BREAKING: Masks Don’t Hinder Performance

The debate around masks and exercise performance continues to rage, yet some research shows they don't hinder us one jot.

By Jordan Smith |

We are allowed to drop our guards, I mean masks,  while ‘exercising vigorously’ in South Africa, even if we are still waiting for the relevant minister to define that term. But should we? And do we need to, perceived discomfort aside?

  • As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, mask remain obligatory in all public places.
  • Many gyms and indoor training facilities require masks when working out to help slow the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19.
  • A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that wearing a mask does not hinder performance or oxygen levels.

Though gyms and fitness studios have slowly reopened, that doesn’t mean the spread of coronavirus is under control. To help mitigate the spread, many gyms and indoor training facilities require clients to wear masks or face coverings. The good news: Early research suggests they don’t actually hinder your performance in terms of time to exhaustion or peak power output, and had no discernible negative effect on blood or muscle oxygenation levels, rate of perceived exertion, or heart rate in young, healthy adults.

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan gathered a small sample of seven men and seven women, ranging from slightly inactive (not meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week in Canada) to elite cyclists and tested the effects of wearing a three-layer cloth face mask, a surgical mask, and no mask on their exercise performance. (The Association of American Medical Colleges suggests that cloth masks should have at least two layers whenever possible to be most effective.)

The study participants started with a brief warmup on a stationary bike, then underwent a progressive-intensity exercise test, during which they had to maintain the same pedal rate while the resistance was continually increased until exhaustion, Phil Chilibeck, Ph.D., professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Kinesiology and co-author of the study explained to Bicycling. Heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and rate of perceived exertion were recorded every 30 seconds.

Each of the three tests was done on a different day to allow full recovery between tests, Chilibeck added. Additionally, participants were required to maintain similar diet, sleep, and exercise routines for 24 hours before each test.

The results, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that wearing a mask had no effect on performance or muscle oxygen levels. Since there was no difference in time to exhaustion between conditions, the peak power reached at the end of each test was similar in mask and no-mask conditions for all participants, Chilibeck explained. Researchers also did not see any effects of the masks during exercise on arterial (blood) oxygen levels, which would decrease if breathing was affected.

And while droplet spread was not measured, all masks used were tested in a previous study in which they were shown to effectively minimise droplet spread, according to Chilibeck.

“promising evidence that wearing a mask has no discernible negative effect on performance”

Though the participants represented a wide range of fitness levels, it’s important to note that these tests were conducted on a very small sample size (just 14 young, healthy adults), and more research is needed on larger populations to draw sweeping conclusions about the general population.

Additionally, the study was performed on a stationary bike, where participants exerted themselves for a maximum of 12 minutes. Stationary bikes are commonly used in studies because they allow for more control, but additional research on cyclists for longer efforts will be needed to understand how masks affect a sustained, sub-maximal effort such as a century ride.

Face coverings can make exercise feel more difficult for some, but that perceived effect could be influenced by a number of factors including psychosomatic elements, humidity, and prolonged intensity, but there is no evidence they affect blood oxygen levels.

Still, this early research shows promising evidence that wearing a mask has no discernible negative effect on performance yet provides major benefits for slowing the spread of this deadly disease.

As Bicycling previously reported, wearing a mask, maintaining an ample distance between yourself and others, and washing you hands regularly are some of the best ways to keep yourself and others healthy.

“If people wear face masks during indoor exercise, it might make the sessions safer and allow gyms to stay open during COVID.” Ditto for riding our bikes outdoors – we often ride in packs, closer than social distancing norms recommend. We pant all over each other waiting to regroup at the top of the climbs, lean in to catch the conversation, hide from the wind… Covid loves this stuff!


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