Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, guidelines have been changing as quickly as you can do an all-out sprint. The good news is the risk of outdoor transmission, particularly when people wear masks, is incredibly low, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., senior scholar with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Fleeting contact is not something that is conducive to transmission of any variant of COVID,” Adalja says. “Outdoor transmission is exceedingly uncommon outside of special circumstances, for example, a political rally where everyone is in close proximity for a prolonged period of time.”
He notes that even during a crowded race, during which you might be running with a pace group, the ventilation is much different from, say, a rally.
But as cases surge due to the omicron variant and breakthrough infections—infections that happen even if you’re vaccinated and boosted—rise, masking in group settings can help mitigate the risk of transmission.
Amid the current omicron surge, which peaked in some parts of the country, experts have advised choosing a KN95 or N95 mask over cloth masks, which were supposed to be used primarily as a stopgap until more effective masks became available. Adalja says these can make it tough to breathe during exercise and aren’t necessary in an outdoor setting. We’ve included a KN95 to have on hand for post-run coffee stops.
The majority of the masks in this review have been tested; others we recommend based on their technology or because they come from brands we love and trust.
Best Masks for Runners
- Best All-Around: Knit Engine Mask and Ear Guard
- Most Lightweight: Boco Gear Performance X Mask
- Best Gaiter: Mission All-Season Adjustable Gaiter
- Most Breathable: Blue Bear Protection Sports Mask
- Best Bundle: Ruring Face Protector
What to Consider When Choosing a Mask for Running
After the CDC made its initial recommendation last year to wear “cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” it seemed like everyone and their mother started creating and selling masks. So, how to choose?
For running, it’s about comfort, Adalja says. That’s because, as he continues to point out, there is no evidence that suggests a fleeting encounter on the road or trail will lead to infection. “Any covering is fine,” he says. “It comes down to comfort like a pair of running shoes—whatever works best for you when you try it on.” (Just know that unlike shoes, you can’t return masks for obvious reasons.)
Breathability is an important consideration, too, because of the nature of exercise. Some masks come with filters (or have the option to purchase a filter) for increased protection. I find wearing a mask with a filter, however, makes it much harder to breathe. Adalja also says no one should be running in an N95 mask—those will severely impede breathing.
Runners should think about the fit of their masks, which go hand-in-hand with comfort. But, the looser the fit, the less effective the masks become at trapping your breath, and consequently, any virus particles. A tighter fit also means less bouncing and less sunglasses fog.
Decipher Differences in Mask Marketing
You’re probably served up ad after ad of cloth masks and coverings. And as companies—athletic and otherwise—pivot to mass-producing masks, you’re likely seeing bold claims about “deactivating viruses,” “antimicrobial,” and “antibacterial.” Some tout “95 percent bacterial infiltration system.”
It’s important not to fall into a false sense of security if you purchase a mask that emphasizes these claims. For example, a mask that’s billed as “antibacterial” is great and all, but for those who don’t know better, they might think that means it’ll kill the coronavirus. It won’t.
Plus, if an antibacterial or antimicrobial technology is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a pesticide (as many are), companies can’t make claims that their product will protect you, just that its technology will protect the product from deterioration from mold, mildew, and odor.
What about claims of “deactivating the virus?” Sounds great! Masks don’t catch 100 percent of the coronavirus. (N95 masks, the gold standard for healthcare professionals, only filter out 95 percent of airborne particles.) So any viruses that land on your mask are “deactivated” weren’t making their way through your mask anyway. (But remember to regularly wash your mask and your hands.)
“I don’t necessarily think there’s strong data to support the use of these types of masks,” Adalja says. “Cloth masks or hospital-style surgical masks do work sufficiently to reduce spread.”
Adalja goes on to say we desperately need more research on better masks for the general public.
“I don’t think there’s enough data to support the claims being made regarding the real-world benefit of these masks,” he says.
In other words, go with the CDC guidelines for face coverings:
- Have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
- Completely cover your nose and mouth
- Fit snugly against the sides of your face and don’t have gaps
- Avoid those with exhalation valves or vents, which allow virus particles to escape
- Avoid those made of fabric that makes it hard to breath, for example, vinyl
- Wear a gaiter with two layers, or fold it to make two layers
How to Properly Wear and Handle Your Mask
Once your mask is on, the safest thing you can do is keep it on. The more you touch your mask and then your face, the more likely you are to infect yourself, Adalja says. (Outdoor activities pose less of a risk, especially if you’re not touching anything.)
“Many people are wearing homemade masks and touching their faces more than usual,” he says, pointing to Face ID on phones as a culprit for constantly removing a mask. “Masks are effective, but they’re just one layer of intervention. When you’re wearing a mask, it’s not going to be [as] effective if you’re touching your face all the time, wearing it inappropriately [under the nose], and littering it on the ground.”
If you do pull your mask down while out running, be sure to avoid touching anything, including your face. And, as always, wash your hands upon returning home.
The Difference Between N95 and KN95 Masks
An N95 mask, also called a respirator, has been rated against federal regulations to filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles. The only difference between an N95, which was scarce at the onset of the pandemic, and a KN95 is where the mask is certified. A KN95 has been certified against Chinese federal regulations. These are far more effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus than cloth masks.
In order to address a supply shortage of these masks, experts have said it’s acceptable to reuse these otherwise disposable masks, after, say, a grocery store run. Leave your mask in a paper bag for three to four days before reusing (these cannot be washed). While it depends on usage, masks can be reused two to three days before they should be thrown out.
How We Chose
We’ve tested dozens and dozens of masks, some designed specifically for performance and others for everyday use. We took into account breathability, durability (sweaty masks mean lots of washing), comfort, and convenience (how easy it is to adjust the ear loops and back-of-the-head strap).
We’ve also included a recommended section, with additional reporting by commerce editor Paige Szmodis, for masks that are more readily available and suggested by fellow runners and staff.
—BEST ALL AROUND—
Knit Engine Mask and Ear Guard
Finally! A mask that covers the important parts—nose and mouth—but doesn’t weigh you down with excess material! I was pleasantly surprised with the Knit Engine mask—we included the mask in our 2021 Gear of the Year Awards—which has four layers of engineered-knit fabric and still remains lightweight and breathable.
Unlike the majority of masks I tested, the Knit Engine design has a shape that pulls the fabric away from your nostrils and mouth, providing coverage without you sucking in the material.
You can tell almost immediately that the mask is designed for performance, and its water-repellent technology does a good job at helping to wick away that upper lip sweat.
On its own, the mask has ear loops. But when you purchase a mask you will also receive an adjustable soft ear guard, which goes around the back of the head for added comfort. Knit Engine sells the ear guard separately as well, to turn your existing ear loop masks into a back-of-the-head design. (I’m not sure why the Knit Engine mask isn’t designed that way in the first place.)
The downsides? Despite adjusting the nosepiece, there was a lot of fog (read: escaped breath) on my sunglasses.
BYD Foldable DG3101 KN95 Mask
With the increased demand in KN95 and N95 masks, which are designed to filter out at least 95 percent of air particles, has led to counterfeit models. ProjectN95 highlights certified masks, including this KN95 mask. While it’s not recommended for physical activity, per Adalja, it’s smart to keep a few on hand for indoor errands and race bib pickups.
These work well for those with smaller faces.
Blue Bear Protection Sports Mask
Blue Bear makes a few types of masks, including a sports-specific mask. It’s eco-friendly, using sustainably-sourced bamboo instead of cotton, which also makes it softer and a little more breathable.
This mask was comfortable and throughout my run I forgot it was there, as much as one can forget they’re wearing a mask. I did notice its presence when I ran uphill and started breathing much heavier.
At first, I thought the mask was huge—it covers the entire bottom half of my face—but as my run continued, I decided it was comfortable and the extra coverage helped keep it in place. There isn’t an adjustable nose piece, but I still had very little fogging on my sunglasses.
—BEST LIGHTWEIGHT OPTION—
Boco Gear Performance X Mask
Boco Gear’s offering is a performance mask, which is lighter and geared toward exercise versus its everyday mask. I loved the kids/small fit over the one-size-fits-all. The performance mask has a tight knit face and knit layer on the inside, making it a lighter mask than traditional ones.
Because the feel and design of the Boco Gear mask was similar to another I tested that was causing me to suck in fabric like crazy, I was skeptical. But Boco Gear was a pleasant surprise in its comfort and lightweight. It even fit into my tiny running shorts when I no longer needed to wear it.
The mask also has a pocket for a filter (sold separately). These five-layer filters add an extra level of protection, but make it harder to breathe while exercising. Adding a filter doesn’t make the mask medical grade, either, and they’re only effective for about 40 hours.
It’s worth noting that the filters Boco Gear uses are PM2.5, which means their original use was for protection against particulate matter 2.5, the smallest and most dangerous form of air pollution. The coronavirus is even smaller than PM2.5.
Under Armour SportsMask
Under Armour was the first mask designed for athletic performance that I had heard about in the early months of the pandemic, and it did not disappoint.
The padded material was like a pillow for my face—in a good, non-suffocating way—and it made me realize that a performance mask can be comfortable and functional. Under Armour used its Iso-Chill fabric on the interior lining and ear loops, which keeps the material cool to the touch. And its polyurethane open-cell foam makes the mask breathable without heating your face up like a sauna.
The contoured fit is comfortable, and the adjustable nosepiece is subtle but effective in providing a better fit. When ordering, check out Under Armour’s updated sizing chart. Reviewers said the masks seem to run a little big.
WhitePaws RunMitts FaceMitts
If you want a no-frills, lightweight mask, look no further than FaceMitts from WhitePaws RunMitts. With no adjustable anything, the mask was a little loose on my small face, but it stayed up and covered the important areas. Because Adalja doesn’t believe a fleeting encounter with another person while running will transmit the coronavirus, even if this mask is looser than I’d otherwise like, it’s a fine covering.
For a softer mask, try Bloch B-Safe, a simple mask with comfy material and ear loops. The company is known for its dancewear, which explains the simple elegance—if you can call a mask elegant—of their fabric and colorways.
I noticed the mask uses zinc oxide, an antimicrobial, in its fabric to protect the mask (not the wearer!) from degradation and odor. Ingredients like these are probably unnecessary, given masks are washable and we don’t know the long-term effects of antimicrobial additives.
Ruring Face Protector
A Runner’s World reader wrote in to recommend a set of six inexpensive masks, made with four layers and adjustable ear loops.
“As a runner, my favorite two aspects of the mask are the enclosed space between my mouth and the cloth, and how it reacts to sweat,” our reader wrote in an email.
He commends the masks for their comfort, particularly how they react to sweat: No irritation!
We took the Ruring mask out for a spin and agree that for $4 a pop, these are fairly comfortable masks in which to log miles. I found the ear loops to cause some light chafing and the masks to be a little hot, but overall, these are a good value.
Mission All-Season Adjustable Gaiter
Through the course of this pandemic, I’ve tested a lot of gaiters. Runners loved them before they were, er, cool, thanks to their versatility (face warmer, headband, sweat wiper), but they really took off during the pandemic. (Runners found themselves in a tizzy when this study on the effectiveness of gaiters was released.)
I’ve been meh on gaiters because they never stay up, making them a good option for a quick pull-up, pull-down covering—until the Mission All-Season Adjustable Gaiter came long. It’s super breathable (so that means you don’t have the best protection) and the adjustable drawcord keeps the gaiter comfortably positioned on my nose—no slipping.
—BEST FOR KIDS—
Carter’s Face Masks
For little faces (ages 2 to 5), these simple masks will protect unvaccinated kiddos without weighing them down while they’re hitting the playground or logging half-miles. Because they don’t have adjustable ear- and nosepieces, it’s good that these masks fit a little more snug. (For the record, my 4-year-old lives in handmade masks with adjustable nose- and ear-pieces, but these are our backups.)
For bigger kids, this Gap model is similar to Carter’s—simple, no-frills.
Asics Runners Mask
I was excited to see another running-specific brand came out with a face mask. Overall, the Asics mask is a good quality mask for physical activity. The material is durable and comfortable. Unlike most of the masks out there, which use ear loops to secure the mask, the Asics version has an adjustable cord that goes around the back of the head. The excess cord—what’s leftover after you’ve tightened it—flops around on the back of your neck, but over time I got used to it.
There was a lot less “suck” while running the Asics mask, compared with many of the other masks I tested. I attribute that to the material and structure of the mask, not any improvement on how I breathe while running.
While the cord was a little uncomfortable resting on my ears, it was nice to be able to slide the mask down easily when it was safe to do so—something you can’t really do with ear loop styles.
AirPop offers a few different mask styles. The Pocket mask had mixed reviews among two of our testers: One loved it for running, citing its comfort and breathability. Another did not like it for running, saying it was too heavy.
AirPop Active made me feel like Bane from Batman. It’s huge in size. It’s also fairly comfortable, but perhaps too comfortable, making me question its effectiveness—although the product website touts breathability thanks to its design and material.
AirPop Active uses a medical-grade sealing membrane around the interior of the mask, designed to fit the contours of every face. But air comes out of the top (yes, it fogs sunglasses—I had hoped the membrane would prevent that), so I’m not totally sure how “sealed” your breath really is. This filter-assembly-required mask is also steep—coming in at $70 a pop.
Caraa 5 Universal Adult Masks
Caraa Sport offers a five pack with plenty of color options from assorted dark colors to pastels. These dual-layer cotton masks have an interior pocket for an optional filter, an adjustable nose bridge wire, and adjustable elastic ear loops.
Athleta Activate Face Mask 2 Pack
Athleta’s five pack of masks is also a great option for those going out for daily runs. Made with three layers, this mask is light and breathable thanks to the polyester outer layer and soft cotton interior. The ear loops are also adjustable, and the masks are machine washable.
Outdoor Research Essential Face Mask Kit
This durable polyester mask by Outdoor Research comes with adjustable ear loops and a nose wire so you can get the right fit, as well as a protective pouch and three disposable filters. It’s also treated with HeiQ V-Block, making the fabric resistant to microbes.