functioning with less oxygen.

Deprivation training spurs increases in red blood cell production, oxygen-carrying capacity, and numerous other physiological changes that aim to improve exercise capacity and endurance.

It’s essentially a way to mimic the effects of high-altitude training while staying closer to sea level.

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Oxygen Deprivation Training Benefits

Oxygen Deprivation Training Benefits

There are several science-backed benefits associated with proper oxygen deprivation training:

Increases Aerobic Capacity

One of the main effects of limiting oxygen during exercise is an improvement in VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize during intense exercise. This has a direct impact on aerobic endurance.

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Boosts Endurance

Studies show that hypoxic training can increase time to exhaustion during aerobic activities by up to 20%.

This could translate into big performance gains for endurance athletes.

Improves Efficiency

Forcing the body to adapt to low oxygen levels improves the muscles’ ability to extract and utilize oxygen from the blood.

This means your body learns to use oxygen more efficiently, which can boost endurance.

Related: Neurodynamic Breathwork (Explained)

Oxygen Deprivation Training Risks

Oxygen Deprivation Training, Spotter

While the potential benefits are enticing, there are also considerable risks associated with oxygen deprivation training:

Potentially Dangerous Side Effects

Lowering oxygen levels too drastically can lead to altitude sickness, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and even loss of consciousness or death in extreme cases.

Requires Close Supervision

To avoid the severe risks, oxygen deprivation training must be done carefully under supervision.

Oxygen saturation levels need to be monitored in real-time.

Oxygen Deprivation Mask Training and Devices

One of the most accessible ways to practice oxygen deprivation training is by using a specialized altitude training mask.

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These masks restrict airflow during exercise to simulate the effects of high altitude.

Altitude training masks work by limiting the amount of oxygen you can inhale with each breath.

This forces your body to adapt by increasing red blood cell production, improving oxygen efficiency, and spurring other beneficial physiological changes.

These masks allow you to adjust the level of airflow restriction to find the optimal oxygen deprivation level for your training needs.

Oxygen Deprivation Mask Protocol

When starting out, it’s best to use lower restriction settings and progress slowly over time as your body adapts.

Be sure to carefully monitor your oxygen saturation levels using a pulse oximeter when wearing an altitude mask during exercise.

Don’t let levels drop dangerously low.

Masks are most commonly used for cardio exercises like running, biking, or rowing, but you can also incorporate them into weight training.

Just be sure to have someone spotting you.

While altitude masks carry less risks than other hypoxic training methods, it’s still vital to take precautions.

Gradually build up training time, stay hydrated, and stop immediately if you feel any warning signs of altitude sickness.

When used properly, oxygen deprivation mask training can provide performance benefits by safely mimicking the effects of high altitude exposure.

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Monitoring With Pulse Oximeters

If you plan to incorporate any form of oxygen deprivation training, using a pulse oximeter is highly recommended for safety.

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Pulse oximeters are small devices that clip onto your finger and measure your pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation levels (SpO2) in real-time.

This allows you to monitor your oxygen levels during hypoxic or altitude training closely.

A pulse oximeter is crucial so you don’t restrict oxygen to dangerous levels.

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It also helps you find the “sweet spot” where you get the benefits of oxygen deprivation without going too far.

Aim to keep your blood oxygen levels above 90% during training.

Going below this risks altitude sickness, fainting, and other serious effects.

80-85% should be your absolute minimum threshold.

When starting oxygen deprivation training, establish your normal oxygen saturation at rest without any breathing restriction.

Then, gradually introduce the hypoxic stimulus and monitor for any decreases.

Only do training under supervision at first.

Have your partner watch the pulse oximeter and stop you if levels drop too low.

As you adapt, pay close attention to how you feel and stop if you notice any concerning symptoms.

Monitoring your real-time oxygen saturation is a must for any hypoxic training.

How to Do Oxygen Deprivation Training Safely

If you want to try oxygen deprivation training, follow these tips to minimize the risks:

Gradually Increase Altitude/Reduce O2

When starting oxygen deprivation training, taking it slowly and gradually over time is crucial. Drastically cutting oxygen too quickly can be very dangerous.

Start by making small reductions in oxygen, like restricting airflow by 10-20% while monitoring with a pulse oximeter.

Only keep reductions in place briefly at first, like during a 5-10 minute exercise session.

As your body adapts over days and weeks, you can start making slightly bigger reductions in oxygen, extending the session lengths, and increasing training frequency. But this should happen progressively.

The gradual acclimation allows your body to adapt, like increased red blood cell counts. Jumping straight to severe oxygen deprivation doesn’t provide enough adaptive stimulus.

Monitor Oxygen Saturation

Investing in a good pulse oximeter is highly recommended for any oxygen deprivation training.

This allows you to monitor your real-time blood oxygen saturation (SpO2).

Aim to keep levels above 90% during initial training sessions. As you acclimate, you may be able to go a bit lower gradually, but be very cautious.

80-85% should be your minimum.

Pay close attention to your heart rate as well when monitoring with a pulse oximeter.

Make sure your heart rate rises appropriately for the exercise, and does not get erratic.

Have a training partner watch your oxygen saturation levels.

They can stop the session if your levels drop too low. It’s easy to miss the signs yourself when oxygen deprived.

Stay Hydrated and Listen to Your Body

Dehydration exacerbates the effects of low-oxygen training.

Hydrate well before, during, and after oxygen deprivation sessions.

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Pay close attention within the first 5-10 minutes for any negative reaction signs like headache, nausea, or dizziness.

Immediately stop training if you experience any concerning symptoms.

Everyone reacts differently to oxygen deprivation.

Listen to what your body tells you and do not push through serious warning signs. It’s always better to take it slower.

Have a Spotter

It’s highly recommended always to have a spotter present when doing oxygen deprivation training.

They can monitor oxygen saturation levels, watch for signs of distress, and intervene if necessary.

Spotters should know how to operate your pulse oximeter properly and recognize any risky oxygen levels or concerning symptoms. Discuss protocols for when to stop the session.

Having a spotter present ensures there is someone looking out for your safety if you experience any negative effects from lowered oxygen.

Do not do these solo!

Consult a Doctor First

Before attempting any form of oxygen deprivation training, it’s best to get medical clearance from your doctor, especially if you have existing health conditions.

Inform your doctor about your plans and ask if they recommend any specific precautions based on your medical history. Certain conditions may make this training inadvisable.

FAQ

What is oxygen deprivation training?

Oxygen deprivation training involves exercising while restricting oxygen intake to simulate high-altitude training. This spurs beneficial adaptations like increased red blood cell production.

Is hypoxic training good for you?

In moderation, hypoxic training can improve endurance and aerobic capacity. But it carries risks like altitude sickness. Proper supervision and precautions are essential.

Is hypoxic training banned?

Hypoxic training itself is not banned, but the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibits artificial oxygen manipulation, including hypoxic tents and rooms. Masks are still allowed.

Does oxygen restriction training work?

Research shows oxygen deprivation training can boost endurance, increase oxygen efficiency, and improve VO2 max.

How long does hypoxic training take?

Studies show benefits from hypoxic training after 2-4 weeks, with greater improvements up to 4 months.

Gains fade after you return to normal oxygen levels.

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About the Author

Drew Wilkins is a fitness and nutrition expert with a Master's in Biokinesiology (emphasis in Sports Science) from the University of Southern California and over a decade of experience as a personal trainer, nutrition consultant, and wellness coach. An avid surfer and soccer player, he brings a unique perspective to his research, advocating for a balanced approach to health that includes physical fitness, nutrition, and mental well-being.

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