Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
I run so rarely that I associate it with feeling like two struggling hummingbirds have clamped a tiny vice around my heart. But this miniature vice is always there now, the hummingbirds working full time in my chest cavity. So why not run? I’ve heard it can actually remove the clamps of atmospheric panic. I’ll try almost anything.
As is the new custom of the country, now I must ask myself: Should I run with a mask? (Currently, the CDC recommends masks in public, while some counties like Los Angeles require them for public places like the grocery store, though not necessarily on a “solitary run.”) I tried out a green bandana folded over two hair ties. But before I’m halfway up the hill across the street, I feel like I’m drowning in a curtain. My exhales are insufflated up my nose, my inhales are nonexistent, and the bandana goes dark with steam. It feels like an anxiety dream. The ’dana is lowered around my neck and I spend the rest of the run dart-frogging into the street around anyone else.
Exercise could semi-fairly be described as a game of adding resistance and then trying harder. Running has always been tantamount to maximal panting for me. Adding an initial barrier to fresh oxygen is — in the words of ultra-marathoner Jessica Adkins — “quite anxiety producing.” You’ve stuck your face in a little grotto filled with your carbon-dioxide exhaust. Over Instagram, Adkins messages me that she’s avoiding a mask in favor of finding far-off trails.
Masks heighten not only panicky feelings but snot. Both are dangerous and infectious, but only one is capable of carrying little droplets of corona. The steamy environment inside masks increases mucus production and dampens the mask. I’d qualify this as a gecko-esque sensation. In addition to being tropical, damp masks are also ineffective, as the virus sticks around wet fabric.
Dr. Christina Buchanan, a professor at Western Colorado University and the director of the High Altitude Exercise Physiology graduate program, refers to this damp cave effect as “a little biosphere over your mouth.” She says that a simple cotton mask probably doesn’t hold in enough carbon dioxide to have a negative effect on your breathing, but running in a more protective mask (like an N95) might be much harder.
Mask type does change the experience. I found it easier to breathe in a thinner dust mask (vs. the ’dana) due to the structured arc directly around my mouth. My snot level dropped slightly too. But after just a mile, the mask was lightly sodden. I’m sorry for using the word sodden, but you weren’t the one with a wilted steam-catcher around her chin.
I asked Dr. Benjamin Levine if it’s possible that breathing through a mask could eventually increase respiratory muscle strength. Dr. Levine is the director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a collaborative institute run by UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. He says that it’s possible running with a mask could build some muscle strength, but that there are way more downsides. “When you struggle to breathe, you steal blood from the exercising muscle. You can’t work as hard. You reduce efficiency and outcome of workout. So I think it’s a terrible idea.” Dr. Levine says for “high-velocity athletes” (that’s all of us moving fast, baby), he advocates for really heightened social distancing — like 12 feet away — to keep out of a higher-velocity spray of germs.
Finding isolated paths and arcing 12 feet around neighbors seems like a safe and sanctioned option. Even while I keep a distance, I value the mask for its signal. It’s an earnest prop of some pandemic theater: I know what’s happening, I’m around you, I’m keeping safe. But distance isn’t always possible and wearing a mask is full-on required in some locations, so I’m determined to find a tenable way to breathe and cover up.
Aisha Praught-Leer, an Olympic middle-distance runner, is still in training mode and runs twice a day wearing a mask. She says it’s particularly hard to breathe with a mask in the altitude in Boulder, Colorado. “I focus on staying calm, slowing my pace so I can say hello to those I pass — and keeping my breath calm, so I don’t suck air too hard and pull the fabric into my mouth,” she tells me. “Trial and error on that one!” The old drowning in a blanket feeling.
Praught-Leer also informs me about the buff. It’s so fun to learn about gear, really lets you feel on the verge of getting sponsored by a powder-protein company. The buff is like an infinity scarf of yore, but it can cling tightly over the mouth and nose (or hold court as a headband). Praught-Leer says she “almost Marie Kondo’d [the buffs] in my first quarantine closet clean. Luckily they made the cut.” Praught-Leer likes that she can hang the buff comfortably around her neck until she sees someone down the path.
Michael Law, a runner in New York — who held a Guinness World Record for running the fastest marathon dressed as a star — runs with a buff as well. He says he’s really limited the time he runs to compensate for how difficult it is to breathe. He says there’s no reason not to be slower now. “Adjust your pace,” he says, “We are not training for anything at the moment.” Even if you were training for something, this race or marathon might not be on the books any longer.
I’ve got a hangup about wearing intense professional-looking gear for sports that I don’t do professionally (all of them). I take the advice to slow down every time my mask is up around my neighbors. I’ve been favoring the dust mask recently. I try to rearrange my slack-jawed panting into a smile that’s not deranged or vacant, only to remember, each time, that no one can see my mouth. This I’ve realized also hides the slack-jawed panting, and I look like a way more intense runner. I think I even look faster — like how poker players wear sunglasses to bluff. In a face-mask, no one knows your heart’s in a vice.
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