Running with a mask – what you should know, and how to choose the right one

  • South Africans are now allowed to exercise outdoors between 06:00 and 18:00
  • Masks are still mandatory, but it could make running uncomfortable
  • Luckily, you can choose the most suitable mask for running


When South Africa moved to lockdown level 3 on 1 June 2020, the exercise window was extended to 18:00, allowing more time to exercise outdoors.

Runners and walkers now have more time to enjoy the fresh air, but wearing a mask outside is still mandatory. Unfortunately, it can take a while to get used to this. You may notice that your breathing is more laboured than usual (and this is not only because you lost fitness during lockdown level 5) and that you struggle to reach your usual pace.

Your face might also feel hot and the mask or buff might become damp during your run, leading to discomfort and even skin issues.

Why should we run with masks?

While the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection remains greater indoors, especially in an area without proper ventilation, keeping your distance from others and covering your mouth and nose while out running are still encouraged.

This all has to do with the so-called “breathing stream” that can carry the virus particles, especially when runners breathe heavily and expel more respiratory droplets, which is known to spread the virus.

Some experts have different opinions. Dr Richard Martinello, associate professor of infectious disease at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut said that it depends where you run and if you are physically distanced or not. If you are running in areas where there is no-one else, a mask may do little to protect you. But if you run in a neighbourhood or area where other people are also out exercising, a mask may reduce any risk.

A mask and your performance

Many runners have been concerned whether running with a mask may cause issues such as hypoxia or increase the amount of carbon dioxide you inhale.

But experts reassure us that a simple cloth mask or buff cannot replicate this effect. Professional athletes train with specialised masks to reduce the amount of oxygen they inhale – this is called “altitude training” and athletes benefit from this because their bodies start producing more red blood cells, which benefits muscles and enhances their performance when they are racing at lower altitudes.

Professor Melissa Perry from the George Washington University explains that a mask remains an important step in reducing virus transmission and is as much an action to protect others as protecting yourself.

She also explains that it is highly unlikely that a cloth mask or buff will replicate the same effects as the specialised masks athletes use for altitude training, and that there is little risk of hypoxia.

But while a normal mask doesn’t reduce oxygen like an altitude mask, Timothy Lyman, a certified personal trainer from Pittsburgh explains that a cloth mask doesn’t change the oxygen saturation, but your lungs and heart still work harder, increasing the effort of your diaphragm, and thereby your endurance.

How to choose the best mask for running

Since runners could exercise outdoors under level 4 restrictions, many in the South African running community have shared their tips, tricks and masks of choice.

While some reckon that a disposable surgical mask makes breathing much easier, others swear by moisture-wicking fabric. Many runners prefer buffs or neck gaiters – not only are these normally made from breathable, moisture-wicking materials, but they cover your neck as well as your face and mouth – which could protect you against the nippy winter air and help you avoid contracting other respiratory conditions.

But all runners are different and have their own preferences. The best way to find what works for you is to try out various masks and methods.

Here are some more tips to keep in mind when choosing which mask you will choose:

  • Your mask or cloth covering should fit over both your mouth and nose.
  • The fit of the mask should be snug enough so that it doesn't slip down, while not being too restrictive.
  • The mask or cloth covering should consist of two layers.
  • Choose a fabric that feels comfortable on your face, whether it’s cotton or synthetic moisture-wicking material.
  • Cleanliness is an important aspect – don’t reuse your buff or mask before washing it.
  • Trial and error is key – many runners found their preference after experimenting with both a mask and a buff out on runs. 
  • If you have the financial means to invest in new gear, consult outdoor or sports shops for a variety of buffs, or even cloth masks as many retailers have started to sell these. 
  • Although some runners find disposable surgical masks comfortable, these are not sustainable for the environment – they have to be discarded after every run to ensure your safety. 
  • Consider making your own mask or buff from an old moisture-wicking running shirt, as there are many easy-to-follow online tutorials.

Tips for running with a mask

While most of us are exercising in crowded urban settings in South Africa, our Health Department is making masks mandatory while exercising outside. If you have slowly picked up your running again, but are struggling to get used to a mask, these tips may help:

  • Try exhaling through your nose, as this produces fewer respiratory drops than mouth breathing, which will help keep your mask drier and cooler.
  • Don’t try and increase your pace just yet. Don’t put pressure on yourself to improve your performance during this time. Slack off to a pace that will allow you to breathe comfortably and work out at the optimum heart rate while wearing a mask.
  •  Listen to your body and stop when you feel dizzy or fatigued. When you are really struggling to breathe, move away from other people on your route and uncover your mouth and nose for a short while.

Keep general safety in mind

We are currently not allowed to run in organised groups or with people from outside our households. Running alone means that you may be more susceptible to crime. It is therefore important to pay attention to these safety tips:

  • If you run on your own, let a member of your household know exactly how long you plan to run, and which route you'll be taking.
  • Carry pepper spray and be vigilant.
  • If you run with earphones, keep the volume low to be completely aware of your surroundings.
  • Wear reflective gear and bright colours to be more visible to drivers.
  •  Slow down as soon as you start feeling faint or dizzy while running.

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