July 2020: It is safest to run with a mask

New York state governor Andrew Cuomo recently chastised Americans by pointing out that a mask pulled down below the mouth is nothing more than a chinstrap. His comments come as the debate about wearing masks becomes ever-more politicised in the United States.

In South Africa a similar debate is raging among sportsmen and women. As we stagger through the ever-more confusing levels of lockdown, athletes are asking if there is any danger to exercising with a mask.

Let’s face it, there is no doubt running or cycling is much more pleasant if you are not wearing a mask, but is there any potential for harm by following the government-regulated rules regarding the ever-present face coverings?

According to respected sports scientist Ross Tucker the answer is an emphatic no – but there is a small caution within his answer!

Talking to co-host Michael Finch in a recent Real Science of Sport podcast, Tucker clearly lays out the reasons why we should be following the regulations and why healthy people are in no danger when exercising with a mask.

While clearly and emphatically dispelling the myth that wearing a mask is dangerous because athletes are re-breathing their own carbon dioxide, Tucker does add a postscript that anybody with cardiovascular or breathing issues needs to cautious.

So, according to Tucker, why should we be wearing masks when we exercise?

He points out that the three main risk factors when it comes to the spread of coronavirus are proximity (how close you are to a source of the disease), duration (how long you are exposed to a source of the disease) and confined environments (indoors v outdoors).

“Droplet spread is one of the main drivers (of Covid-19)”, said the world renowned, Cape Town-based sports scientist last week. “If you are exposed to other people’s droplets (which are in the air we expel when breathing), then your risk of picking up the virus increases significantly. Masks don’t trap the virus so much as they prevent the droplets that carry the virus from getting into the air.

“Out of that knowledge comes the idea that if we wear masks we protect other people. My mask protects you and your mask protects me.

“A Lancet study has shown that wearing masks reduces the risks quite significantly, so that is why wearing masks has become policy – and somehow in some places this has become politicised.”

The scientist then asked the obvious question: “Even if masks are only 30 percent effective, is it not then worth wearing them?”

“The only case against masks I think you can make is if they can create harm in other ways. The one behavioural case for that is, because of the mask, I may touch my face, or fiddle near my face to adjust the mask and so put my hands near my nose and mouth. That in turn can trigger a spread to someone else.

“Or maybe because I have the mask on, I have a false sense of security, so I do things I should not do, like not social distancing.

“But on a logical level the mask resistance movement fails on many levels. Masks are one element of a toolkit to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

Tucker believes masks “make a difference” in preventing the spread of coronavirus, but makes it clear that no studies have quantified the benefit. He does however mention “observational and cohort studies” that estimate the odds of risk are down to 0.2, which “means there is about a 20 percent risk” of the disease spreading when wearing a mask when compared to when people are not wearing a mask.

“Wearing a mask is effectively a vaccine because it protects the community, and that is why we need more people to wear them.

“It is not a case of ‘I will take my chances.’ The problem is that when you take your chances, you are forcing other people to take a chance.

“In the US, in the states where the use of masks is mandated as a policy, the number of cases has dropped. So even though people are interacting more, businesses are returning and economic activity is returning, the number of cases goes down. And in the states where wearing is optional, the cases are up enormously.”

As far as runners and cyclists, Tucker is clear that for healthy people, there is no danger of wearing a mask while exercising.

The danger in wearing a mask is breathing in the carbon dioxide you have breathed out, that has then become trapped between a mask and your mouth. Carbon dioxide can be a dangerous at high levels, but the volume of carbon dioxide trapped in a mask area is so small that a healthy person can breathe in those small amounts without any problem.

As Tucker says, “it is not fun exercising with a mask on”, and it may reduce your performance, but the benefit to those around you is enormous.

Tucker does, however, make the point that if anybody has cardio vascular or breathing problems then there is a chance that exercising with a mask can “tip the scales”. Exercising with a mask in those specific cases could be dangerous. For that reason, it is important that if you have a medical issue or are in any way concerned about your breathing, then get medical advice.

To listen to the full podcast click here.