Wearing a Mask While Running Sucks. You Might Have to Do It Anyway.
How to enjoy your outdoor workout while keeping other people safe
In early April, the CDC recommended that people cover their faces with a cloth mask in public settings. Since then, wearing masks while exercising in public has become a social norm in many places, enforced by side eyes, messages on neighborhood social media groups, and signs like one taped to a tree in Brooklyn and addressed to joggers and bicyclists: “PUT ON A FUCKING MASK.”
The actual guidance on mask-wearing while exercising outside varies by location. For instance, under Covid-19 face-covering orders in California’s San Mateo County, face masks are not explicitly required when exercising outdoors. However, exercisers are advised to have a face covering handy and accessible just in case they encounter a situation where they can’t maintain a six-foot distance. But in the city of Manhattan Beach in southern California, it is “strongly encouraged” that residents cover their faces while biking and running, “to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus through increased respiration levels.”
Rules and recommendations aside, what’s the scientific rationale for wearing a mask when working out in the outdoors, and what are the practical considerations?
Before we get to those questions, let’s be very clear: A workout in public is never more important than public health. Exercise is especially important for physical and mental health during this anxious time, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t endanger others in your community, says Melissa Perry, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. If we want to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading, everyone — whether or not they have symptoms — needs to take steps to avoid transmission, and that includes those who need their daily run through the park.
The dos and don’ts of exercising in a mask
Whether you’re required to wear a mask while working out or if it’s your personal decision to do so, the mask needs to cover both your nose and mouth to be effective. It doesn’t need to be so tight that it’s pressing into your face, but it should be snug enough so that if you sneeze or cough nothing is projected outside of it, Perry says. The purpose of the mask isn’t to protect you from catching the virus, it’s to prevent the aerosols coming out of your nose and mouth from being projected at other people.
After your workout, it’s very important to take a mask off by the ear loops, to avoid touching the part of the mask that accumulates respiratory droplets. Once you’ve been wearing a mask, think of it like a used tissue — you don’t want to touch it or leave it lying around. As soon as you’re done, the mask should go straight in the trash or the wash, Perry says. Never reuse a mask without washing it.
Research suggests that cotton is the best fabric for a mask, and having more than one layer of fabric makes a mask more effective for everyday use. But for exercising, you’ll be best off using a face covering that isn’t so thick that you can’t easily breathe through it. The trick is balancing comfort with protection. “If you can see light through it, it probably is not providing the filtering protection you need,” Perry says.
Some people have asked me whether wearing a mask might actually enhance the training benefit you get from exercise, by training your lungs or chest muscles to get used to working harder to inhale a sufficient breath. Another idea is that a mask might serve as a proxy for altitude training, by cutting down on the amount of oxygen getting to your lungs.
But Sheel says this is wishful thinking: “I don’t see a physiological rationale here.” Altitude training works by putting you in a state of hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, which in turn stimulates your body to increase its production of red blood cells. There’s no reason to think that breathing through a mask would replicate that effect, Sheel says.
Over the years, various mask products marketed at athletes have promised to replicate high-altitude training, but these are “one of the biggest scams ever imparted on the exercise community,” says Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. “Yes, a mask might make it a little harder to breathe, but wearing a mask doesn’t change your oxygen at all.”
Masks can have downsides too, especially when worn during vigorous exercise.
If you’re breathing hard, you’re expelling moisture and the mask can quickly become saturated. When that happens, the filtering properties become much less effective and it becomes an inefficient barrier, Levine says. Exertion can also sometimes make your nose run. In normal times, a discreet snot rocket can get rid of the problem, but for now, you should carry some tissues that you can use (and properly dispose of) instead. Of course, it’s hard to blow your nose in a mask, (you’ll have to pull the mask down without touching the part that’s over your nose and mouth) so the situation gets complicated, fast.
And some people just find it hard and uncomfortable to exercise in a mask. One runner I know lives in a high-density city with a lot of Covid-19 cases. She tried running in a mask, but found that it caused an anxiety and panic response and she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
Her solution? Run in places and at times where she’s unlikely to see other people. She also keeps a face covering down around her neck that she can pull up over her face if she encounters someone. That’s a solution that’s practical, but it only works if you’re diligent about handling the mask properly (without too much touching), which is why some public health folks like Perry don’t recommend it.
A panic response when wearing a mask is not entirely surprising, Levine says. Covering your face can cause you to breathe in more of the air that you just exhaled. It’s not dangerous, Levine says, but it does increase the amount of carbon dioxide you inhale, and that can cause a physiological response that triggers you to feel a need to breathe harder. “I don’t think running or training with a mask is a good idea,” Levine says.
Sheel lives in Vancouver and continues to run and bicycle outside without a mask, but he takes care to do it where he isn’t likely to encounter crowds and goes either alone or with his spouse. “People should be going outside to exercise,” Sheel says. “But you should do it by yourself. I’m not convinced you need a mask.” A few of his bike racing friends have invited him to ride together, insisting that the risk is low if they’re outdoors. But Sheel doesn’t think it’s a risk worth taking. “We’ve agreed to disagree,” he says.
In order to keep yourself and others safe, Levine recommends that you follow two “D’s” when running or cycling mask-free: double the six-foot distance to 12 feet and don’t draft. He bases this idea in part on a controversial white paper put out by European researchers that used computer simulations to model how “spread droplets” moved around people who were walking, cycling, or running without covering their faces.
Ultimately, the decision to wear a mask is a personal one, except in places where it’s required. If you decide to forgo it, you should be prepared to take measures as drastic as necessary to avoid coming close to other people, and it’s probably best to keep a face covering at the ready, even if you hope you won’t need it.
“We are all in this together,” Perry says. Wearing a mask doesn’t just prevent you from spreading your germs around. It also conveys that you are doing your part by making an individual behavior choice that reduces your risk to others.