We Ran the Same Mile Using Three Different Face Masks, And There Was a Clear Winner
Is a "sport mask" that much better than a disposable option?
Late last week, I headed to my local track with three different face masks to run mile repeats — one with each mask — at or around 6:00 pace. That would be a tough workout under any circumstances, so I wasn’t too excited to run hard while my breathing was impaired.
But the experiment felt necessary. In order to get faster, runners have to stage difficult workouts for themselves. We improve our leg strength and VO2 max by training at high-intensity, by triggering what’s known as a hypoxic response. That involves a whole lot of panting, which involves a whole lot of air droplets … which is an issue, considering runners tend to congregate at tracks for such workouts. It’s where they can easily measure mile markers and get as close as possible to race mode.
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. But all that said, it is especially important that serious runners have a reliable face mask for their sessions.
To that end, I took the liberty of testing three masks over a total of 12 laps: one disposable mask, one cloth mask, and one sport mask. I ran the same four laps with each of them, with a short break in between each mile, and 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, Asics is on to something, and your favorite menswear brand probably isn’t equipped for this task.
The Disposable Mask
Amazon sells of 50-pack of these for $12. 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 6:10 mile 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. Heading into the final straight of my first lap, I started wondering if the track had had trouble draining water from when it rained earlier in the week. 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 four miles.
The Everyday Mask
We’ve written extensively about cloth masks. 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 halt 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 mile of this workout, I wore a 100% two-ply cotton mask from The Tie Bar, a menswear specialist. I ran a 5:37, and before you think “Wait, that’s pretty fast,” just know that I nearly drowned en route to that time. I had no clue how fast I was running because I was teetering on the edge of insanity. I suspect I ran faster 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 on a track. Each time my lungs reached for air, my mouth and nose got a load of cloth.
By the third lap, I felt like I was going to pass out. 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 lap. First, I ripped out the carbon filter from the inside of the cloth (a small strip meant to elevate the mask’s particle-filtering performance), but that didn’t help my cause. The cloth mask still invaded my mucous membranes with each heave. Then 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 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 high-fifties 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 Asics Frontrunner plugs that gap. For my final mile, I wore the Japanese running brand’s new sport mask, which will be available for purchase later this month. I ran another 5:37, funnily enough, but I cruised. The Frontrunner features mesh air vents “strategically” placed at the bottom of the mask, which filters air droplets down, instead of out, to better comply with CDC guidelines. And because the mask is tented — it has piping that keeps it structurally distant from your skin (and mouth and nostrils) — it’s okay to breathe as you normally do, 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 an adjustable, bungee-style cord to make sure the mask sits well on your face. (Put it on before you put in your headphones, in case you have over-ear models.) The material, meanwhile, is moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and able to be thrown in the wash. It’s made from 31% recycled materials — a nice touch, considering disposable masks end up in landfills or wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. 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 heavily during my third mile, 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 Asics’s lead. Frontrunner is a fantastic start, and we’re trusting that the industry’s technology will only get better.
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