Running Undercover

If there’s any silver lining in these crazy times, it’s that running has seen a resurgence.

The combination of people working and schooling from home, canceled sports seasons, and closed gyms and training facilities have brought many people back to the world’s original sport. And the simplicity of running is a plus – all you really need to get started is a good pair of shoes.** 

Well, not exactly. As the number of coronavirus infections continues to rise in Massachusetts, people increasingly also need one other piece of equipment – a face mask. In addition to the ongoing official recommendations from Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh for everyone over age 5 to wear a mask when going outside their house, a small but growing number of towns and cities are taking it farther and making masks mandatory, and specifically including activities such as running and biking.

As a runner, you may be perplexed and/or annoyed by this development. “Why now, why us?” you may ask. And you’re not wrong – if you feel healthy, run alone, and stay well clear of anyone on your route, experts agree that you don’t need to wear a mask. But that’s not the whole picture, and there are several factors that are worth considering when being asked to mask up. First, it’s increasingly clear that there are more asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus than originally realized. Which means there are more people potentially spreading it, certainly including many runners. Second, with the improving weather conditions, more people are taking to the outdoors. In urban areas in particular, sidewalks can get congested, making it hard to maintain safe separation from others. Third, some research suggests that runners’ increased rate of exhalation and movement probably spreads droplets farther than 6 feet, but wearing a mask can reduce that distance significantly. And finally, there are those potential citations and fines. As runners, it makes sense to follow the requirements of your community – at the very least, it reduces the chances that outdoor exercise will be further restricted, something that none of us want.

So what type of mask should you wear? It is actually not recommended to wear a surgical or n95 mask while running. A bandanna or scarf will do, or even better, a Buff. Generally, the thicker the material, the more effective it will be. You can hold whatever materials you’re considering for your mask up to light to get a sense of which one is best (hint: it’s the one that lets the least amount of light through). It’s a good idea to double the material, folding it one or more times, so that it’s thick but still breathable. 

How does it feel? I tried out a double-layer Buff on a 6 mile run and found it was manageable. I wouldn’t want to race in one, or do a long tempo run, but this is probably not the time for either of those activities (if you are a science geek, check out this interesting article on how exercise affects the immune system). If you don’t live in an area that requires masks, it still makes sense to bring one along with you just in case you find yourself in a situation where social distancing is impossible. You can keep a scarf or Buff wrapped around your wrist (bonus: good for wiping sweat) and pull it on if you happen to get into a more crowded area.

There are some risks of masks. For example, they can impair peripheral vision. One thing I’ve noticed is that despite the smaller number of cars on the road, those who are out driving seem to be regarding speed limits as suggestions, and stop signs as optional. You really need to pay attention, especially if you are hopping off the sidewalk into the road to avoid another runner or walker. If your mask gets wet from your breathing it is more likely to catch and hold onto virus particles, so maintain 12 feet of distance from others, and wash your mask immediately when you get home. 

And remember! Masks aren’t the only tools for staying safe. Run at non-peak times, like early in the morning. If you’re concerned about running alone, run with a family member or roommate. Wear a road ID, and bring a phone. Tell a friend or family member where you’re going and when you expect to return. If listening to music, wear one earbud only or Aftershokz headphones that allow you to hear sounds around you. 

Above all, be grateful that despite everything, we can still run!

**Although there are many other accessories that can make running more fun and effective… but that’s for another blog post!