The first time I ran with a mask on, I got hot, panicky and couldn’t make it more than a quarter mile. I yanked my mask off, baffled. I can power through double-digit mileage, but this feels impossible?

Suddenly, the future of running looked grim. With varying mask mandates in effect across the Carolinas and many gyms requiring or likely to require masks during workouts as reopening continues, it’s disconcerting that a routine activity might feel like – um, torture.

Turns out, I approached this mask-wearing-while-running scenario all wrong.

Not the mask-wearing itself. Because we runners have some preparation ahead of us if we’re going to be running on a crowded stretch of greenway, or if we’re mandated to wear a mask in the gym during our treadmill workouts.

What I approached incorrectly was the type of mask I wore, and the intensity of activity I was attempting.

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Dr. Karan Shukla

“It’s important for people to realize that if they’re going to be engaging in activities that would be considered moderate to high-intensity aerobic activities, that they need to build up their conditioning to allow them to use any sort of face covering,” said Dr. Karan Shukla, of Novant Health Randolph Family Medicine in Charlotte. He specializes in family medicine and sports medicine. “Start out slowly. Use these masks in a controlled setting and see how you feel, and progress as tolerated.”

Instead of a 10-miler, try half mile. Instead of peak sun hours, run when it’s cooler. Acclimate yourself to avoid medical issues and allow yourself time to learn to use the mask in a comfortable way. Just because a certain style feels fine when you’re strolling around the grocery store, it doesn’t mean there’s enough breathing room once you add strained, deep inhales.

The situation is fluid and studies are showing that not all masks are equal in the protection they provide. Some may actually disperse more respiratory droplets than previously thought. Using a gaiter that has tighter weaving or different fabric materials may be better, but the jury is still out.

And, Shukla noted, “There are currently no mask styles or fabrics specifically recommended by the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine or American Academy of Family Medicine, so the mask someone does choose should have a comfortable fit, and certain styles of mask may provide that.”

As you explore the styles, Shukla added that it’s important to check with your provider to determine if you’re using a mask type that’s safe for you personally, especially if you’re working with any cardiovascular disease or pulmonary conditions.

Take it slow

Enter your new friend, the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale. Shukla expects that, once North Carolina hits Phase 3 and gyms reopen, his patient conversations will start swinging toward this subjective feedback scale. Medical professionals use the metric to determine how intense and difficult certain activities feel to an individual. It can help gauge what mask styles patients might feel most comfortable in when exercising in an environment that requires them.

“I think I’m going to be referring to this RPE scale a lot more and allowing for people to determine what’s best for them, with the overall goal of preventing transmission of illness and keeping people safe, keeping people healthy,” he said.

The subjective scale is based on ratings from 6 to 20. Six on the scale indicates light activity, while 20 indicates maximal effort. My pillow-run felt like a 19.

“That might indicate that that particular style of mask was something you weren’t ready for, or conditioned for, yet,” Shukla said. “You wouldn’t just start bench-pressing 150 pounds. You’d start with the bar, make sure your form’s good, make sure your breathing patterns are good. Likewise, you should make sure that you’re able to run at the pace and speed at which you’re used to, so you can gradually progress.”

For runners, a tight-fitting mask could decrease your alertness, lower your ability to focus, trigger hyperventilation or even cause you to faint due to its restrictive effect, he added. But you can build up a tolerance for the mask style you’d prefer to wear to protect yourself and others.

Which leads to the question: Will building up this mask tolerance also amp up your running performance?

“While it’s probably not going to have any significant effect on an athlete’s performance, it will certainly have some effect,” Shukla said. There are just too many variables – style of mask, fabric composition, type of activity – to measure those effects unless a person is running in a lab.

Katie Toussaint Thurston learned that yes, you can run with a mask. But it's going to take time. (Photo here and above: Rémy Thurston)

But over time, runners may (hopefully) start to notice a change in numbers on that RPE scale.

“Someone wearing a face covering may find that, when they take the mask off, their breathing patterns are more noticeable,” Shukla said. “They might pay more attention to the cadence and depth of their breathing, and they might notice the efficiency of their breathing is a little better.”

I noticed it that first day. There’s a huge difference in perceived exertion between panicked discomfort while wearing an inappropriate mask (a solid 19) and an uncovered face with free airflow (a 9). The mask felt like some version of ankle weights for the respiratory system – I peeled it off and suddenly ran more lightly, freely.

The point isn’t to stop running, and doing what you love – it’s to be able to keep doing it safely and comfortably.

“The goal is to keep it fun, keep it safe, keep people active,” Shukla said. “Staying active during the pandemic is very important in terms of keeping people healthy, mentally and physically.”

It just might take a little practice.

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