Now that the mask ordinances are back in place, a lot of my students are concerned with the ramifications of working out with a mask. Training with a mask is nothing new and has been done for years in elite training circles to increase cardiorespiratory capacity.
Recently, I took the liberty of researching the medical journals to see what studies and experiments have been done on this subject; so this blog is about the pros and cons of wearing a mask during your workout and tips on how to deal with any discomfort.
Pros of Wearing a Mask
Improves aerobic performance
According to a study done by Porcari et al., cardiovascular performance increased after training with an elevation training mask for 6 weeks. According to this study, participants who wore the mask had an improved ventilatory threshold and power output.
You can view the article here: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2016/05001/Effect_of_Wearing_the_Elevation_Training_Mask_on.3125.aspx
One hypothesis is that athletic performance increased due to more activation and strengthening of cardiovascular and breathing muscles.
Not all studies on cardio performance and mask wearing led to improved VO2 max. This is due to different variables such as the fitness level of participants, the duration of mask training, etc.
Activates more breathing Muscles
Using devices that decrease the amount of oxygen you intake in order to boost athletic gains or get athletes ready to compete in environments at higher altitudes has been a common practice for years. Studies done on these devices have shown that hypoxia (a decrease of oxygen in the body) is not a result of this practice. Instead, the body adapts biologically in order to be able to absorb more oxygen.
One of the ways it does this is to increase activation of the breathing muscles, much like lifting heavier dumbells can increase activation of the skeletal muscles. When wearing a mask, people breath deeper, activating the lungs, diaphragm, and intercostals. This greater activation strengthens the cardiovascular muscles which can increase athletic performance in the long run.
This study by Cheshier et al, shows improved lung function when training with an elevation mask: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2020/07001/Effects_Of_Elevation_Training_Mask_In_Conjunction.3025.aspx
More information on mask wearing during aerobic exercise can be found here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0237010#pone.0237010.ref011
Get’s you used to training in high altitudes
A friend of mine once had to test for his 4th degree black belt (or some degree). But he was from California and the test would be in the mountains of Colorado where the air was thinner. He trained with an oxygen mask so when he ended up taking the test, he did very well and the thin air didn’t bother him. This is a common method of training when preparing for competition in higher altitudes. I did some research on this and found that how well this works depends on how often you use the mask and how long and the outcome varies between the level of fitness a person has, and other factors.
Protects against viruses and bacteria that can cause lung damage and disease
Oxygen masks have been used for ages to protect doctors and patients from contagious diseases. It filters out particles of moisture in the air that contain viruses and bacteria that cause contagious diseases.
Wearing face masks also reminds people that we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic and it makes us more aware of our need to social distance.
Protects against allergens that can cause asthma, and breathing problems
Masks are often used by people who suffer from asthma to protect them from dust particles, pollen and pollution. It filters out these triggers that can cause asthma and hay fever
More miscellaneous advantages:
Having a face covering keeps you warmer on cold days and can moisten the air you breath when its dry. Wearing a mask has come in really handy when using public restrooms. It sure does help with the nasty smell. It protects us from the fumes of disinfectant spray and dusting.
Cons of Wearing a Mask
Its hot and stuffy
On a warm day, wearing a mask can make it feel sweltering.
This can be a real problem if you wear makeup or lip balm. The oil from your lips can spread to the skin around your face from contact with the mask and you end up with acne. For me, I’ve only had a small pimple here and it doesn’t seem to be a problem that all people face. I’ve learned to wash my face more. The good news is, its not a major skin issue. Current research shows that wearing a cloth mask produces less skin problems than wearing a surgical mask. More on this here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33084483/
Its just plain uncomfortable
You don’t have to read a research study to know that wearing a mask is just plain uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. There’s something on your face that wasn’t here before. While many people can easily get used to it, it can be annoying at first.
If you are out of shape and just getting back into working out, wearing a mask can be difficult. You have to breath deeper and more forcefully through the filter and its hot. Workouts seem much harder. You might have to ease into your exercise regimen with less intensity or take frequent breaks. From what I’ve experienced from having to wear a mask and from seeing students, collogues and clients workout with a mask, you can get used to it.
All of the medical studies on wearing a face mask has shown that it does not decrease oxygen supply to our organs. Many of the studies show very little change in blood and oxygen levels. Even heart rate doesn’t seem to change.
Most studies conclude that if you feel like you’re suffocating, its because you are not used to wearing a mask. A surgeon who is used to wearing a mask notices no difference at all. If you’re used to working out in a tank top and now you have to wear a sweatshirt, you are likely to feel discomfort compared to someone who always works out with a sweat shirt. Discomfort can cause anxiety which can change how we breath but all the physiological studies show that if you do feel strain, its not from the mask but from your discomfort and association with the mask.
These days, we have many reasons to feel anxiety but we can reduce the prevalence of panic attacks by learning proper breathing techniques. You can read more about proper breathing in this blog (proper breathing can be done with or without a mask) https://heroestraining.com/?p=318
You can’t see people smile
But they also won’t see you grimace while you try to execute your personal record bench-press or that last rep of squats.
Wearing a mask can cause hypoxia (lack of oxygen in the body)
So many studies have been done on this subject and all of them show that there is no lack of oxygen in the organs caused by mask wearing: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33153145/
More here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34599253/
Practice breathing with the mask on first
So you’re new to wearing a mask while exercising and you don’t like it, but your fitness facility requires mask wearing and so does your county lawmakers. One thing you can do is put the mask on before your workout and practice some deep breathing on your own. just breath through the mask and eventually, you will find that breathing is possible. You can even breath through your mouth and still get the kind of filtering advantage as you would when breathing through your nose. This is a great way to alleviate any anxiety you might have about wearing a mask before your workout.
Find a door or window for mask breaks and take water breaks
Many gyms have a open window where you can go to take of your mask and take breaths. You can also go to a door for breaks. If you are taking a fitness class, let the instructor know ahead of time that you might have to walk out to take a break. Instructors are understanding, especially if you are new and you may not be as fit as the seasoned classmates who are already used to exercising with face masks on.
Also, take frequent water breaks away from others. This gives yo an excuse to take the mask off.
Starting light is great advice for anyone who is trying to get back in shape. Give yourself time to get fit and try not to go hard and burn out at the get go. This will also give you time to get used to wearing the mask if you find it uncomfortable.
There will be others who embrace mask wearing, like some of my hard core fitness enthusiasts who are always trying to make their workouts more challenging. I have some friends who have worn thicker masks to make their cardiovascular workouts even more challenging. I know others who just can’t stand the mask at all. Whatever your make up, its best to know yourself and do what you feel is right for you in this situation. Where I live, indoor gyms were shut down for almost two years and now people are happy to come back, but need to get used to wearing a mask. Slowly, I see the numbers of gym goers going up. Many are hesitant at first because of the mandatory facial covering, but I have witnessed people get used to it over time.
Also, if you still can’t stand wearing a mask, come to my online classes. You can view the schedule here: https://heroestraining.com/?page_id=218