Face mask or face covering during exercise

There are many people asking the important question of whether to mask during exercise or not. It’s a valid question, because once again we are in uncharted territory in this new era of coronavirus.

There are articles and advice on the subject all over the internet. It’s an important subject, and it’s one that there are not clear answers to just yet. There is still good information out there. 

Our take, which is still yet to be tested, is below. We aren’t experts in this subject. We have seen many other fencing clubs start to do lessons with masks, and we’ve talked to many club owners. Masks are also what we require. It’s an evolving topic! We expect it to continue to be an evolving topic. 

The science indicates that if everyone wears a mask, it will drastically reduce the spread of the virus. We all want to reopen, and wearing a mask is the path to reopening as safely as possible. Wearing a mask is not mainly about protecting your health, it’s mainly about protecting the health of others. Since people without symptoms can be active spreaders of the virus, wearing a mask prevents you from breathing the virus into the air if you are asymptomatic. If you have any symptoms, please stay home!

Mask with a mask

It’s even silly sounding to say. Why wear a mask with your mask? 

The bottom line here is that a fencing mask is not a protective mask . . . from viruses. It’s meant to keep a fencing sword from getting through, not droplets from the lungs (which are what spread the coronavirus). The mesh on the front of the fencing mask is stiff and full of little holes so the fencer can breathe, not woven like the cloth masks that authorities recommend wearing. 

We have created an in depth guide to what kinds of masks are easiest to use here, but for now we’ll just run down the options. 

All of these options will work underneath the fencing mask. Be sure to take time to try what works for you and to be flexible with what you use. Adaptability continues to be an important aspect of making training work during this pandemic.

We also recommend, as always, that you talk to your coach and to other fencers in your club about what they are doing and what works. Where did they get their mask? What other options did they try? Your club might have their specific requirements or recommendations and the whole situation might also be different based on where you live.

Is it dangerous to exercise with a mask on?

Wearing a mask definitely reduces the amount of the air getting into the lungs. This is just the hard reality. You can’t breathe in as deeply with a mask on as you can if your face is uncovered.

However, there is no indication that short bursts of exercise, like a fencing match to five points, is detrimental. The biggest concerns that we are reading about is that people engage in intense exercise for extended periods of time, more than a few minutes, have some ill effects from the lack of breathing. There are no studies on this either way though, and the science is still out. Doctors and sports experts do advise caution, and that’s exactly what we are practicing. Caution. 

We need to be very, very cognizant of what our fencers are experiencing and be prepared to adapt our training at the first sign of fatigue. 

What experts are saying is that low to moderate intensity exercises will feel a little harder than normal, but that it basically pushes the body towards intense exercise. The real danger is attempting to do intense exercise with a mask on, because then you are breathing in the carbon dioxide that gets trapped in the mask instead of fresh oxygen. 

Sweat on the mask makes the problem worse. It soaks in and prevents even more of the carbon dioxide from escaping and the oxygen coming in. 

It’s also very important to note that masks need to be washed or changed out regularly, moreso if you are exercising than if you are wearing them while doing normal daily activities. The intensity of breathing when working out with a mask on means that they collect more germs. Masks worn for fencing practice must be washed or disposed of after every single use. 

Bottom line – we need to avoid intense exercise with a mask on. That is why it is so important that we adapt our training to put that intensity into places that fencers can be distanced and not wear a mask. 

What about exceptions?

Masks are required here in California in fact, and in many other places as well. We are obligated to wear them when we are doing in-person fencing classes of any kind. 

There are some medical conditions, especially respiratory conditions, that make wearing a face covering unhealthy. Our recommendation if this is you is that you consider keeping to online training if this is the case. This is to preserve your safety as well as the safety of everyone else. 

If you do have a medical condition like asthma, then the laws about mask wearing exempt you from wearing a mask. However there is another law too, the law of conscience and the law of being a good citizen and a team player. If you follow this second law, you realize that you might be exposing others and putting them at risk. You know then that it is better not to attend any group activity in person.  The only exception is that if all this time you and your household members were in complete isolation and continue to be in such during your in-person activity, that’s another matter – then you should notify your club who will tell all the members of your class group. 

Keep in mind your own health too though! If you have a medical condition that prevents you from wearing a mask, then you want to protect yourself. The only precaution that is totally perfect to keep from getting the virus is to stay isolated. 

Rethinking how we train

Masks are important for indoor practice, however outside in a park when exercising alone or even in a small group with distance between you, there is no reason to wear one. Keep in mind that if you are close enough to fence, you are too close to go maskless – inside or outside. 

Training cannot be what it has been. Now is the time for innovation. We need less aerobic exercise in groups, more anaerobic exercise. We need to dial back the intensity of the drills and go for more static drills instead. This does not have to inhibit the effectiveness of training, but it does force us to adapt. Classes are necessarily shorter because we are both trying to keep everyone as healthy as possible and because we are taking up the time with preventative measures and breaks. Some of the work, especially the conditioning and the physically intense practice, can be assigned as homework. 

Breaks outside with the mask off, ten feet of distance between each fencer can give some respite from the mask. Wearing the mask is not the most enjoyable experience. We know this. Recently I told someone my analogy to wearing a mask and fencing. I compared it to swimming in a fur. It’s not fun like swimming in a comfortable swimming suit, but you still swim and you can enjoy it and still learn a lot. (well, maybe this is not a perfect analogy but you get the point). I don’t enjoy wearing a mask. Nobody does.

Even more than before, we have to watch and listen to our fencers. Communication is very important. For instance, we should encourage self monitoring and advocacy in our fencers. If a fencer needs a break, they should feel comfortable asking for one. It is not the right time to push hard training. Coaches should be paying close attention for any signs of fatigue in fencers. Frequent water breaks and breathing breaks are a must. With very small groups, which are necessary for social distancing anyway, this is easier. 

Masking is necessary

The pros and cons are at the heart of this issue. We are all weighing up what we think is the right thing to do. Remember – this is not about you, this is about others. Your role is to help stop the spread of the virus and ensure you do all you can in that human society fight. 

The cons of not wearing mask are very straightforward – the virus will spread. Not whether it will spread faster, but just that without masks it will definitely spread faster. After all of these months and all of this trouble we have all gone to to protect our communities, it’s not good to push all that away now. If an infected fencer is present, their likelihood of infecting kids at the fencing club if they are not wearing a mask significantly grows. 

The pros are that we can keep each other safe if we wear a mask. Even under our fencing mask. It may be uncomfortable and it may not be feasible for those with underlying conditions, but luckily we still have our online training options! What we do know is that masks help prevent the spread of the virus. Period. They are the best defense we have, even though they are not perfect. We are not back to normal yet, and it will take many baby steps to gradually return to normal while maintaining health and helping prevent the spread. It is better to err on the side of caution than to potentially spread the virus.

This is a tough thing! A very tough thing. Parents and fencers want to be sure that they are doing the best they can for health, but there are a lot of pieces to consider. 

One thing that we can always do is to step back to online training, or do a hybrid of some in-person and some online classes. This is not a race to reopen. Fencers who are putting in training time will get results. If exercising with a mask is a big concern for you, then stick with online training! It’s genuinely an ok thing to do, and no one will think anything of it. This is unfortunately a long haul. For everyone. 

Right now, taking steps to protect each other is what we’re here for. It’s not about one person, it’s about the whole community. We can do this together! Even through two masks.