Do You Really Need A Face Mask While Running?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 17: People run in Hunter’s Point South Park during the coronavirus pandemic on May 17, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 316,000 lives with over 4.8 million infections reported. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

By now, hopefully, wearing a face mask when you’re in public is starting to become second nature. Whether or not you need to don a mask when you’re out on a run, though, is the topic of fierce debate. Some people argue that as long as you keep your distance, running sans face mask doesn’t put anyone at risk; and in fact, wearing one can inhibit breathing, making it downright dangerous. Others say that many local governments explicitly say to wear face masks when you’re in public — no free passes to runners.

I asked Shannon Sovndal, MD, an EMS medical director in Boulder, Colorado and the author of Fragile to weigh in. He said there’s no hard-and-fast rule, and suggests that runners take into account their local guidelines.

As of now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” While certain states have slightly different rules — New Mexico’s recommendations, for instance, specifically say it’s okay to ditch the mask when exercising — when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to stick to the CDC’s guidelines.

Also important: being mindful of where you’re running. “When I go for a run, if I can keep my social distancing from people, I don’t feel I need to wear a mask,” Dr. Sovndal admits. But he’s based in Boulder, Colorado, an area with plenty of open space; leaving six feet between himself and bystanders isn’t a struggle. If you’re running in a crowded area, like New York City, you want to mask up.

“The simple rule is, if you’re running and you’re going to have to squeeze through a crowd at times to get through people on a sidewalk and things like that, then I would wear a mask,” Dr. Sovndal says.

Right now, you might be noticing that running trails that are usually pretty empty are super-packed, since more people are looking for outdoors activities to distract them from their quarantine. So it’s always a good idea to bring a cloth mask with you on your run. If no one’s around, pull it down around your chin. Then pull it up when you’re near other people.

You can experiment with some different types of face coverings to find a good fit, from bandanas to buffs to neck gaiters. No matter what you use, make sure to wash it after your run to keep it clean. And give yourself some time to adapt: You may need to reduce your pace to run comfortably with a mask on. If you find it tough to breathe at any point, pull over and take a break, or call it quits entirely for the day.

Ultimately, whether or not you wear a mask on your run is a personal choice. But it’s one that can gravely affect the health of everyone around you. So be mindful of your surroundings, and if a mask is not on your face, make sure it’s close at hand so you can slip it on when duty calls.

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