NYX Endurance

To Mask Or Not To Mask (While Exercising)

By: Dr. Jeff, NYX Endurance Athlete & Physician

Every day we physicians are learning new things about the novel Coronavirus and about the illness that it causes. Thanks to social media, we are all witness to the scientific process taking place in real-time and we can all see that it has been anything but an exact science. With new information becoming available daily, so too are the recommendations for us all to follow in order to stay safe, stay healthy and stay virus-free.  One day we are told that we do not need to wear masks, the next day we are told that we need to wear masks not to protect ourselves but to protect others and the day after that we are told to wear masks to protect others AND ourselves. So, which is it?  Further, how does this all translate to us as endurance athletes? Do we need to wear masks while we ride, run or workout in a gym?

Here is the bottom line, followed by a bit more info if you are interested:

1) WEAR A MASK/GAITER WHILE EXERCISING (cycling, running, working out at the gym)

It will (a) protect you from spreading virus to others should you be unknowingly infectious, (b) protect you to some degree from becoming infected from others, and (c) help lessen the severity of illness should you become infected while wearing a mask/gaiter. Several studies (legit ones, not mine) have shows that mask wearers are “dramatically less likely to get a severe case of Covid-19” should they become infected while wearing a mask due to a lower viral load exposure. So wearing a mask does not just protect others, it protects you!

2) Face shields (the clear plastic shields that cover the entire face) may NOT protect you from COVID when worn alone. They DO add a layer of protection when worn with a mask. This came up recently when a friend of mine who owns a CycleBar fitness studio asked if it is acceptable for everyone attending her classes to wear a face shield alone. No!

A bit more detail: 

A prominent article published recently stated that masks are effective at limiting viral spread but that gaiters (often worn by athletes due to the convenience and comfort) are worse than wearing no mask/face covering at all.  The author cited a “study” that he personally conducted looking at the efficiency of various masks and fabrics for blocking respiratory droplets (and presumably viral particles) when worn while speaking.  Something just did not ring true for me about the conclusions so I did some research. Without going into detail, I found flaws in the conclusions of this “study” as it was more about testing the method used rather than testing masks. Too, only one gaiter was tested…hardly conclusive. Since there are numerous gaiters on the market made of various fabrics, I decided to conduct my own tests to assess their effectiveness.  My testing consisted of 2 parts. First I did a simple “candle” test. I attempted to blow out a candle 12 inches away from my mouth using the same force of air wearing different masks/face coverings. I tested 12 masks including 3 different N95 masks (the “gold” standard”), several cloth masks (2-ply vs 3-ply) and several gaiters (all made of different fabric).  The results were interesting. The N95 masks, triple layer fabric masks, double layer fabric masks, standard surgical masks and all but 1 of the gaiters performed very well. The one gaiter that did not was one that I purchased from New Zealand last year with the purpose of keeping my neck warm during cold rides. The other gaitors (purchased AFTER the start of Covid) all performed well. I could not generate enough airflow to blow out the candle although the flame did flicker a bit. Doubling up the gaiter fabric seemed to help. I had purchased a gaiter on Amazon and the fabric is very soft and breathable but has a tighter weave than the others and the flame did not even flicker. It performed as well as some masks. It was a crude experiment but my experience leads me to believe that gaiters are somewhat effective and certainly better than not wearing anything at all. 

Part 2 of my study involves taking each of these masks/gaiters out for a test run, a real run, at night with a light shining in front of my mouth and a GoPro camera filming the respiratory droplets released while running at a specific pace. Stay tuned for these results in the next monthly NYX Newsletter!

Dr Jeff

Dr. Jeff Krebs is a Board Certified Internal Medicine physician specializing in Hospital Medicine. He has practiced in San Diego for over 34 years. As a long-time competitive athlete, he has a special interest in sports medicine.
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