I can run for 10 miles with minimal effort. Sure, I’ll be winded and breathing hard, but once I stop, it doesn’t take long for me to recover and regain my breath.
Slap a mask on me, and I doubt I’d make it more than a mile before calling it quits.
Yet that’s what many runners are facing thanks to COVID-19 regulations. At some point or another over the course of the past 13 months, masks have become our new normal, in all areas of life.
In fact, states like California and Massachusetts have told citizens that masks aren’t an option; they are required in all public settings. High school activity associations in places like Oregon and New Mexico are requiring masks be worn by student-athletes at all times.
And when indoors—where studies have repeatedly shown that close contact and saliva spread COVID-19–it’s an understandable set of rules.
But for other settings, requiring masks is pointless.
Like while running.
It’s an outdoor activity, so any potential COVID-19 droplets you may come in contact with are constantly being dispersed. The likelihood of contracting the virus while outside is therefore miniscule, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Running is also non-contact, which both the CDC and Mayo Clinic—among other research institutions— have said further decreases the likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Keeping the recommended six feet of social distancing space between yourself and others is easy. There is no constant justling of elbows, no hip-checking or chest-bumping like in many other sports. Instead, it’s just the runner and the pavement.
Still, the mask mandates exist.
And they’re harming both athletes and the sport.
Earlier this month, a high school track coach in New Hampshire was fired for pushing back against the state association’s requirement that athletes wear masks while training and competing. In a letter to the school’s athletic director, Coach Brad Keyes wrote that he “will not stand up in front of the kids and lie to them and tell them that these masks are doing anything worthwhile out in an open field with the wind blowing and the sun shining,” according to The Concord Monitor.
Just last week, a high school runner collapsed before the finish line at New Mexico’s state cross country meet. It wasn’t from mere exhaustion or an overwhelming environment. No, Adam Donaldson—who has used an inhaler for asthma for basketball but never for running—said the mask he wore made him feel like he couldn’t get enough air. And his doctors agree, citing breathing problems that lasted for over an hour and too much carbon dioxide as potential side effects of his mask.
Research shows that, for most people, a reaction like Donaldson’s is rare. The Mayo Clinic calls wearing a mask while exercising safe. The only side effect is decreased oxygen intake, which for most is a mere annoyance.
But for those with asthma and other chronic or underlying conditions—many of which may be undiagnosed—wearing a mask can turn running into something dangerous.
So when organizations require that athletes mask up to run, they transform the sport. Running, which usually prides itself on being accessible to all—especially at the high school and “hobby jogger” levels – and attracted almost 60 million people in 2017, shuttered its doors.
This isn’t to say “don’t wear a mask.” Having a gaiter around your neck or a mask stored somewhere on your person while you run is great—for emergency bathroom stops, for the quick seconds when athletes are on the line right next to other athletes or for any “just in case” moments.
But requiring runners to trudge through mile after mile of soul-sucking, lung-burning pain just for the sake of it isn’t only pointless but dangerous for many.
It’s time states stepped back from the mandates and let runners breathe a little easier.