(Editor’s Note: Due to high demand, some of the products we tested and included in this article are currently sold out. We have noted which masks are unavailable and will update when these products will become restocked.)
Running has been considered an ideal social-distancing sport amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. As runners, we can seek out empty trails or explore new neighborhoods with less foot traffic. Worst case? We hop over to the other side of the road to avoid other pedestrians.
Most runners and outdoor exercisers get their workouts in without a mask, but there’s no question, based on mounting scientific evidence, that wearing a mask or other face covering when indoors or in close proximity to others can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus to others.
Below are some of the masks we tested. Read on for our top picks.
A study published last month in Proceedings of the Royal Society found that widespread mask use helps reduce transmission rates. And another study from June, published in Health Affairs, found that wearing masks led to a slowdown of daily growth rate of COVID-19. The good news when it comes to running, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is there is no evidence that suggests running by someone for a brief moment sans face covering will spread the coronavirus.
“Transmission doesn’t occur through fleeting contact,” Adalja tells Runner’s World. “That’s not significant exposure. Significant exposure is less than six feet for at least 10 minutes.”
But in some states—Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Arizona, and California—governors are requiring people to wear a mask or covering in public spaces when they cannot maintain a distance of six feet. (And as cases have started to rise around the country, this is a smart move to protect others.) In running hot spots like along the Charles River in Boston, for example, it’s nearly impossible to social distance, making masks omnipresent.
Adalja acknowledges that if you’re running alongside a friend with whom you’re not quarantining, transmission might be an issue, and wearing a mask will help mitigate that risk.
What to Consider When Choosing a Mask for Running
After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made its recommendation to wear “cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” it seemed like everyone and their mother started creating and selling masks. So, how to choose?
For running, it’s about comfort, Adalja says. That’s because, as he continues to point out, there is no evidence that suggests a fleeting encounter on the road or trail will lead to infection.
“Any covering is fine,” he says. “It comes down to comfort like a pair of running shoes—whatever works best for you when you try it on.”
(Just know that unlike shoes, you can’t return masks for obvious reasons.)
Breathability is an important consideration, too, because of the nature of exercise. Some masks come with filters (or have the option to purchase a filter) for increased protection. I find wearing a mask with a filter, however, makes it much harder to breathe.
Adalja also says no one should be running in an N95 mask—those will severely impede breathing, and they should be reserved for healthcare professionals.
Runners should think about the fit of their masks, which go hand-in-hand with comfort. But, the looser the fit, the less effective the masks become at trapping your breath, and consequently, any virus particles. A tighter fit also means less bouncing and less sunglasses fog.
Decipher Differences in Mask Marketing
You’re probably served up ad after ad of cloth masks and coverings. Shoe companies like New Balance and Puma, and outdoor activity companies like Keen and Sunday Afternoons, have started manufacturing masks. But then companies you’ve never heard of surface on those Google Ads screaming the release of their cloth coverings.
So, how do you figure out what is the best mask? Like Adalja said, for running, it’ll come down to comfort. But it’s also important not to fall into a false sense of security if you purchase a mask that emphasizes coverage and protection. For example, one brand I tested markets the fact that it’s “antibacterial.” That’s great and all, but for those who don’t know better, they might think that means it’ll kill the coronavirus. It won’t.
What’s more, companies cannot market a product as antiviral in the United States without approval from federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Most brands have a disclaimer on its product website and packaging that says it’s not medical-grade and has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for surgical or medical uses. In many cases, companies are following the CDC guidelines for mask production.
How to Properly Wear and Handle Your Mask
Once your mask is on, the safest thing you can do is keep it on. The more you touch your mask and then your face, the more likely you are to infect yourself, Adalja says. (Outdoor activities pose less of a risk, especially if you’re not touching anything.)
“Many people are wearing homemade masks and touching their faces more than usual,” he says, pointing to Face ID on phones as a culprit for constantly removing a mask. “Masks are effective, but they’re just one layer of intervention. When you’re wearing a mask, it’s not going to be [as] effective if you’re touching your face all the time, wearing it inappropriately [under the nose], and littering it on the ground.”
If you do pull your mask down while out running, be sure to avoid touching anything, including your face. And, as always, wash your hands upon returning home.
How We Tested
We tested roughly a dozen masks. Some I knew right away that I couldn’t, in good conscious, include in this roundup because they were so uncomfortable or made breathing impossible. We tested masks with ear loops—adjustable and not—and back-of-the-head straps. I was sent masks with filters and without, one size and fitted. Please note some masks, like New Balance’s V3, were not designed as performance masks (masks specifically made for athletic activities) unless otherwise noted.
At the end of the day, we included our favorites, and if there were downsides, we’ve made that known.
—BEST ALL AROUND—
New Balance Face Mask V3
New Balance Face Mask V3
Let me start by saying these masks are currently sold out. New Balance stated it was developing “a new athletic mask that will be available for sale in limited quantities.” We will update when this mask becomes available. But I’m including the V3 here because it blew the competition away.
The mask is a one-size-fits-all, which generally is an issue for my small face. But its moldable nosepiece allows me to comfortably adjust the fit so it doesn’t bounce or fog up my sunglasses.
I realized quickly into my first run with this mask (also the first mask I’d ever run in) that I’m a mouth breather when on the go. I was definitely sucking in some of the fabric, but I could still breathe as well as one can in a mask. That being said, the three layers of fabric don’t allow much breathability. But for a mask to be effective it shouldn’t allow free airflow, right? I didn’t notice how hot it gets under a mask until I took it off—boy can my upper lip sweat. Also, pro tip: Don’t wash these masks with anything that has Velcro.
I heard New Balance was one of the first running brands to kick production into high gear for masks and personal protective equipment. As a New Balance loyalist, I immediately ordered two three-packs, and they have not disappointed.
WhitePaws RunMitts FaceMitts Mask
WhitePaws RunMitts FaceMitts Mask
If you want a no-frills, lightweight mask, look no further than FaceMitts from WhitePaws RunMitts. With no adjustable anything, the mask was a little loose on my small face, but it stayed up and covered the important areas.
Because Adalja doesn’t believe a fleeting encounter with another person while running will transmit the coronavirus, even if this mask is looser than I’d otherwise like, it’s a fine covering.
—BEST LIGHTWEIGHT OPTION—
Boco Gear Performance X Mask
The Boco Gear mask comes second to New Balance in my quest for an excellent mask for running and everyday wear. The company makes a performance mask, which is lighter and geared toward exercise versus its everyday mask. I loved the kids/small fit over the one-size-fits-all. The performance mask has a tight knit face and knit layer on the inside, making it a lighter mask than traditional ones.
Because the feel and design of the Boco Gear mask was similar to another I tested that was causing me to suck in fabric like crazy, I was skeptical. But Boco Gear was a pleasant surprise in its comfort and light weight. It even fit into my tiny running shorts when I no longer needed to wear it.
The mask also has a pocket for a filter (sold separately). These five-layer filters add an extra level of protection, but make it harder to breathe while exercising. Adding a filter doesn’t make the mask medical grade, either, and they’re only effective for about 40 hours.
It’s worth noting that the filters Boco Gear uses are PM2.5, which means their original use was for protection against particulate matter 2.5, the smallest and most dangerous form of air pollution. The coronavirus is even smaller than PM2.5.
Keen Together Mask
Known for its outdoor footwear gear, Keen (sold as a two-pack) has created a comfortable, adjustable face mask, which will be back in stock July 28. When I first put this mask on, I thought my run was going to be a “sufferfest” because the material is canvas, which is not known for being lightweight or breathable. But once I got moving, the mask fit comfortably and I could breathe decently well.
The downside is how badly my breath fogged up my sunglasses. I further adjusted the ear loops, but ultimately had to take my sunglasses off. Because fogging is reduced when you tighten a mask (and decreases the amount of escaped air), I wonder if there’s more breath coming out than is ideal in a pandemic situation.
Oiselle Flyout Gaiter
Runners have found a use for their buff/gaiters outside of chilly fall and winter runs: face coverings. Most runners I spoke with have opted for their gaiters over a mask thanks to the ease they can pull them up and down over their face (which, as mentioned before, can be risky).
Oiselle offers two gaiters, the Flyout and Lux. The Flyout bills itself as having “an extra wide opening, so that it’s easy to extend over a ponytail or big hair.” The Lux ($26) is incredibly comfortable thanks to its super soft material. Though slightly snugger than the Flyout, I found that it was still challenging to wear while running because it kept slipping down. I tried using my sunglasses to keep the gaiter in place, but that led to extreme fogging. If you need a covering to pull up during a brief encounter, this does the job, but if you’re looking for a covering that stays on while you run, this will disappoint.
Seirus BIO Arc Masque
Seirus BIO Arc Masque
The Seirus BIO Arc Masque, which will be restocked September 1, has a similar style and material to WhitePaws RunMitts but with a more contoured fit and what the company calls, “a flexible central arc.” The arc fits the face better than traditional cloth masks, making it easier to breathe.
This fall, the BIO Arc design will become the EVO Arc, made with HeiQ V-Block, a Swiss technology that protects materials from microbes and germs. Materials with HeiQ V-Block don’t necessarily protect the wearer or others against pathogens. But wearing a mask can reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
320ink MaskUp By 320
Runner-in-Chief Jeff Dengate tried out the 320ink face mask and was really impressed with the fit and the plainness of the black option.
“I had been using a buff, but it smushes your face and isn’t the most comfortable if you have to wear it for very long,” he says.
The 320 mask, which comes in a five-pack, is a stretchy t-shirt-like material, making it soft and comfortable when pulled across the face. Despite its multiple layers for protection, Dengate didn’t think it was too dense for breathing purposes.
Kitsbow Face Mask
This mask was born out of cycling apparel, and I really wanted to like it. The moldable nosepiece helps for a better fit, and it’s not one-size-fits-all (it comes in small, medium, and large/x-large), so you really can wear it comfortably. But the behind-the-head straps made it a bit of a challenge to slide on easily (and off if you needed to), and even without the removable, reusable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter it was a struggle to breathe.
I have, however, been wearing it for everyday use, including quick trips to the post office or to pick up milk. It’s comfortable, and the filter adds an extra level of protection. Kitsbow also offers the Wake ProTech, $30, which has adjustable toggles.
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