Is running with a face mask advisable?

Army Staff Sgt. Marc Dibernardo, E Company, 2nd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, who wears a gas mask when he runs for soldiers wounded in combat, participates in the North Shore Marathon with assistance from members of Team Red, White, and Blue at North Shore, Hawaii, May 1, 2011.

For most people: no.

Many countries today are easing the lockdown protocols citing the importance of the economy with very few officials acknowledging the importance of exercise. Though they did not mention it, one benefit of easing lockdown protocols is joggers/runners can once again go outside provided they wear a face mask.

This begs the question: Should we wear a face mask while doing intense activities?

Those who have tried running while wearing a face mask can all agree it becomes very challenging to breath. The reason behind that is actually very simple: our body needs far more Oxygen when doing intense activities. Surely, less Oxygen intake when our body demands it more have a negative effect in our body, right?

Yes!

Some people suffered while wearing a face mask

In China, two teenagers died—six days apart—after they ran with a mask on during their P.E. (Physical Education) class.

Ms Cao told local media: “I don’t think mask-wearing has caused this sudden death.”

She said in the vast majority of cases the mask would not have caused the death and added: “If this student had trouble breathing, he would’ve been conscious of that and wouldn’t have continued to run with the mask on until his heart stopped.”

Two schoolboys collapse and die just six days apart in China while wearing face masks by Katherine Davison

That is the problem. The fear, uncertainty, and death ("FUD") surrounding the COVID-19 disease (or the SARS-CoV-2 virus) shaped people to do things without thinking if they should. Ms. Cao is correct, it should not have caused a sudden death, however, the teenagers did not want to get infected (and infect their parents later at home) or to be punished for not wearing a mask.

Take for example this runner.

The 26-year-old man, who didn't have the habit of exercising, started going on runs half a month ago to keep healthy.

Despite finding it difficult to breathe while jogging on May 7, he kept his mask on to protect himself from the possibility of contracting Covid-19.

Four kilometres into his run, he felt a dull ache in his chest and found himself breathing harder than usual. Though he tried to carry on, the discomfort made him give up on the jog.

Chinese hospital warns against wearing masks while exercising after jogger suffers collapsed lung by Rainer Cheung

Without a doubt, he is a newbie runner yet he started running because the World Health Organisation did say that we should.

Is Oxygen important?

Low oxygen for long periods of time may result into the following:

  • low heart rate
  • CO2 buildup in bloodstream
  • blacking out; loss of consciousness
  • confusion
  • lung injury which may lead to lung collapse

Here's an abstract from the paper entitled "Physiological effects of exercise".

The physiological response to exercise is dependent on the intensity, duration and frequency of the exercise as well as the environmental conditions. During physical exercise, requirements for oxygen and substrate in skeletal muscle are increased, as are the removal of metabolites and carbon dioxide. Chemical, mechanical and thermal stimuli affect alterations in metabolic, cardiovascular and ventilatory function in order to meet these increased demands.

Physiological effects of exercise by Deborah Anne Burton, FRCA; Keith Stokes, BSc PhD; and George M Hall, MBBS PhD DSc FRCA

How to Run in this "New Normal"

The obvious answer is to not wear a face mask, however, the risk of catching COVID-19 from other people is a risk no one should take. Below are suggestions runners can consider before running outside.

  • Pick a time when there are almost no people.
  • Run in an area where there are very few people.

If a time and a place is not an option, here are additional suggestions for consideration.

  • Stay far away from anyone.
  • Do not trail behind other people, regardless if they are walking, running, or cycling.
  • If trailing behind other people is unavoidable, stay very far away (more on this below).

How far should we stay away while running

A lot according to this non–peer-reviewed paper: Towards aerodynamically equivalent COVID-19 1.5 m social distancing for walking and running.

  • Bikers: 19.81 meters (65 feet) at 28.97 kilometers-per-hour (18 miles-per-hour)
  • Runners: 10.06 meters (33 feet) at 4:11 minutes-per-kilometer (6:44 minutes-per-mile) pace
  • Walking: 4.88 meters (16 feet) at a normal pace

If you need a reference, here are the two recommended distances for social distancing.

  • Asian countries: 1 meter (3.28 feet) is 1.43 arms-length
  • Western countries: 1.83 meters (6 feet) is 2.61 arms-length

Remember though that this was from a non–peer-reviewed paper which divided experts when it went viral. One such good read is this article from Vice.

Conclusion

Casual and professional runners alike are looking forward to finally being able to run outside; while those who never ran prior to the lockdowns are getting into running as their form of exercise to help strengthen their body. Even the World Health Organisation continually reminds everyone to exercise outside if allowed by our respective local or national governments.

We do need to wear a face mask while outside. We should not risk acquiring the SARS-CoV-2 virus and spread it again. However, wearing a face mask while doing intense activities is not advisable, which leaves us back to observing strict social distancing: stay very far away from others, do not trail behind other people.

It is also correct that sudden death should generally be unlikely, however, we might be slowly damaging our lungs in process. Individuals with pre-existing conditions―and many are not aware of it―are only endangering themselves.

Air temperature, wind direction and speed, as well as the number of people around are also important factors to consider. Being equipped with the proper knowledge on how droplets spread and being aware of our environment and the people around us will help keep us safe without the risk of damaging our lungs and minimise getting infected by the COVID-19 disease.

Athletes competing in major competitions as well as those who are into ranked races―yes, there is an official ranking for serious runners―are usually the ones who train for "less consumption of Oxygen". These professional athletes can wear a face mask while running and they know what they are doing. If we did not train for it, especially newbies, do not use these professional athletes as proof that anyone can do it too. They trained for it!

Bottomline: it is better to be safe than sorry. Know your own body. Listen to the signs your body is sending. If we are catching our breaths, stop, take off the mask in an area without people (or far away from anyone) and breath, breath, and breath. If what we are feeling is not subsiding after a few minutes of rest, go to a hospital and get checked. The last thing we want to happen is to be another piece of news of a runner who suffered because of running while wearing a face mask.

Lastly, if the listed suggestions above are not applicable or is something we are not willing to do, exercising at home is still the best option while we are all waiting for a vaccine against COVID-19.

Remember: risking yourself to stay safe is not staying safe. Be wise!

BONUS: Runners should use face shields not face masks.


Sources and other good reads:


(Return to the Welfareness COVID-19 Page.)

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