How Does Running With a Mask Impact Your Performance?

Does it count as hypoxic training and how can you make it feel easier?

This is a rapidly developing situation. For the most up-to-date information, check your states guidelines 

  • Wearing a mask can help reduce the spread of the virus between people interacting in close proximity, as asymptomatic spread is still a concern.
  • Runners should be running safely, either solo or in very small groups, and on routes where they won’t encounter others or can maintain at least 1.5m  of distance or more from others at all times.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has impacted day-to-day life for all, we fortunately still have the option to run outside, either solo or with a small group depending on where you live. Your runs should be in areas where you can be alone or maintain at least 1.5m  between yourself and others to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. (If you’re not feeling well, it’s best to stay home.)

How Does Running With a Mask Impact Your Performance?

Like so many aspects of life amidst the pandemic, masked running takes some getting used to. You may notice that your pace is slightly slower than usual, or you feel fatigued faster, and you’ll certainly notice the less-than-pleasant sensation of your mask becoming increasingly damp as you run.

That struggle isn’t just in your head. “Running with a mask, or any other type of face covering, is inherently more difficult because you have to work harder to get the same amount of air into your lungs,” confirms Timothy Lyman, certified personal trainer and director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. But running with a mask is also not an entirely new concept—elevation training masks have long claimed to improve lung capacity and oxygen efficiency by simulating high-altitude conditions. And though research is mixed on the actual benefits of ETMs, you may find yourself wondering if the same could apply to cloth masks.

Does wearing a mask or face covering count as hypoxic training?

Unfortunately, no. Elevation training masks that claim to create a hypoxic training environment are designed to intentionally restrict the amount of oxygen in the air that the user inhales. Many come with an adjustable valve which allows the user to increase and decrease the oxygen level. Over time, users can train themselves to perform with lower oxygen saturation levels, and thus increase their oxygen efficiency.

This is not the case with the kinds of face coverings that are being worn now to combat the spread of the coronavirus. “When wearing a cloth mask, Buff, or bandana, a runner is not changing the oxygen saturation of the air they are breathing in, but simply breathing in less of that air,” Lyman explains. “The amount of air that gets into the lungs is still comprised of the same oxygen ratio, there is simply not as much of it as the athlete is used to.”

But that doesn’t mean there are no benefits. Wearing a mask or face covering restricts the flow of air into your lungs, Lyman says, which means your lungs have to work harder to get the same amount of air that they’re used to. Over time, this could strengthen the lungs and diaphragm. “You’re going to give your respiratory system a boost,” agrees Hannah Daugherty, CPT-NASM and fitness expert. “Wearing a mask will make you breathe harder and increase your heart rate, while improving the strength of your diaphragm.”

How can I make running in a mask easier?

One major drawback to running in a mask is that the material covering your nose and mouth will gradually become damp, partially from sweat but mainly from the water vapor in your exhalations. This is not only uncomfortable, but can actually make the mask less effective.

One way to counteract this is to try nasal breathing. Exhaling through your nose produces less water droplets than mouth breathing, which could help keep your mask drier. Another benefit to nasal breathing is that it allows you to take advantage of your body’s nasal passageways that are designed to filter allergens and foreign bodies out of the air before they enter the lungs.

“The body has this built-in filtration system that we just don’t typically use a lot, because we’re used to getting as much air in as possible through the mouth,” says Steve Stonehouse, USATF-certified coach and director of education for STRIDE. Inhaling through your nose means that even if you’re using a cloth mask which doesn’t have a filter, you’ll be a little more protected in the unlikely event that viral particles are present in the air you’re breathing. Nasal breathing also gives your lungs more time to extract oxygen from the air you’ve taken in, Stonehouse says, because you exhale slower through the nose than through the mouth.

But nasal breathing can be challenging if you’re not used to it, and you should introduce it into your regime gradually. “It takes some training,” Stonehouse acknowledges, “because you just can’t get as much air in at once; your nostrils are smaller. A lot of runners find they can keep up nasal breathing for a while, but once the intensity level gets over a certain amount, if you’re not trained, you’ll just feel like you have to get air in as fast as possible, and you’ll go back to breathing through your mouth.”

Lyman suggests that pace is the first thing a runner should look to control if they’re transitioning into running with a mask on. “Initially, the same amount of effort that a runner is used to is simply going to result in less output, so my recommendation is to keep your pace slow and manageable while you get used to the mask,” he says. Lyman also suggests either nasal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, but recommends practicing this throughout the day rather than just during runs, in order to get into the habit and “condition the lungs for what they will experience during exercise”.

What is the latest info on masks?

As we learn more about the spread of coronavirus, it remains clear that asymptomatic spread is still a concern, according to the WHO. This means you may be able to spread the virus to others without knowing you have it, and others may be able to spread it to you.

Recently, a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A suggested that widespread mask use may help reduce transmission rates and when combined with social distancing and any necessary stay-at-home orders could even help prevent a second wave, which is why it’s important for everyone to wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth in public.


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