The global pandemic we are experiencing is teaching us a lot about how to survive in a new kind of reality. As the situation constantly changes in every part of the world, we adapt by adjusting our behavior, our contact with others, our vacation plans, and how we exercise. Stay up-to-date on recommendations from the World Health Organization and your local health organization.
Regulations vary depending on where you live and the current infection rate. One issue that is hotly debated in some parts of the world due to governmental restrictions or personal decisions on safety is whether running with a mask is healthy and effective.
We’ve taken a look at what it means to run with a mask in terms of prevention, performance, and potential risks.
Does running with a mask protect you or others from COVID-19?
Studies show that wearing a mask appears to be an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within communities.(1) The efficacy of the mask depends a lot on how snugly it fits and the material it is made of. N95 masks are 95% effective at keeping the wearer safe from inhaling particles that potentially carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus.(2) Be aware that these masks are not appropriate for cardio workouts. The tight weave makes it difficult to breathe when running.
Many runners who exercise with a mask opt for a homemade cloth mask, a neck gaiter, or a bandana in order to feel more comfortable. However, the safest way to protect yourself from transmitting the virus is social distancing. The Center for Disease Control recommends wearing a mask in public settings, any time we are around people. Strenuous activities should only be done where it is possible to maintain distance from others. Choose routes that are less crowded and try not to draft (run directly ahead of or behind other runners).
How does running with a mask affect your performance?
Some believe that running with a mask can serve as a kind of hypoxic training, which is when you reduce your oxygen intake with an altitude mask to boost your endurance. However, this is a myth. Correct hypoxic or altitude training is done with a special mask equipped with an adjustable oxygen intake valve. Running with a surgical or cloth mask puts more stress on your lungs, perhaps making them stronger after you get used to it, but it is not considered a legitimate training strategy to boost endurance.
One recent study measured the difference in heart rate, thermal stress, and subjective sensations of exercising on a treadmill in four different masks: an N95 mask, a nano-treated N95, a surgical mask, and a nano-treated surgical mask.(3) Subjects wearing surgical masks, whether nano-treated or not, showed less discomfort and lower heart rates than those who wore N95 masks. The perception of humidity, heat and breath resistance was lower for both surgical masks. This can be attributed to the looser fit and lower filtration level of a surgical mask, which in turn also affects its effectiveness in preventing the spread of the virus.
What are the risks of running with a mask?
Aside from feeling uncomfortable due to the accumulation of moisture around the mouth and nose from exhalation and perspiration, which happens with any face covering, running with a mask can be unhealthy. Research suggests that fitted face masks create an environment in which the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is insufficient. This causes cardiorespiratory stress and can affect your brain and nervous system. Some people report dizziness, headaches, and muscle fatigue when running with a face mask.
Furthermore, when your oxygen supply is reduced by a tightly woven face mask, it affects your muscle metabolism. Rebreathing the air you exhale increases the concentration of carbon dioxide and the acidity in your body. This means that exercising with a mask may create symptoms similar to that of people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). (4)
If you are running with a mask and feel any dizziness, headache, or difficulty breathing, take off your mask, slow your pace or walk until you feel better.
If you are required by law to run with a mask, remember to run slowly. Your exertion level should be low to moderate. This is not the time to set a personal record or work on your stamina and endurance. Try to focus on maintaining your fitness level until it’s safe enough and permitted to run without a mask. Think of this as an opportunity to focus on your strength training indoors.
If you are concerned about spreading the virus, keep in mind that the safest and healthiest way to protect yourself and others from the SARS-CoV-2 virus is social distancing.(5) The best advice is to hit the trails, hop on a bike, focus on home workouts, and choose cardio exercises that are solo events. You may decide that you feel safer with a mask on at all times, and in this case we recommend choosing layered fabric that allows some air circulation and the option for a filter if necessary. Stay safe and keep your distance.