Masks in sports: gains and losses
In sports practice, almost all Pirates have had the uncomfortable experience of wearing a mask while exercising. During games, coaches are more lenient about mask-wearing, although in reality cloth masks and surgical masks do not dramatically affect the body. Is perceived mask-wearing exhaustion entirely psychological?
Multiple scientific studies have shown that there is no difference between no mask and a 3-layer surgical mask — as distinguished from the thicker masks such as an N95 respirator — in regards to the heart rate, the respiratory rate, or the rate of perceived exertion. Most players are just tired and winded because they are out of shape from the year-long off-season.
It is not advisable to wear an N95 or to double mask during a game since it causes the inhalation of carbon dioxide and could affect the player’s abilities. Jeff Yamashita, the school’s athletic trainer, comments, “[masks] restrict the amount of air that you can intake into your lungs. Multiple layers don’t allow you to get as deep a breath as you possibly can, especially when you are running hard and you are breathing really quickly.” A study, Return to training in the COVID‐19 era: The physiological effects of face masks during exercise, by Danny Epstein, Alexander Korytny, and Yoni Isenberg proves that an N95 mask causes a significant difference in the oxygen saturation levels in the blood. The masks are causing people to breathe in more carbon dioxide, especially during periods of heavy exertion and breathing. Increased levels of carbon dioxide can cause headaches, dizziness, and an increased heart rate.
It is likely that training with an N95 or double masks could improve performance in-game. They induce low oxygen levels similar to the effects of high altitude training, allowing athletes’ lungs and hemoglobin to adjust to low oxygen, giving them an advantage when they switch back to a normal mask. Ben Levine, M.D. describes how athletes train their bodies: “As elite athletes acclimate to high altitude, they acquire more red blood cells which allows their blood to carry more oxygen. When they compete at lower altitudes, they get a natural boost to the muscles when additional oxygen is available. This blood expanding effect can enhance performance in elite athletes by 1 to 2 percent.”
Masks are, in fact, required, but the CDC’s guidelines are complicated. They have strong recommendations: “Face coverings worn by participants during practice, conditioning and during competition, even during heavy exertion as tolerated.”
In-game, most players wear their mask as more of a chin strap and many choose to forgo a face covering altogether. Justin Clymo, the athletic director of Stevenson, comments on trying to adapt CDC guidelines to what he and the school suggest on mask-wearing: “What does ‘as tolerated’ mean? And that is where you shift from guidance to interpretation…”
When asked about the difference between the non-masking lacrosse boys and the masking lacrosse girls, especially in regards to the girls’ goalie, who does wear a helmet with a wire faceguard, Clymo replies: “Do I expect a lacrosse goalie, under their helmet, and everything else to have a mask on? No, just like I do not expect to have the boys to be wearing a mask with their mouthpiece in. How does that work? Same with girls on the field...My expectation is that while you are playing an outdoor sport, physically distanced for the majority of the time, wearing a mouthguard, I feel you are at a greater risk putting a mask on than you are not having one on.”
Even though wearing most kinds of masks does not affect performance, they can still be uncomfortable. How do the players feel about it? Romi Fernandez Riviello, the varsity women’s lacrosse team’s goalie, comments, “I feel like it is not natural to not feel the wind on my face when I run.” Additionally, Harrison Wilmot, a JV boys lacrosse player mentions how uncomfortable a mask can get: “I don’t think [wearing a mask] makes it worse, it’s just really uncomfortable, especially when you are breathing hard. It gets really wet inside with sweat and moisture.”