So, apparently masks are a thing this year! Despite how much good they can do, there still is some push-back out there.
However, when you look at the evidence, when you’re around other people, if everybody is wearing a mask, the odds of infecting each other goes down. If you personally are unsure, take a look here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here…..
However, a legitimate question that I get asked is how does wearing a mask impact performance when we’re exercising?
First of all, the best answer is to exercise far enough away from everybody else so that you do not have to wear a mask. Solo in your basement, outside far away from others= no need to worry about this issue!
However, if you’re one of those people who really relies on going to a gym to stay healthy, masks definitely can be uncomfortable when you’re using them. But, do they really impact performance?
Does wearing a mask slow us down?
This was a great study published in 2020 which you can read in full HERE.
They looked at 14 subjects who wore either a cloth mask, surgical mask or no mask at all. These subjects were put through a time to exhaustion test on the bike. This is what they found:
In this graph, each line represents a subject where each point represents their time to exhaustion given the mask type of that trial. As you can see, there was no clear change in time to exhaustion- some performed better without a mask, some didn’t, but overall everybody was about the same.
Now, of course people can push themselves to do less or more depending on what they believe they should accomplish. What did the researchers see at the physiological level?
Blood Oxygen Levels
First, the % saturation of the blood at various power outputs (as shown blow) did not change at all depending on what was on the subjects’ face. In other words, the amount of oxygen the blood was carrying did not change!
Muscle Oxygen Levels
Sure, blood oxygen was ok, but what about oxygen getting to the actual tissues? Once again, as you can see, there was no discernable difference between the 3 trials (below).
Did it feel harder?
So performance (time to exhaustion) was the same and oxygenation of blood and tissues was the same. But, did things feel harder for the athletes? Again, at the end of the day, there was no perceived difference between the trials as you can see below.
What about HR?
So performance was the same, oxygenation was the same, how hard it felt was the same. How about HR? Again, no difference as you can see below.
Long story short, if you are wearing a basic cloth or surgical mask when you run, the odds of it having an impact on your workout is negligible. This is especially true since we’re typically not maxing out our effort in training. Maybe things would be different at the end of a high-end marathon effort (or maybe not), but there’s simply no need to dip that deep into the well in training. On top of this, the odds of that mask having a positive impact on reducing the spread of COVID-19 is very high.
Personally, I would still rather run without a mask. However, the answer for that is simple- run outside, run solo, and run far away from people.
If you are indoors, this research can give you confidence that your mask likely isn’t holding you back. So, go ahead and wear it with pride!
In addition to this, this research definitely can give you confidence that daily tasks that maintain a HR well below anything that we see while running will definitely not be influenced. If you can bike to exhaustion without any change in your blood oxygenation, you definitely can get groceries with out fear of it doing damage or holding you back.