Running while wearing a mask is not something most of us would have considered before the COVID-19 pandemic, but like most other things, how we go about our daily life is constantly changing.
If you’re thinking about wearing a mask on your next run, you might be wondering if the benefits outweigh the risks. You might also be wondering if this accessory is safe to wear when performing cardio exercises at a high intensity.
We reviewed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and asked a primary care sports physician for input to help you decide if wearing a mask on your next run is right for you.
Keep reading to learn about the upsides and downsides of wearing a mask while running, and what type of mask to wear while running.
Protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 is the No. 1 reason to wear a mask while running.
When you wear a mask, it acts as a barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people. These droplets go airborne when you sneeze, talk, cough, or raise your voice, which we all do at some point during the day.
And since most cloth masks are breathable, Dr. Joshua Scott, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, says it should not limit oxygen intake or cause a buildup of carbon dioxide.
Consider where you’ll be running
The question of whether or not to wear a mask while running largely depends on where you’re running. While you should always follow your state and city recommendations, Scott says when running outside, you may not need to wear a mask if you can maintain social or physical distancing the entire time.
“While there is mounting evidence that droplet and aerosolized spread of coronavirus can be spread more than the recommended 6 feet, most experts would agree that the likelihood of transmission of the virus while running outside is very low,” said Scott.
To keep the likelihood of transmission low, Scott says running in crowded areas is not wise without a mask. He also points out that running in groups or drafting off of other runners can increase the likelihood of more virus exposure. In those situations, runners need to wear a mask in order to minimize the risk.
“The purpose of wearing a mask is to prevent the spread to other people, should you unknowingly carry the virus,” explained Scott. Runners breathe heavier than walkers or when at rest, and the masks can keep respiratory droplets from spreading to others.
As with any barrier that may make it harder to breathe, Scott says a mask may make your workout harder than usual. “Like running on an incline or at increased altitude, most healthy people will adapt to this over time,” he said. However, you may fatigue more quickly while wearing the mask.
Avoid running in the slipstream of other runners
Another reason to consider a mask, according to a recent study out of the Netherlands, 6 feet may not be enough to protect you from breathing in droplets exhaled by the runner directly in front of you.
The results of their study indicate that the largest exposure of the trailing person to droplets from the leading person occurs when the trailing runner is in line behind the lead runner (aka in the slipstream).
To minimize this risk, the researchers say to avoid running in the slipstream of the leading person and keep a distance of 1.5 meters in staggered or side-by-side arrangement or keep larger physical distances.
Although the study didn’t talk about wearing a mask, you may want to consider wearing one while running in a group if there’s a chance you may end up in the slipstream. Of course, everyone in the group needs to wear a mask to minimize this effect.
Follow local mask-wearing mandates
And finally, if you live in a state that mandates mask wearing outside when you can’t guarantee 6 feet of distance from other people, then either leave your house wearing a mask or carry one with you.
The decision all depends on where you plan on exercising. For example, if your route is mostly you and the birds, then pack a mask just in case. But if you’re heading out on a popular trail during peak hours, put your mask on before you hit the pavement.
Wearing a mask while running can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it does come with a few downsides.
Wearing a mask may increase your workout difficulty
Scott points out that properly fitting face masks can increase the work of breathing.
If you’re at rest or doing light workouts, breathing should not be difficult. But as aerobic activity increases, he says wearing a mask while running can affect airflow and may increase your perceived workload and heart rate.
The CDC recommends not wearing a mask during high intensity activities like running if it causes breathing difficulty. In that case, Scott says to stop running, move away from others, and take off your mask if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- short of breath
- chest pain
- labored breathing beyond normal
You may need to replace your mask if it becomes wet from sweat or saliva
Additionally, if your mask becomes very wet because of sweat or saliva, Scott says to change it carefully during the workout and sanitize your hands after removal.
The disposable mask you bought at Costco can work in a pinch, but if you’re in this for the long haul, consider buying a mask made for exercise.
Here are some important things to consider as you shop for a mask to wear while running:
- The material should be lightweight and made from moisture-wicking fabric.
- The mask should fit snug around your face and cover your nose and chin.
- The material of the mask shouldn’t be too thick or make the mask feel restrictive.
- Look for adjustable ear straps.
- Consider an adjustable nose strip that you can mold to the bridge of your nose.
Ideally, you should toss your mask in the washing machine after each run. If your fitness routine includes several days of running each week, consider buying a few masks to keep in your rotation. Plus, having more than one mask allows you to pack an extra one to change midway if you’re going out on a long run.
COVID-19 likely isn’t going away anytime soon. With that in mind, finding safe ways to maintain your running routine is key to staying physically active.
Wearing a face mask while running may help protect yourself and others from the spread of COVID-19. If you choose to wear a mask while performing high intensity exercise, be aware of any negative side effects that may occur.
If you’re short of breath, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, experiencing chest pain, or labored breathing beyond normal, stop running immediately and remove your mask. If the symptoms worsen, call 911.