Plus, the beauty of the human body is that it is built to adapt to new challenges. So over time, the extra intensity won’t be as noticeable. “It may take a few weeks of regular exercise, but you’ll eventually feel more comfortable exercising with a mask,” Dr. Sulapas says.
Still, it’s important you listen to your body: If you start to feel lightheaded, dizzy, or excessively fatigued, take a break and remove your mask, says Bryant (but move away from others first).
Also, certain medical conditions can make exercising in a mask potentially dangerous. People with respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should consult their doctor before exercising in a mask, Dr. Sulapas says. Same thing goes for anyone with a cardiovascular condition like heart disease or angina, says Bryant. In these situations, if your doctor has advised you not to wear a mask during exercise, Bryant suggests sticking to exercise at home or in an outdoor environment where there’s plenty of ventilation and enough space that you can maintain adequate social distance.
There are a few easy adjustments you can make to get in a great workout with a mask.
1. Set realistic goals.
First, shift your thinking away from performance-related goals—e.g., “I’m going to average a nine-minute mile for a 5K”—to process-related goals, where just doing something is the goal (such as “I’m going to move for 30 minutes”), says Bryant.
“You want to think about establishing a regular habit instead of focusing so much on intensity or performance,” he says. Focusing on the process will help you build a good base without the pressure to perform at a certain level.
2. Choose the right mask.
Bryant suggests finding a face mask that’s breathable and doesn’t get wet and soggy when you’re sweating and breathing hard throughout a workout. (You can also bring an extra mask with you to swap out the damp one—you can bring hand sanitizer to clean your hands before switching.) “Many fitness brands are now designing face masks that are designed to be a little more pleasant to exercisers,” he says. These include Athleta, Beyond Yoga, and Under Armour. You may also want a gaiter-style mask that’s easy to pull down when you’re not near any other people and can take a quick break. (Check out our mask recommendations for outdoor running for more options).
3. Start slow and gradually build intensity.
Bryant suggests focusing on low-to-moderate-intensity workouts at first, where you would still be able to talk pretty comfortably. This is especially true if you’ve been off regular exercise for a while, but it also applies to those used to working out a higher intensity sans mask. (It also applies to your warm-up—you definitely want to start each workout easy.)
When you’re more acclimated to the mask and feel ready for more of a cardiovascular challenge, add in short intervals where you push harder. “Do a short bout of intense work and then give yourself time for recovery,” Bryant says. Over time you’ll feel ready to slowly increase the intensity of those intervals. Again, these intervals may be slower or less intense than what you’re used to—and that’s perfectly normal.
4. Keep tabs on your heart rate.
If you normally use an activity tracker during exercise, you may have an idea of what a “normal” heart rate is for you during certain activities. If so, you can use this to know when to dial things back.
A heart rate a few beats per minute higher than usual can be a sign to scale back on intensity, shorten the duration of your overall workout, or extend your rest periods between intervals, says Richards.
5. When it comes to cardio, focus on endurance versus speed.
You probably won’t be able to run as fast as you would if you weren’t wearing a mask, says Bryant. And that’s okay; instead of focusing on hitting a speed-oriented time goal, right now might be a good time to focus on building your endurance—running at a steady, moderate pace for a longer period of time.