Add sun protection to your training regimen

Special thanks to the Shade Foundation for this article. The Foundation exists to eradicate melanoma through the education of children and the community in the prevention and detection of skin cancer and the promotion of sun safety. For more information about the Shade Foundation, visit their Web site, or here to make a contribution to further their cause.

We've all seen the interviews of former Olympians/pro-athletes who maintain great physiques but whose leathered skin causes them to appear much older than their chronological age.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Clothing that covers arms and legs and wide-brimmed hats are excellent choices for minimizing exposure to the sun's skin-damaging radiation.

Due to the need to reduce wind resistance and dissipate heat and moisture, these strategies are not always practical for athletes, however.

The last 35 years have seen the development of innovative products that absorb specific wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation (sunscreens) and products that actually block the penetration of a wide range of ultraviolet radiation (sun blocks).

Although hats or other coverings block direct ultraviolet exposure, they don't guard against rays that bounce off of surfaces such as pavement, sand, snow, and water.

There is no magic universe ultraviolet switch that turns on radiation wavelengths at 10 a.m. and turns off the radiation again at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. Despite avoiding "peak" times when the intensity of the rays reaching the earth's surface is the greatest, chronic exposure to sub-peak rays will still enact a toll.

Reports that most sun exposure occurs during youth are based on assessments of average individuals. After spending time outdoors in the formative years, average adults' responsibilities can keep them indoors and enjoying only limited and sporadic periods of sunlight exposure.

Unfortunately from a healthy lifestyle perspective, if you regularly engage in physical activity, you're not typical. Similar to training for a marathon or other intensive event, the long-term effects -- in the case of ultraviolet radiation, cellular damage -- are cumulative.

Athletes need to go "pro" -- include sun protection in the training regimen!

  • Choose environmentally appropriate clothing and hats that cover skin and minimize sun exposure.

  • Choose and use a sun-protection product that offers broad-spectrum protection (protects or blocks against both ultraviolet "A" and ultraviolet "B" wavelengths).

  • Apply protection prior to sun exposure (Don't leave home without it on!)

  • Choose a product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. The few studies -- such as that of Neale and colleagues (Neale R, Williams G, and green A. "Application patterns among participants randomized to daily sunscreen use in a skin cancer prevention trial." Archives of Dermatology (2002) 138: 1319 - 1325.) -- that have aimed at quantifying actual use of sun-protection products indicate that average use is less than half the amount used to cover the surface area during SPF testing.

    In other words, most individuals are not achieving the expected level of protection from their sunscreen or sunblock products.

  • Apply generously, covering ears, arms, legs, and trunk along with face.

  • After the post-training shower, remember to re-apply your sun protection product before venturing outside (if it's still daylight).

    Gone are the days when skin sensitivity and sweating could be used as excuses for non-use of sun protection. Excellent hypoallergenic products are available offering broad range protection that are sweat-resistant or waterproof.

    On a personal note, I have found products designed for children are often more durable (without feeling "greasy"), are less likely to be marketed for additional purposes (i.e. less likely to have potentially problematic additives), and possibly due to less marketing, are often less expensive.

    Janet Foote, PhD, is an associate research scientist at the Arizona Cancer Center. She is also a runner, triathlete and Road Runners Club of America-certified coach.
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