Running and Sunburn: What You Need to Know

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Running and sunburn: Everything you need to know. Running and Sunburn: What You Need to Know

We’ve all been there. A longer than anticipated race, followed by an hour or three of idling about at the finish line, celebrating with friends. Which inevitably leads to that dreaded, but very preventable ouch: Sunburn. And although this scenario generally doesn’t play out on a daily basis, it’s still something that is best avoided. But why, you ask? Here’s everything you need to know about running and sunburn.

Running and sunburn: What you need to know.
Sunburn” by Phil Kates. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
A little sunshine is good for you

Let’s start off by reminding ourselves that a little sunshine is a good thing. Vitamin D, also referred to as the sunshine vitamin, can be produced in the body through mild sun exposure. And while Vitamin D can also be obtained through food supplements, who wouldn’t want to cash in on its benefits free of charge, right? But what exactly are these benefits, you ask? Well, Vitamin D plays a number of roles in the body, including:

  • Maintaining the health of bones and teeth
  • Supporting the health of the immune and nervous systems, as well as the brain
  • Regulating insulin levels, thereby aiding in the management of diabetes
  • Supporting lung function and cardiovascular health
  • Influencing the expression of genes involved in cancer development.

And how much sunshine should you get? Sensible sun exposure on the bare skin for 5 to 10 minutes, two to three times per week is generally regarded as being sufficient. Keep in mind, though, that Vitamin D has a half-life of only two weeks, which means that stores in your body may run low. Especially during the winter time and if you live above 40 degrees north latitude. In fact, it is estimated that up to 50% of both adults and children worldwide may be Vitamin D deficient.

So while it is clear that a little sunshine is good for you, a lot isn’t necessarily better.

Why too much sunshine isn’t a good thing

Too much sun exposure can lead to a stinging sensation on the skin, with red, tender, swollen skin and even blistering. Some individuals may even develop a low grade fever.

And while a nasty case of sunburn is neither pleasant, nor ideal, the risk of too much sun exposure goes a lot deeper than that. Under the skin’s surface, UVA and UVB rays can alter your DNA, thereby prematurely aging your skin. But that’s not all. Over time, DNA damage can contribute to the development of skin cancers, including life-threatening melanoma.

Running and sunburn: What you need to know.
Sunburn” by ctrlw. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Malignant melanoma can be difficult to treat successfully. Early diagnosis and treatment can, however, increase a patient’s chances of survival. So what exactly should you keep an eye out for? Well, the majority of melanomas start out as a new growth, and is usually located on unmarked skin. This growth oftentimes show changes in size, shape or color. Melanoma can, however, happen in an already existing mole or other mark on the skin. It may even appear like a bruise that isn’t healing, or a brown or black mark under a finger- or toenail. When in doubt, be sure to seek a professional medical opinion as soon as possible.

How to protect yourself against the sun

And while all of this might be enough to keep you from lacing up for good, there are many ways in which you can protect yourself against the harmful effects of too much sun exposure:

  • Avoid running between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Consider hitting the treadmill if you can’t avoid running during these hours, or stick to shady areas if you have to head out.
  • Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 on all areas with exposed skin. Remember to apply your sunscreen at least 30 minutes before heading outside, and re-apply every two hours. Pay special attention to the tips of the ears, back of the neck and tops of the hands.
  • Wear a lip balm with a SPF of 30 to protect your lips.
  • Use a cap or visor to protect your face from the sun. A cap with a flap for protecting the back of the neck and ears is ideal when running for extended periods of time in drier, sunnier areas.
  • Wear sunglasses that provide protection against both UVA and UVB rays to protect your eyes.
  • Invest in running gear (t-shirts, tights, etc.) that is certified to provide protection against the sun.
  • Use a laundry aid like Sunguard on your running gear if you don’t have gear with built-in sun protection. Sunguard gives running gear an ultra-violet protection quality of SPF 30 that lasts for up to 20 washes.
  • Wear cooling arm sleeves. Too hot for UV protective, long-sleeved tops? Opt for cooling arm-sleeves (often used by cyclists) instead.

The takeaway

So while the negative effects of excessive sun exposure is certainly nothing to sneeze at, there’s no reason to hang up your running shoes for good. Make your own health a priority by diligently taking sufficient precautions to protect yourself against the sun. Put a notice on your mirror or inside your cupboard to remind you if you must. And be sure to seek professional medical attention immediately upon noticing any suspicious skin growths or markings. But don’t let all of this prevent you from heading out and doing what you love. Lace up, slather up, dress up and head out. Just be sensible.