March 19, 2021
Photos courtesy of Michele Fagen

As parents and coaches of young athletes, it is a foreign experience to see them head onto the sports court or field with masks on their faces. After a year without middle school, high school and club sports, getting back in the game is an exciting time for kids and everyone who supports their athletic adventures. And while wearing masks is new and may be a bit challenging or annoying at first, there’s no cause for concern.

“It’s actually a really good training tool,” said physical therapist Kat Burns. “Exercising with a mask on can improve cardiovascular and athletic performance.”

Burns, who is a Certified Breathing Behavioral Analyst, explains that masks can increase airflow resistance by about 40 percent. That might sound scary, but it really just means that your body is forced to work a little harder. Furthermore, Burns emphasizes, less is more.

But, what does that mean? Essentially, breathing less allows us to build up more carbon dioxide, which, Burns explains, most people don’t have enough of. Carbon dioxide, it turns out, is essential for our cells to get enough oxygen.

Practice Makes Perfect

Like with any new endeavor, learning to exert yourself with a mask on takes practice. Consider barefoot running, Burns encouraged, it’s most successful when the transition is gradual. The same is true for incorporating a mask into any exercise program.

The best approach is to get your student athlete to do their exercise at home with a mask, so they can begin to get used to it and build up a tolerance, rather than only wearing it during team practice and games.

“When you’re on your own you can take a break,” Burns explained. She advises starting slow, with light activity and increasing the intensity with time. “Take soccer for example — start with jogging with your mask on and then once you’ve adjusted to that, try a series of sprints.”

Back to Sports_Soccer with mask onLet the Nose Lead

When it comes to how to breathe with a mask on, it’s all about the nose.

“A lot of people will mouth breathe when they have a mask on because of the extra resistance, but that can cause them to hyperventilate,” Burns said. If light-headedness or dizziness occurs, it’s likely due to mouth breathing. You want to keep breathing in and out through your nose.

Advise your kids to slow down if they feel the urge to switch from nose to mouth breathing. It’s all about their tolerance so let them know it’s okay to slow down or step away from the team to take a short break. It can take a few weeks for the body to adjust, and for breathing through a mask to feel natural and comfortable.

Keeping your breath in the nose is key, but learning to “slow the exhale” is also important.

“Your exhale matters so much more than your inhale to maintain the pH of your blood,” Burns explained.

The Mask Matters

Masks don’t block airflow enough to cause concern, and they’re considered one of the best ways student athletes can protect and defend their teammates from the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Choose a mask that’s comfortable and a good fit with a tight seal. It’s good practice to bring extra masks to sporting events, so that if one gets saturated with sweat (or rain!), athletes have a backup on hand and can swap out.

Learning about breath and breathing patterns can provide an incredible advantage for student athletes, especially as they get back to the sports they love after a long break, and even more so as they do it with masks on. Ultimately, not only is physical exertion with a mask on completely safe, but it will also make kids into even stronger athletes in the long run.

*Certain health conditions warrant additional advice from a specialist.


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