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Should outdoor runners wear masks?

A doctor's recommendations for running safely

In several American states and cities, residents have been asked to wear masks when they’re outside. This means masking-up for getting gas, groceries or just going for a walk. Canadians have been asked to wear masks when travelling by air (which most of us aren’t these days), but beyond airports, masks haven’t been deemed mandatory. Despite this, many are taking it upon themselves to cover up when heading outdoors or to the store. But how effective are these masks, and should Canadians be wearing them when exercising to keep themselves and those around them safe?

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Dr. Paddy McCluskey is a sports medicine practitioner based in Victoria who also works with Athletics Canada. McCluskey says the masks aren’t protecting the wearer as much as the people around them.

“There are two common types of masks: the simple barrier masks and the N95 masks. The N95 masks are much better but also harder to get your hands on. But there are a lot of ways that the masks can fail,” McCluskey says. “First, once the barrier masks become wet, which happens faster when you’re exercising and breathing hard, particles can make their way through the mask. Second, when wearing a mask, you’re more likely to touch your face, which also can spread particles. Basically, really effective masks don’t ventilate well, and cheap masks become moist too quickly, making them ineffective.”

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In sum, as personal protective equipment, McCluskey feels that masks provide a false sense of security, but when it comes to protecting others, masks are more effective.

“This issue around the asymptomatic spreader is more and more a concern,” he say. “The young and healthy have minimal symptoms, and could be experiencing a mild cough or sneeze but still decide to go for a run. In this case, a mask could help keep people around them safe. It won’t completely eliminate spread, but it does lower the risk to those around you.”

Photo: Jacob Puzey

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McCluskey’s biggest recommendation for runners is to exercise in isolation right now, when possible. “I hate treadmills, but if you have a treadmill, use it. If you’re running outside, go alone or go to remote places. The mask is an extra measure when social distancing can’t occur–like in grocery stores. But when it comes to running, hopefully you’re exercising alone.”

When it comes to re-introducing training buddies and running in small groups, McCluskey is optimistic about the future. He says in B.C. the curve is certainly flattening and that the province is looking at easing social restrictions in the coming months.

“We have no specific guidance on this yet, but it’s on its way,” he says. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”