If you’re running in a densely populated area or a COVID-19 hotspot, you should run while wearing a face-covering to protect yourself and others — even when you’re outside and doing a solo session, it’s good practice to wear a mask. Fortunately, sport-specific masks have come to market and can make your runs feel a little less stifled than with regular cloth masks, but there are still things you should know before heading out the door for a masked run — including whether or not it improves your cardio.
PICK THE RIGHT MASK
Masks are obviously not created equal, so the one you’re wearing to the office may not be the one you want to wear on a run. (It’s better to have separate ones since your run mask will become soaked with sweat and sunscreen.) Brands have started to release sport-specific masks with features like UnderArmour’s IsoChill fabric to keep skin cooler, plus antimicrobial layers to help you stay cleaner and with a fit designed to give you a bit of breathing room between your mouth and the mask.
Having the right mask is the first step, but it’s also important to make sure you’re wearing it correctly. Find one that’s the right fit for your face — for example, the UA SPORTMASK has five different size options to help customize your fit. “Proper care and fit of the mask is helpful for making sure the mask is functioning properly,” says Megan Roche, a doctor, run coach and elite runner. “Taking the time to check for proper fit can help provide added safety.”
WASH YOUR MASK AFTER EVERY USE
As Roche mentioned, keeping your mask clean — especially after you’ve been breathing heavily, sweating and wearing sunscreen or bug spray — is critical to how effective the mask is. Check your mask’s instructions for care and ensure you’re getting it clean as soon as possible after each workout. (The CDC has tips on how to clean your mask.)
SLOW YOUR PACE
It’s no secret running with a mask makes it harder to breathe. So, dial back the intensity a few notches from your usual pace. “Adjusting effort is really important, especially in the heat,” says Roche. “Often, masks can increase perceived exertion and raise heart rate, so don’t judge your pace or a workout effort based on how things feel when running in a mask.”
Keep runs shorter and less intense than usual, then gradually progress back to your normal numbers as you acclimate to the mask. Remember, on long runs you’ll likely drink less since you’ll have to contend with the mask to sip, so either keep runs short enough to avoid drinking or ensure you’re still sipping consistently with a pack and bladder that can send the hose easily up and under your mask when you need to drink.
Wearing a mask during exercise means you need to take extra care and pay attention to your body. If you notice your breathing getting more labored than normal, if you feel dizzy or nauseous, if your heart rate won’t come down, or if something just feels off, put on the brakes and stop. You may need to take walking breaks to maintain a more steady breathing rate, and that’s perfectly OK (it might even make you faster).
DON’T COUNT ON IT TO BOOST YOUR FITNESS
Wearing a mask is probably not going to make you a stronger runner. One study showed surgical masks worn by cyclists didn’t change breathing patterns but did increase feelings of fatigue. Another suggests that during resistance training, wearing a mask hindered performance slightly. The general consensus seems to be that if you don’t need to wear it (for example, in times other than the pandemic or air quality issues), it’s not going to benefit your training or improve your cardio. But if you wear a mask while running, you might be pleasantly surprised when the mask comes off and you remember what it feels like to breathe freely again.
GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH
If you can, break up your running with an occasional escape to less populated areas where you can go mask-free (unless you’re passing someone closely). Try to pepper mask-free workouts in occasionally, especially for harder or longer workouts. Of course, even if you are running in a rural area where masks aren’t required, it’s smart to bring one in case you encounter people on the trail or need to stop for something on the way home.
WASH YOUR FACE
It’s never been so important to get your face clean post-run: The threat of “mascne” (mask acne) is real. That sweaty under-mask area, especially where the fabric touches your face, may be more prone to chafing and acne, so ensure your face gets some extra love post run. Immediately wash it with soap and water — even if you’re not able to shower, do what you can to get your face wet and washed — to avoid acne before it begins.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.