How to Choose the Best Face Mask for Exercise

How to Choose the Best Face Mask for Exercise
Photo: AS photo studio, Shutterstock

It’s not always fun to exercise in a mask, but sometimes you have to. If you’re potentially going to come close to other people as you work out, or if you’ll be working out indoors, the mask is a must. So let’s talk about how to pick an appropriate mask, and I’ll tell you what I think of several of the popular workout masks I’ve tried.

Know the limitations

First, the bad news: even at this point in the pandemic, we don’t know which non-medical masks work the best. Many models are available, but nobody has tested them in a systematic way, nor is there a consensus on what measures would constitute “good enough.” So don’t expect a definitive answer; there simply isn’t one.

Masks are also only part of a strategy to prevent COVID transmission. They are not a magical force field. No mask is perfect. That said, even masked, I would never exercise in a small indoor space with a lot of other people shouting or breathing heavily, like a cycling studio. Too many people will have droplets spewing out the sides of their masks, pushing their way through the holes in the front, and coming straight out their noses if they’ve decided they don’t have to wear their masks right.

Another important thing to remember is that masks may make exercise feel harder. During cardio exercise, they make it harder to suck in enough air. This is not necessarily a problem, but worth being aware of. If you find masked workouts are really miserable, plan some maskless workouts too, provided you can find a safe place to do them. (Some have suggested that this side-effect of mask-wearing may make your workouts more effective — sort of like how athletes will move to Colorado to breathe the thinner air. How soon we forget! There was a fad for wearing altitude-training-simulating masks a few years back. They don’t work.)

All that said, as a person with exercise-induced asthma: I’m going to genuinely love having a mask to run in this winter. Masks warm and humidify the air you breathe in. If you wheeze when you run in cold weather, try it out — and then talk to your doctor, because exercise-induced asthma may benefit from other management strategies, like an inhaler, as well.

The best(?) masks I’ve tried

My favourite mask to work out in so far is this Adidas model. It’s sold out until October, the website says, but I’ve seen singles popping up on eBay for about the same as the original price of a three-pack. I snagged one, and I’m glad I did.

I like this mask because it’s lightweight enough to be breathable and comfortable, yet the fabric is solid enough that I can believe it’s a decent droplet barrier. It also has a pocket so you can add extra filtering material, and the earloops are nice and soft.

UnderArmour’s mask is considered a top-of-the-line mask and it has a price to match, $40 for just one. It’s thicker than the Adidas, but still otherwise comfortable. Here’s the best feature, though: it’s stiff in the front, so no matter how hard you’re breathing, you won’t suck in a mouthful of fabric. The wire along the top of the mask also keeps exhaled air out of your eyes (and keeps it from fogging your glasses).

Zensah makes another mask that’s popular with athletes, although this one seems to be less protective. It’s one layer, definitely breathable, but stretchy and with larger visible holes than the others. It also fits tightly against your mouth and nose, which you’re going to either love or hate. (For me: hate.) Its strap arrangement is different from most masks: there are two straps that go around the back of your head, instead of around your ears.

How and when to use your mask

Personally, I hate wearing masks when I exercise, so when I want to go for a run I go out of my way to find lonely trails in the woods or nearly deserted suburban streets. I also do a lot of my lifting at home, in my garage or my driveway. These are legitimate choices, although if you live in a busy area you may still want to wear a mask when you exercise outdoors.

Try your mask on before you bring it to the gym. Open and close your mouth to see if it actually stays in place. Suck in some air like you’re on rep nine of a set of 10 squats. Adjust the mask or swap it for another if needed.

And then wear it right. Pulling it down off your nose while you’re lifting is defeating the whole purpose. Keep it on while you’re breathing heavy, even if that means you need a little more rest time between sets or if you need to lower the intensity of your cardio.

Try to avoid touching your mask. If you need a sip of water, unhook one of the earloops, take your drink, and put it back on. At the end of the day, wash your hands. It’s good to carry a plastic baggie with you to deposit your breath- and sweat-drenched mask in, and to have a clean, dry mask to wear home. Wash or sanitise your hands after taking off the mask.

And make sure to actually wash your mask when you get home. If you’re like me, you have a few really good masks for exercise, and the rest of your mask wardrobe is a ragtag bunch of cotton ones for everyday use. You can wash a mask in your bathroom sink with hand soap and hot water, then hang it to dry on that second shower curtain rod you should already have in your shower for rinsing gym clothes.

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