As Washington state’s coronavirus response has unfolded since March, I’ve complied with most public-health directives to an almost excessive degree. But even though I’ve seen maskless runners pass other pedestrians at close range while huffing and puffing (droplets!) and spitting (droplets!!!), I’ve refused to wear a mask while running.

Instead, I’ve stuck with the coronavirus bob-and-weave, the Seattle runner’s distressing new game of chicken with other pedestrians who don’t clock your speed, cyclists in the bike lane you invariably duck into, and the occasional frustrated driver inching slowly behind you down a residential block because you’re running in the street to avoid people on the sidewalk.

It’s a lot of trouble, I told myself, but it’s better than a mask. And I don’t have to wear a mask.

Technically, that’s true. When Gov. Jay Inslee announced on June 23 that face coverings would be required in the state’s public indoor and outdoor spaces, the mandate included an exception for exercising outdoors “provided that a distance of at least 6 feet is maintained from non-household members.”

How to properly wear a face mask to slow the spread of coronavirus

Depending on where you live, that can be huge caveat. In a neighborhood like mine, where everyone’s new favorite activity is an evening walk, and the burger joint takeout line is too crowd-adjacent for comfort, it’s often just not possible to maintain 6 feet of distance when I’m on a run. 

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So I did the unthinkable: I went running with a mask on. At least one time, it went fine. Here’s how three common mask choices stand up to running.

Surgical mask

Surgical masks are made of disposable, nonwoven fabric that degrades when it gets damp, and they didn’t hold up to a 4-mile run. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)
Surgical masks are made of disposable, nonwoven fabric that degrades when it gets damp, and they didn’t hold up to a 4-mile run. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)

Because I have them on hand for covering protests, I tried running in a surgical mask. Four miles may have been too ambitious. The mask was a little too big for me, so it had an uneven seal, mitigated only slightly by knots I tied into the earloops to shorten them. Not great!

Surgical masks are made of disposable, nonwoven fabric that degrades when it gets damp. As the mask softens, it starts to feel like you’re breathing into a paper bag. Mine stayed put but didn’t really maintain its structural integrity during my run. You shouldn’t reuse disposable face masks, but I wouldn’t have been able to if I had tried.

The worst thing about wearing a face mask, in my now-exhaustive experience, is a particularly gross lower-face flora experience you get from it, like you’re sitting inside a slippery, stinky cave that is your own mouth. Wearing a surgical mask while running exacerbates this sensation. And fair warning to those of us in the adult acne club: Wearing a surgical mask on a run is a great way to ensure that dirt, sweat and oil get trapped right up against your skin. If you wanted to give yourself a breakout, this would be the way to do it. My 4-mile experiment resulted in two whole pimples. The things I do for journalism.

Bottom line: For protection from viral droplets, a surgical mask is great (as long as it fits; please make sure it does). But it’s not particularly comfortable for exercise, especially longer workouts. I wouldn’t recommend wearing one of these for runs longer than 2 miles.

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Buff

This tube-shaped, multiuse garment known as a buff is a neck gaiter you can wear as a headband, neckerchief or face covering. It’s versatile but lacks the structural integrity of a cloth or surgical mask.  (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)
This tube-shaped, multiuse garment known as a buff is a neck gaiter you can wear as a headband, neckerchief or face covering. It’s versatile but lacks the structural integrity of a cloth or surgical mask. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)

I had high hopes for the tube-shaped, multiuse garment known as a buff, a neck gaiter you can wear as a headband (stylish!), neckerchief or face covering. The adaptive accessory is intended for outdoor use — exactly what I was looking for. I ordered one from REI and retrieved it at the flagship location’s extremely busy curbside pickup operation, where REI staff flocked to drivers waiting in their Subarus in a flurry of activity that seemed excessive for a weekday afternoon (I guess we have nothing else to do right now).

Alas, it turned out to be a fool’s errand. My pink Turtle Fur comfort shell may be made of “highly advanced 4-way stretch performance technical fabric,” but it suffered the same fatal flaw as the surgical mask: Even the smallest adult size was slightly too big, which meant it kept sliding down as I ran, which meant I touched my face more, not less, than I would have with no face covering on, which meant the buff’s unwieldy logistics defeated the purpose of wearing one at all. The only way to keep the buff in place was to wear it so tightly I felt like I was breathing in gulps of technical fabric, which is perhaps the most Pacific Northwest way to suffocate.

Bottom line: This did not work for me. The material is marketed as “breathable” — not exactly what I want from my last line of defense against rogue droplets — and the poor fit made it a nonstarter, even for an easy 2-miler. Given the small size of my head, you might call this a “me” problem. If you’re not a bird person, you may have better luck.

Cloth mask

This cloth mask, made by Califorina rowing company SewSporty, is constructed from two layers of bamboo white ash polyester blend fabric. Because it’s a more lightweight option than a surgical mask – and more structured than a buff – it’s well suited to outdoor activities like running.  (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)
This cloth mask, made by Califorina rowing company SewSporty, is constructed from two layers of bamboo white ash polyester blend fabric. Because it’s a more lightweight option than a surgical mask – and more structured than a buff – it’s well suited to outdoor activities like running. (Megan Burbank / The Seattle Times)

I did not have high expectations for the humble cloth mask, but it was the sleeper hit of my experiment. The one I run in is made by SewSporty, a rowing company based in California; I panic-ordered two of them back in April. Constructed from two layers of bamboo white ash polyester blend fabric, the cloth mask feels lighter than a surgical mask, and it’s not unwieldy like the buff — once it’s on, it’s on, and I mostly don’t think about it while I’m running. I’m aware of it in the way that you’re aware of any foreign object near your face, but it doesn’t actively disrupt my running experience.

Bottom line: This one was just right. And that’s saying something, because I have a small airway and seasonal allergies which sometimes cause vocal cord dysfunction. If I can run in a face mask without a problem, runners without these puny afflictions can, too. It may be time we stopped making excuses.