Wearing either a cloth or surgical face mask does not impair cycling performance.

July 15, 2021

Author: Conan Shing

Cardiopulmonary Lab For Experimental and Applied Physiology (CPLEAP), School of Health and Exercise Sciences, University of British Columbia Okanagan


  • Wearing a face covering is an effective method to limit the spread of COVID-19
  • Athletes and recreational exercisers may be concerned that face masks may hinder exercise performance. This may occur due to increases in air-flow resistance, anatomical dead space, perception of dyspnea and limitations in thermoregulatory capacity

How the study was done

  • Twelve healthy young adults (5 females, 7 males) performed a 5-8 min submaximal bout of exercise at 70% of max heart rate on a cycle ergometer under 3 different conditions: once with a 2-ply surgical mask, once with a cloth mask on and once breathing through a standard cardiorespiratory lab testing setup (laboratory control condition).
  • Continuous heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, breathing depth and frequency, mouth pressure (i.e., flow resistance), breath-by-breath O2 and CO2 concentration and face temperature data were collected and recorded throughout the protocol.

What researchers found

  • Flow resistance was higher while wearing a mask, with the cloth mask being significantly higher than the 2-ply surgical mask
  • The perception of dyspnea (shortness of breath) was higher while wearing the cloth mask than when wearing the surgical mask or no mask. There were no significant differences in heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and respiration (breathing depth and frequency) between the laboratory control and mask conditions.
  • Face temperatures were greater while wearing any face mask compared to no mask; cloth masks were hotter with or without a fan, and surgical masks were only hotter than no mask when the fan was on.
  • Compared to the laboratory control inspired O2 was lower and CO2 was higher while wearing any mask. Expired (end-tidal) O2 was higher and CO2 was lower while wearing any mask


  • Given the lack of differences found for heart rate, blood oxygen saturation and breathing patterns, the differences in air flow resistance are unlikely to have any significant physiological implications.
  • It is possible that any changes or perceived reductions in performance while wearing a face mask are merely due to the unfamiliarity with a face covering while exercising, which could lead to a perception of discomfort and a potential reduction in performance.

Take home message

  • Wearing either a cloth or surgical face mask does not impair cycling performance.
  • Despite variations in expired and inspired O2/CO2 levels when wearing a mask, there are no detectable physiological detriments when performing a brief bout of high intensity cycling while wearing a face mask.
  • Participants reported greater perceived shortness of breath (also known as dyspnea) than those without a mask. No physiological link was detected to explain this finding.
  • Any changes or reductions in cycling performance could stem from an individual’s perceived discomfort (e.g., increased dyspnea).

Original Article: Doherty, C. J., Mann, L. M., Angus, S. A., Chan, J. S., Molgat-Seon, Y., & Dominelli, P. B. (2021). Impact of wearing a surgical and cloth mask during cycle exercise. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2021-0190

If you cite any information from this, please consult the original article and cite that source. This summary was written for the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and it has been reviewed by the CSEP Knowledge Translation Committee.