When we asked friends what they still wished to know about exercising during the coronavirus crisis, one issue topped all others. People wondered about running or cycling in a face mask and how it would affect their breathing, performance, chances of spreading the virus and even vision.
To find out, I spoke with a number of physiologists and other scientists about what is known or at least suspected about wearing a facial covering while exercising and what types of masks and fabrics might work best during workouts.
The researchers cautioned that little is known about heavy breathing during aerobic exercise and how it affects viral spread. But they had plenty to say about fit, spit, perceived exertion, thermoregulation and facial saunas. What follows are their suggestions — and cautions — about masks and exercise.
Do I have to wear a mask during outdoor exercise?
This answer is more about policy and politeness than viral spread. In general, outdoor exercise, with or without a mask, seems to be safe, according to most experts.
“I think relatively little Covid-19 transmission would occur outdoors, except perhaps in large crowds,” says Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong and the senior author of a study published in Nature this month that looked at breathing, viral shedding and masks. “Running is good for health,” he says, “and transmission risk should be minimal, both for others, if a runner were infected, or for the runner, if they passed by infected people.”
Even so, most of us probably should cover our faces while we exercise outside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone now wear a mask of some kind when they leave home, and some municipalities require a facial covering if you are outside. Masks also could reassure people with whom you share paths or sidewalks while running and who, in my experience, have started to shy away when we runners pant by.