Many community-based measures to control the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) have been implemented, including social distancing, hand hygiene and wearing face masks in public areas. However, wearing a face mask becomes a bit more of a challenge during an indoor or outdoor exercise session.


If you have tried to train with a mask on your face, you have probably noticed something: it is not the most pleasant experience. The most noticeable effect of wearing a mask is that breathing becomes a bit more of a challenge. The airflow to your lungs is decreased, which means less oxygen enters your body. Less oxygen means that your body’s ability to produce energy in the form of ATP molecules is reduced. This leads to reduced training performance, and you become more likely to find yourself exhausted much sooner.


In theory, training with a mask on resembles altitude training to a degree because the result in both scenarios is identical: your body has less oxygen to work with. With that said, let us take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of training with a mask.


It seems unclear how wearing a cloth mask impacts subjective and objective measurements of exercise. So, what does the literature say?


The researchers of one study recruited 31 recreationally active individuals between 18 and 29 years of age. All participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 groups. They all completed 2 testing trials (1 with a cloth mask, 1 without). All masks worn during data collection were of the same brand and style. The exhaustive exercise protocol for each testing session included a 3-minute walking warm-up, followed by an exhaustive incremental exercise protocol, and then a 7-minute standing recovery. Immediately following the 7-minute standing recovery, participants completed a brief qualitative questionnaire about their experience.


The researchers did demonstrate that exercising while wearing a cloth mask reduced participant’s exercise time, VO2 max, respiratory exchange ratio, and minute ventilation. There was no difference between heart rate, blood pressure, or blood oxygen saturation in participants pre-trial or post-recovery. Subjectively, participants reported feeling more discomfort wearing the mask and that wearing a mask increased the feeling of claustrophobia.


Ultimately, this study suggests that an individual may feel that their breathing is impacted by wearing a mask. Therefore, coaches, trainers and individuals should consider modifying the frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise when wearing a face mask.