face masking and high-intensity cycling performance: a match made in covid

does wearing a surgical or cloth face mask impede exercise performance?

by conan shing
wearing a mask throughout the pandemic has been an important requirement to slow down transmission of the virus. but what about athletes, or people trying to exercise? masking can cause dyspnea — shortness of breath or breathlessness — and a resistance in air flow. that, in turn, causes issues with rebreathing exhaled gases, muscle fatigue, and the regulation of body temperature. so, does masking impede athletic performance?
the short answer is: not really. while some athletes will feel short of breath and will respond accordingly, there is no physiological link explaining this effect.

how the study was conducted

twelve healthy young adults (5 women and 7 men) aged 26, on average, exercised on a stationary bicycle for 5 to 8 minutes at 70 per cent of their maximum heart rate. they exercised under three different conditions: once with a two-ply surgical mask, once with a cloth mask, and once breathing through a tube connected to a non-rebreathing valve. some also did additional exercise without a mask. their heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, breathing depth and frequency, mouth pressure (flow resistance), breath-by-breath oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations, and face temperature were recorded throughout the cycling period.

what the researchers found

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canadian society for exercise physiology



air flow resistance appeared to be higher while wearing a mask, with the cloth mask causing significantly more air flow resistance than the two-ply surgical mask. as well, the perception of dyspnea (shortness of breath) was higher while wearing the cloth mask than when wearing the surgical mask or no mask, but the surgical mask was no different in dyspnea perception than with no mask at all. there were no significant differences in heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and respiration (breathing depth and frequency) between no mask and the two masks.
face temperatures were greater, however, while wearing any face mask compared to no mask; cloth masks were hotter with or without a fan, and surgical masks were hotter than no mask but only when the fan was on. wearing a cloth mask increased swings of mouth pressure but so, too, would using a mouthpiece used in a standard cardiopulmonary exercise test, so the researchers did not find this significant.
compared to no mask, athletes breathed in less oxygen but more carbon dioxide while wearing any mask. they breathed out more oxygen but less carbon dioxide while wearing any mask.

what it all means

given the lack of differences for heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and breathing patterns, the differences in air flow resistance appear unlikely to seriously affect athletic performance. the researchers concluded that any changes or perceived reductions in performance while wearing a face mask were because the athletes were not used to wearing any kind of face covering while exercising. such unfamiliarity can make people feel discomfort and, as a result, can reduce their athletic performance.



it all boils down to this: wearing either a cloth or surgical face mask does not impede high-intensity athletic performance. it might feel uncomfortable and make an athlete feel short of breath, but it isn’t having any real, serious effect.

this article was written for the canadian society for exercise physiology and it has been reviewed by the csep knowledge translation committee. it was based on an original article by doherty, c. j., mann, l. m., angus, s. a., chan, j. s., molgat-seon, y., and dominelli, p. b. (2021). impact of wearing a surgical and cloth mask during cycle exercise. applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, 1–10. . if you cite any information from this, please consult the original article and cite that source.


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