Does a "sports mask" live up to the hype?
Last week, I did my due diligence to weigh in on the great mask debate of 2020. For three separate runs of 5-8 miles I ran in three different face masks. There was nothing special in these runs aside from my commitment to the chosen face covering. Each of these runs took me to paths, roads, trails, and tracks around my hometown.
Let me begin by saying this experiment felt necessary. Running elevates our heart rates and breathing rates. The harder we breathe, the more air droplets we expel. And herein lies the issue: runner's tend to run in the same places. When was the last time you had a track all to yourself? So in order to protect ourselves and those with whom we are sharing our running venues, wearing a mask is paramount to maintaining our ability to enjoy this sport.
This has been a banner year for new runners, and everyone on the roads, especially in crowded cities, should have a running face mask handy. It helps stop the spread when narrow sidewalks limit your ability to stay six feet apart from other pedestrians. And at the very least, it prevents side-eye from a rightfully concerned neighbor, whose family member back at the house is immunocompromised.
To that end, I took the liberty of testing three masks over nearly 20 miles: one disposable mask, one cloth mask, and one sport mask. After each run I took notes on my observations. The trial produced a set of quintessential, Goldilocks-esque results, with one mask rising to the top, but I’ve got top-to-bottom takes on the experience. Namely: surgical masks aren’t so bad, Under Armour is on to something, and your favorite clothing brand probably isn’t equipped for this task.
The Disposable Mask
Amazon sells of 50-pack of these for $14. That’s less than a quarter per mask. If difficult to find at the beginning of quarantine, disposable masks are now as ubiquitous as Kleenex and have become a glove compartment staple lest you need to hit the store on the way home. Unlike an N95 mask, the disposable surgical mask is not a respirator. It protects a wearer’s mouth and nose from contact with air droplets, but it can’t filter particles nearly as well as the wearer inhales. Essentially, it’s a bare-bones barrier, and while running, I discovered that that simplicity means it won’t interfere too much with your breathing.
I ran a 6 miles while wearing the disposable mask. It felt okay. I would run in one again in a pinch, and I feel comfortable recommending you do the same. Just bear in mind a few things. For starters, it’s going to smell. Before completing the first mile of my run, I started wondering if our sewers had trouble with drainage from a recent rain storm. Then I realized I was smelling my own breath. The material does a decent-enough job blocking your air droplets, but without an efficient filtration system, there isn’t anywhere for those droplets to go. They linger in the “room” right in front of your mouth and nose, and it’s less than ideal.
Another concern: the earloops slid around a bit, especially once I started to sweat; eventually, it became apparent that one reason the disposable mask isn’t so bad is that it travels a bit on your face, which allows air to sneak in. This means you’re not sucking the fabric up into your nostrils — an obvious plus — but it also means the mask isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. I’d chalk the whole operation up to a somewhat effective nuisance. It will pass the eye-test, if you’re running around in a city. Make an extra effort to stay clear of people later on in your run, when the mask is moving around. And when you have the whole sidewalk to yourself, remove it and take a deep breath. You shouldn’t have to breath in last night’s Thai food for an entire run.
The Everyday Mask
After messaging from public health officials crystallized on the role of masks in stopping the spread, any brand with a sewing machine and a few extra yards of cotton started churning out custom masks. The development helped set aside surgical and N95 masks for the medical community, while giving Americans — devoted online shoppers that we are — a little extra motivation to get with the program. Now, scientific evidence is growing that wearing such “everyday” face masks, anytime we venture out into a public setting, has helped drastically slow the transmission of the virus. But while I encourage (implore) you to wear one on public transportation, at the office, or even just walking down the street, please do not, under any circumstances, wear a cloth mask while running.
For my second run of this experiment, I wore a two-ply mask from Banana Republic. Before I even started my six-mile run I knew I was in trouble. I had done this loop many times before but almost got lost because I was teetering on the edge of insanity. I ended up running fairly quickly over that distance I suspect to absolve myself from the torture. Unlike the disposable mask, which trapped air droplets but also allowed some to filter through exposed corners of the mask, the cloth mask just traps everything. It lay flat against my face, which, I should point out, is exactly how you’d want it to behave if you were sitting in a classroom. But I was running. Each time my lungs reached for air, my mouth and nose got a load of cloth.
By the third mile, I almost called it quits. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, which made me breathe harder, which made me need even more oxygen that I had no way of getting. I had to cheat to get through the last few miles. To be perfectly honest, I started running while holding the cloth three inches in front of my face … which sort of defeated the whole point of this enterprise. The bottom line: cloth masks are good at what they’re made for. But they’re definitely not made for running.
The Sport Mask
Runners have a tendency to obsess over small details. They’re particular about short inseams, know their pre-run banana limit and have a preferred temperature range for any race. (I’m a low-seventies guy, through and through.) So, somewhat predictably, they’d rather not have just any hunk of fabric pressed up against their faces while running. But for much of this year, face mask “technology” has had trouble keeping up with the hopes and demands of regular runners. Vented masks were outed as incapable of preventing spread, gaiters were mired in controversy after a viral Duke study, and merino wool options from places like Huckberry and Marine Layer — while an improvement on casual cloth masks — aren’t quite there on the performance front.
The Under Armour Sportsmask plugs that gap. For my final run, I wore the American sports brand’s new mask. I ran eight miles at almost the exact same pace as the six miler a few days before, but I cruised. The Sportsmask features a structured design which sits up off the face, maintaining a distance from your mouse and nostrils for added comfort and breathability. An anti-microbial inner layer helps keep the mask fresh and avoids some of the previously mentioned pitfalls of the disposable mask. This was the only mask that allowed me to breathe as you normally, without any fear of passing out. There are other thoughtful details throughout the mask that make this a no-brainer purchase for anyone who frequently works out on crowded tracks and trails, or belongs to a community running club.
For instance: there’s the UA Iso-Chill fabric on the interior lining and ear loops which feels cool to the touch for as long as you wear the mask. The rest of the mask material, meanwhile, is moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and able to be thrown in the wash. The mask also comes in an anti-microbial pouch to protect the mask from getting soiled if thrown in a bag.
To be fair, I’d rather not run in any mask. It’s intrusive; and not just physically. It’s a wrench that can play on your mind and give you license to “have a bad workout.” But picking up the best mask out there is one way to get ahead of that. I was breathing pretty heavily during my third run, but not because I was wearing a mask. Lucky for us (a relative term in a year like this), other running brands will have to follow Under Armour's lead. Sportmask is a fantastic start, and we’re trusting that the industry’s technology will only get better.