The coronavirus began to affect sporting events as early as January 30, when the Chinese Football Association announced it was delaying the start of the football season. Two months later it was revealed that the Tokyo Olympic Games would be postponed until the summer of 2021 – the first postponement in modern Olympic history.
Sporting administrators are only now exploring ways to enable a return to training and competition at both professional and amateur levels. In the absence of a vaccine, though, there are several challenges. One of them is around breathing.
When playing sport, breathing is faster and harder than at rest, which increases the risk of passing the disease on. As a result, premier league football is considering introducing face masks. Others may follow suit.
Yet a mask makes it harder to inhale the quantity of air needed to perform at the highest levels. We know that wearing a surgical mask can increase the resistance to airflow. Exercise invariably leads to faster and harder breaths, so wearing a mask during exercise places a further strain on airflow.
At low to moderate-intensity exercise, effort will feel slightly harder than normal with a mask, but you can still walk comfortably. The challenge appears to be more during heavy exercise (say, rugby or football) taking in air at rates of about 40-100 litres per minute.
When we do heavy exercise, our muscles produce lactic acid, which causes that burning sensation. It is then converted to carbon dioxide and exhaled. But what happens if the carbon dioxide is trapped by the mask? As you move from moderate to heavy exercise, you may be re-breathing carbon dioxide, which can reduce cognitive function and increase breathing rate.
There may also be less oxygen in the recycled air, which could imitate exercising at higher altitudes. So it is important we gain a better understanding of the limitations of heavy exercise with a face mask.