States including Florida, Texas, Arizona and California have seen a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks (in fact, Florida broke the record for single-day coronavirus new cases reporting Sunday, July 12, having announced just under 15,300 cases). In response, some governors — including those of California and Texas — have imposed face mask mandates. Such rules around face masks would require Americans to wear a face mask in public, including while exercising. CDC guidelines recommend “wearing a cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” The measure was meant to help reduce the spread of the virus between those interacting in close proximity, like grocery stores and pharmacies. In densely-populated urban areas, even the outdoors may require a mask, though — especially during runs, jogs or other breathy outdoor activities that take you closer (and farther) from other people.
It’s counterintuitive to running. You need oxygen when you’re running, you need breathability.
Conroy Zien, Running Coach
As we reported in our comprehensive guide to buying face masks, masks cannot fully protect you from contracting the virus from someone else. Most cloth masks can help reduce transmission of the virus to others by blocking large droplets after coughing or sneezing — and work best when combined with safe social distancing practices, regular hand washing and other sanitation measures. While most gyms are closed, the option to run or exercise outdoors remains fairly open across the country. But is it safe to exercise with a face mask on? And how do you find the right one for you? We consulted experts on how to best shop for the right face mask for exercising.
Is it safe to exercise with a face mask on?
Generally, experts say it’s safe to exercise with a face mask on. But it can often be more uncomfortable, says Conroy Zien, a running coach in Maryland. The more tightly-woven (and effective) the mask’s material is, the harder it is to breathe through. And since many outdoor exercises hone in on cardiovascular activity, the two efforts — to breathe well and to keep from breathing in or breathing out virus particulate — are in direct conflict.
“It’s counter intuitive to running,” he said. “You need oxygen when you’re running, you need breathability.”
Instead of thinking about what a drag it is to wear a mask while running, I try to put a positive spin on it and think of it as an added challenge that provides an extra aerobic benefit.
Kaitlin Goodman, Running Coach, Marathoner and Four-Time Olympic Trials competitor
The World Health Organization actually advises against wearing masks while exercising, as it may reduce the ability to breathe comfortably. Anyone with an underlying cardiovascular or respiratory condition should take caution when exercising with a mask on, too. If you’re going to be exercising with a face mask outdoors, you should do so solo (or with your immediate household). Try to stick to routes where you won’t encounter others or where you’ll be able to keep at least six feet from others. Zien recommends running early in the morning, or even in “inclement weather” to avoid others. “Unless you can go without seeing someone for an entire minute, you should probably wear a mask,” he said.
Just like with running, wearing a mask gets easier with practice, said Kaitlin Goodman, a running coach, marathoner and four-time Olympic Trials competitor. She agrees that wearing a mask can be an inconvenience, but to her, it’s a small one and “the least we runners can do to help limit the spread of COVID-19.”
“If you find it difficult to exercise with a mask and you're frustrated by it, I suggest reframing how you think about mask-wearing,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what a drag it is to wear a mask while running, I try to put a positive spin on it and think of it as an added challenge that provides an extra aerobic benefit.”
How to buy the best face mask for exercising
A problem with wearing cloth face masks to exercise is moisture — which WHO notes in their recommendation against them. Like other types of clothing, masks will become damp and soggy when mixed with sweat, which can make for an unpleasant experience, reminds Zien. When not fitted properly, face masks can fall off or loosen over the course of exercise, a definite red flag in regards to coronavirus and other particulates.
When shopping for any mask, prioritize material quality and breathability. Look for masks with multiple layers of tightly-woven-yet-breathable fabric like cotton, Scott Segal, MD, MHCM, chair of anesthesiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, previously told NBC News Shopping. Segal led a peer-reviewed study that tested the effectiveness of different fabrics in filtering out particles. A simple test of a mask’s effectiveness is to hold it up to the sky. If you can see the sunlight through the fabric, it’s not tightly-woven enough, he said — you can try something similar with a flashlight. Breathability and flexibility of exercise fabrics, like moisture-wicking material, can impact the effectiveness of a face mask in filtering out some types of particulate, said Segal. His study found that knitted materials were less effective in filtering out particulate than woven materials. But it’s most important that the mask fits snugly to your face and covers your nose and mouth.
“Since exercise increases breathing rate and forcefulness, it is important to try to maintain distancing even if wearing masks, and especially indoors,” he said.
Otherwise, face masks should not cause irritation after long-term use, said Goodman, and should fit snugly against the face. Look for masks made of breathable, woven materials. Fit is most important, so make sure the mask can fit comfortably over your mouth and nose and won’t slip off while running. Moisture-wicking technology, used in most exercise clothing, may keep the mask from becoming too soggy (therefore lessening the chance of you taking it off), said Melanie Carver, the chief mission officer at Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Goodman herself uses and recommends running buffs, a tubular garment worn around the neck. It can easily be pulled up and down, she said, and is typically made for exercise. “I have a bunch of buffs already that I use for winter running, so they are familiar and I'm used to wearing them,” she said. “I prefer masks that are made of a thinner material (thus more breathable), and I like to fold them over to create a double-layer in front of my face.”
Best face masks for outdoor exercise
If you’re shopping for a face mask, we’ve compiled face masks designed for exercise to help guide your purchase — the face masks below are designed to fit (and stay) on your face and equip moisture-wicking technology. We’ve included masks whose listed features adhere to the CDC’s recommended criteria, as well as the expert guidance we share above.
1. Adidas (sold out)
These polyester masks are made from 40-percent recycled materials and come in one-size-fits-most. They are dual-layered and machine-washable, sporting the company’s logo on the side. For every mask sold, Adidas will donate $2 to Save the Children’s Global Coronavirus Response Fund.
2. Athleta (pre-order, ships August 3)
These exercise masks are made of two layers, polyester and spandex, as well as a cotton liner. Masks are machine-washable and available in different colors (to match your workout outfit, of course). The athleisure brand is also donating 100,000 non-medical masks to Mayo Clinic.
4. Koral Netz Face Mask (pre-order, ships August 10)
This antimicrobial face mask is made up of two layers of spandex-polyamide material. Masks are machine-washable and fast-drying, and additionally offer UV protection. They are one-size-fits-all.
These one-size-fits-all masks are made of a polyester-spandex blend with moisture-wicking technology. Additionally, they come with a breathable mesh lining on the inside. Masks are machine-washable and come in packs of six.
These masks are machine-washable and made of a dual-layer polyester blend. Masks come in packs of three and are one size fits all.
These Etsy face masks are handmade from muslin and waterproof fabric. Masks come with a filter pocket and three protective layers. The mask is also machine washable.
The company’s 2.0 face mask comes in different colors and in three sizes based on weight. Masks are built with an inner synthetic rubber sleeve and outer silicone layer. Each mask has six air resistance caps for increased (or decreased) air flow. Masks are not machine-washable.
9. Under Armor Sportsmask (pre-order, ships August 17)
These black masks come in three sizes and are made of two layers: a 100-percent polyester, antimicrobial outer layer and a nylon-spandex inner layer. Masks are fitted around the nose and chin and are meant to be hand-washed.
Running buffs and gaiters for exercise
While some runners use running buffs, most don’t adhere to CDC guidelines, like those calling for multiple layers of fabric. In a statement, running buffs retailer Buff USA explained that while their buffs and neckwear fully cover your neck and mouth, their items cannot protect against getting or passing of the coronavirus — if you spend time outside or in proximity to others, the CDC, WHO and experts we've consulted on multiple guides to face masks recommend wearing a face mask.
This running buff is made of a single layer of cotton jersey, is machine -washable and one-size-fits-all. The material is breathable and comes in gray.
This running buff sits around your neck and can be pulled up over the mouth and nose. Buffs are made of 100-percent microfiber and are stretchy for a snug, optimal fit. It comes in four colors, and is one-size-fits-all.
This fleece neck gaiter is made of a lightweight polyester-spandex fleece fabric blend. The gaiter is designed to fit snugly around your neck and mouth while working out or outside.
This running buff comes in a number of colors and is one-size-fits-all. The buff is machine-washable and made of 100-percent polyester. The material is breathable and moisture wicking.
This running neck warmer fits snugly around the neck and comes in two sizes. It’s made of a polyester, nylon and spandex blend and sports moisture-wicking technology.
These buffs are made of stretchy, breathable fabric made from bamboo. The fabric is antibacterial and offers UV protection up to 50 SPF. Buffs are swim-friendly and machine-washable, and come in 13 colors.