How to Safely Exercise While Wearing a Mask Outside

Wearing a mask takes some getting used to—and that holds doubly true when you’re working out in one. But when you’re exercising in a mask, there are some things you can do to make it feel a little more comfortable.

First of all, there’s a legit reason you need to wear a mask when you’re working out, whether you’re running outdoors or riding a bike. In some places, especially in crowded locations, it can be very hard or even impossible to keep the recommended six feet or more of distance between you and others not in your household. (I’ve been on a few hiking trails that went suddenly from deserted to congested with little warning.) Keeping that distance and wearing a mask in public are important guidelines for reducing the risk of contracting or transmitting the new coronavirus.

Yes, wearing a mask while exercising can feel different—more on that below. But wearing one doesn’t have to tank your workout, either. Here’s what you need to know.

Wearing a mask while exercising will feel different.

First, it’s important to recognize that wearing a mask when you exercise will change up how you feel during your workout.

“Wearing a mask makes whatever exercise you’re doing a little bit harder to do,” says Irvin Sulapas, M.D., sports medicine physician and assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “You may breathe a little bit harder, or feel like you’re not quite getting enough air.”

The reason this happens is simple: Anything that’s covering your nose and mouth will block airflow. Because of this added resistance, you’ll need to inhale and exhale a little bit harder to get air in and out, Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., exercise physiologist and president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, tells SELF. You’re still able to get in the air you need—you just need to work a little harder to get it. (The claims that a mask will cut off your oxygen just aren’t true, as SELF reported previously.)

That resistance to airflow also increases your perceived exertion—how hard your workout feels—as well as the cardiovascular demand it requires. That means your heart rate will likely be a little higher than when you do the same exercise at the same intensity without a mask, says Bryant. He notes that during his own workouts, he’s noticed his heart rate is 8 to 10 beats per minute higher when he’s wearing a mask. (If you wear a fitness tracker with heart rate capabilities, you may have noticed a similar pattern.)

A mask can also make your workout more challenging because you feel hotter,  Jennifer C. Richards, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Human Cardiovascular Physiology Laboratory at Colorado State University, tells SELF. “The moisture in your breath tends to get trapped within the cloth and creates a more humid environment around the skin on your face, making it more difficult to stay cool or comfortable during exercise.” That’s especially true the hotter and more humid the weather is.

On top of all of that, there’s the very real fact that a lot of us have not been exercising as much during this pandemic. If your regular routine has been interrupted, the workouts you used to breeze through might feel significantly harder now.

For most people, exercising in a mask is perfectly safe.

For most healthy people, the added intensity from a mask may feel uncomfortable, but it isn’t dangerous, says Dr. Sulapas. In fact, “wearing a mask is very safe,” he says.

Plus, the beauty of the human body is that it is built to adapt to new challenges. So over time, the extra intensity won’t be as noticeable. “It may take a few weeks of regular exercise, but you’ll eventually feel more comfortable exercising with a mask,” Dr. Sulapas says.

Still, it’s important you listen to your body: If you start to feel lightheaded, dizzy, or excessively fatigued, take a break and remove your mask, says Bryant (but move away from others first).

Also, certain medical conditions can make exercising in a mask potentially dangerous. People with respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should consult their doctor before exercising in a mask, Dr. Sulapas says. Same thing goes for anyone with a cardiovascular condition like heart disease or angina, says Bryant. In these situations, if your doctor has advised you not to wear a mask during exercise, Bryant suggests sticking to exercise at home or in an outdoor environment where there’s plenty of ventilation and enough space that you can maintain adequate social distance.

There are a few easy adjustments you can make to get in a great workout with a mask.

1. Set realistic goals.

First, shift your thinking away from performance-related goals—e.g., “I’m going to average a nine-minute mile for a 5K”—to process-related goals, where just doing something is the goal (such as “I’m going to move for 30 minutes”), says Bryant.

“You want to think about establishing a regular habit instead of focusing so much on intensity or performance,” he says. Focusing on the process will help you build a good base without the pressure to perform at a certain level.

2. Choose the right mask.

Bryant suggests finding a face mask that’s breathable and doesn’t get wet and soggy when you’re sweating and breathing hard throughout a workout. (You can also bring an extra mask with you to swap out the damp one—you can bring hand sanitizer to clean your hands before switching.) “Many fitness brands are now designing face masks that are designed to be a little more pleasant to exercisers,” he says. These include Athleta, Beyond Yoga, and Under Armour. You may also want a gaiter-style mask that’s easy to pull down when you’re not near any other people and can take a quick break. (Check out our mask recommendations for outdoor running for more options).

3. Start slow and gradually build intensity.

Bryant suggests focusing on low-to-moderate-intensity workouts at first, where you would still be able to talk pretty comfortably. This is especially true if you’ve been off regular exercise for a while, but it also applies to those used to working out a higher intensity sans mask. (It also applies to your warm-up—you definitely want to start each workout easy.)

When you’re more acclimated to the mask and feel ready for more of a cardiovascular challenge, add in short intervals where you push harder. “Do a short bout of intense work and then give yourself time for recovery,” Bryant says. Over time you’ll feel ready to slowly increase the intensity of those intervals. Again, these intervals may be slower or less intense than what you’re used to—and that’s perfectly normal.

4. Keep tabs on your heart rate.

If you normally use an activity tracker during exercise, you may have an idea of what a “normal” heart rate is for you during certain activities. If so, you can use this to know when to dial things back.

A heart rate a few beats per minute higher than usual can be a sign to scale back on intensity, shorten the duration of your overall workout, or extend your rest periods between intervals, says Richards.

5. When it comes to cardio, focus on endurance versus speed.

You probably won’t be able to run as fast as you would if you weren’t wearing a mask, says Bryant. And that’s okay; instead of focusing on hitting a speed-oriented time goal, right now might be a good time to focus on building your endurance—running at a steady, moderate pace for a longer period of time.

Sticking to a more moderate intensity may feel more doable than pushing the intensity, so you’ll be able to work toward a goal that feels realistic for you right now. Eventually, as you feel comfortable running with a face covering, you’ll naturally be able to turn up the speed.

6. Take breaks.

It’s okay to take breaks. Seriously. Incorporate walk breaks into your run, or make your rest intervals a bit longer than you normally would, Bryant suggests. And if you’re feeling tired or lightheaded, cut your workout short.

7. Remember to hydrate.

Dr. Sulapas suggests making sure you stay well hydrated. That’s important because dehydration can also increase your heart rate during a workout, possibly compounding the effects of the mask and the heat.

There’s no hard and fast rule about how much or how often to hydrate, but Dr. Sulapas says to make sure you’re drinking water regularly throughout your workout (and definitely whenever you feel thirsty) and resting when you need it. Cold water in particular can help cool you down, he says. If you’re exercising in a very humid climate or for over an hour at a time, adding some electrolytes into the mix isn’t a bad idea, as SELF recently reported.

8. Exercise when it’s not as hot outside.

If you’re exercising outside, do it either early in the morning or very late in the evening, when the temperature is a little more tolerable, says Dr. Sulapas. Your body will eventually acclimate to heat, but just like a mask, heat will make your workout feel more intense for the first few weeks. Opting for athletic clothing that is airy and lightweight can also help keep you from overheating and make your summer workouts more enjoyable.

9. Try something new.

If you’re feeling discouraged by how a mask limits your typical workout, consider other forms of exercise that won’t be as affected by a mask, Richards suggests. “For instance, if you routinely perform endurance exercise, perhaps weight lifting will be more tolerable. It’s never a bad idea to consider focusing on some type of exercise that you normally put off or avoid,” she says. “Focus on increasing flexibility, rehabbing a nagging injury, addressing muscle imbalances, or learning a new activity or sport.”

Changing it up, and adding new things, can actually end up being really beneficial and enhancing your overall fitness, Richards says.

And always remember: Just because you can’t do your typical workout at your typical intensity doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. Exercising in general is a stellar way to improve both physical and mental health, and something is always better than nothing, says Richards. Be kind to yourself.


Originally Appeared on SELF