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  • Writer's pictureAnkur Shah

Why I run with mask but you should not

I have been running since 2016 and started training for marathon from mid 2018. After many trials, errors, accidents and guidance, I have experimented with many breathing techniques and running form during my running journey where I Have clocked more than 3,500 kms of road running.

Running with mask
Running with mask

I train 3 days a week with RunIndiaRun and follow 6 days running week. So when pandemic took everyone by surprise, all of my running and training came to a standstill. After 10 weeks of quarantine, civic authorities in Mumbai allowed people to run and cycle between 5am to 9pm from 3rd June by following safety measures - putting on mask being one of them.

Initial news of people dying due to lungs collapse because they ran with mask raised plenty of concerns. Below are two news article that raised global concerns of using mask in physical activity, specially running.

26-year-old man in Wuhan suffered shortness of breathing while running 2.5 miles. Initial tests showed that his left lung had shrunk by around 90% and his heart also moved to the right section of his body.
Two boys drop dead in China while wearing masks during gym class.

Dr Ravi Shekhar Jha, senior consultant and head of the department, pulmonology, Fortis Escorts Faridabad explained how it happens. “A tight fitting mask like N95 adds inspiratory resistance which increases the work of breathing. A mask which is not valved, changes the blood gas equation, and it leads to a special phenomena called PEEP (Positive End-Expiratory Pressure). This PEEP may lead to pneumothorax (punctured lungs), especially when there is too much strain on lungs, like when we are running, or doing strenuous exercise,” he said.

Wearing a mask or buff may seem little strange and inconvenient at the moment but that's going to be the new normal till vaccine for Wuhan Virus is made available for all. Globally, Government is asking citizens to keep mask mandatory while outdoors to limit spread of the virus through air.

Wearing a mask limits the air flow while breathing and causes stress on lungs to work hard to grasp the air. This in turn strengthens the lungs which is the usual practice followed by athletes during hypoxic training. However, altitude training or hypoxic training involves reducing oxygen level from air and not the air inflow altogether. Athlete wear special mask that come with an adjustable valve which allows the user to increase and decrease the oxygen level.

But the critical question remains, is wearing normal cloth mask safe for amateurs? Not everyone is comfortable doing high intensity exercise with a mask. Regular runner Sheetal Malviya agrees that wearing mask and running makes her difficult to breathe. "Even climbing stairs with vegetables bags makes me claustrophobic. I feel immediate urge to remove mask and take deep breathe. So running longer with mask makes me suffocated," adds Sheetal who has been running since half a decade.

“You will not be able to keep up the normal breathing through nose under control while exercising/running and so you have to compensate the increased oxygen demand by mouth breathing,” explained Dr Amol Patil, who is employed with the Sports Authority of India and works with elite boxers.

With so many experts cautioning not to use mask while running, is there any benefit associated to runner who runs with mask? “Running with a mask, or any other type of face covering, is inherently more difficult because you have to work harder to get the same amount of air into your lungs,” confirms Timothy Lyman, certified personal trainer and director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. Wearing a mask makes you breathe harder and increases your heart rate, while improving the strength of your diaphragm.

How to make running easier with mask?

Like all things in life, change is difficult and we resist change before accepting it. Thankfully I experiment a lot with breathing to find optimum way to run better. One of the ways I try is to run longer with nasal breathing and this practice comes handy now with mask on.

Those who are new to nasal breathing during cardio exercise or running will find it difficult to adjust in the beginning but it won't take long to get used to it. Here's what you can do to make running with mask easier:

1. Avoid thin cloth mask:

Major drawback of thin cloth mask is that it becomes damp very quickly due to water vapour from exhalation and also it becomes wet due to sweat. This makes mask stick to the nose and mouth and makes it very inconvenient to run.

2. Practice nasal breathing:

Exhaling through nose produces less water vapour than mouth which keeps mask drier for a longer time.

3. N95 mask jugaad:

Cut the lower string of the mask which allows more air to pass through mask. This jugaad I have tried while running and makes it more easier to run with more air freely flowing.

4. Start slow:

When you run faster, your heart beat increases which also increases your VO2 max (maximum volume of oxgygen) making you breathe heavily. When you are starting to run with a mask, your pace should be 1 min slower than normal pace.

5. Forget PB:

With no races scheduled in next 3 months, there is no point in engaging in speed training or trying to break your personal best. Just enjoy this little freedom of getting back on roads.

In all likelihood, yes. Even though the mask may diminish your performance for the first few times you wear it, your body will ultimately adapt. “If a runner were to wear the mask or face covering for several weeks or months, the lungs could continue to build strength,” Lyman confirms.

“Once the mask is removed, the lungs will have the ability to intake and absorb more oxygen, which would most likely result in a performance increase.” Think of this as similar to the effect of running a flat route after several weeks of hill training: Your body adapts to the tougher condition and will likely perform better once it returns to the easier condition.

So don't get too much bothered about the mask. Continue the routine and you shall see better performance in coming weeks.

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