A Spring Training Skin Care Primer
Board shorts and a ball cap, the perfect attire for a mid–morning jog along Rio de Janeiro’s perfectly arcing beaches of mellow golden sand. I normally don’t run shirtless, but since this particular outing would include forays into the surf, I stood in front of the hotel mirror and slathered sunblock on every square inch of exposed skin. Or so I thought.
Most short runs take under an hour to finish, but the conditions here were just right to extend it to a few hours. Swimming, watching surfers, playing a few pick–up beach volleyball matches, and stops for fresh coconut water absorbed the morning.
And guess what? I missed a spot with the sunblock. Right between my shoulder blades, I discovered an irregularly–shaped splotch of scorched skin. It’s still a reminder to go the extra inch when applying my own sunblock.
Skin cancer risk is higher in Utah than other states
There’s something about sunburn that should leave an impression—not just on your skin but also on your mind. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a recognized contributing factor in all forms of skin cancer. The Utah Department of Health (UDOH) estimates that UV exposure is tied to 90% of non–melanoma skin cancers and 65% of melanoma skin cancers.
Non–melanoma skin cancers include basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, both of which are primarily caused by chronic sun exposure. These cancers occur in the outermost layers of the skin, mostly in areas that receive the most sun: head, neck, shoulders, and arms. While not considered aggressive, basal and squamous cell carcinomas—if ignored—can metastasize to other organs in the body and become fatal.
Melanoma develops in melanocytes, cells in the lower epidermis that give skin its color. It can also occur in mucous membranes and in the eyes. Caught early, melanoma is almost always curable. Unfortunately, it is also more aggressive than other skin cancers, and once it metastasizes to other organs in the body, it is difficult to treat and very often fatal.
Melanoma is the rarest and deadliest form of skin cancer. I say “rarest,” but don’t get comfortable. The National Cancer Institute (NIC) estimated over 76,000 new diagnosed US cases in 2014. They also estimated nearly 10,000 deaths from melanoma in 2014.
The UDOH reported in 2014 that Utah has “the highest rate of new melanoma skin cancer cases in the country.” That’s based on combined NIC data from 2007–2011, which show that Utah had a new incidence rate of 31.9 per 100,000 people. Compared with the national average of 19.7 for that same time, Utah’s rate is almost 62% higher.
Why does this matter for endurance athletes?
As an endurance athlete, do you think you’re more or less likely than the general population to be exposed to skin cancer risk factors?
Unfortunately, the answer is more. At least according to a 2006 study by physicians at the University of Graz (Austria) who doffed lederhosen for lab coats when they noted an alarming number of ultramarathon runners with malignant melanoma at their hospital.
The physicians recruited a group of 210 marathon runners, examined them, and compared the data with a control group of 210 non–marathoners. The data is compelling. Of the marathon group, only 56.2% reported regular sunscreen use while training, and almost all of them reported using sportswear that would leave shoulders and upper arms exposed.
While no malignant melanoma was discovered on any of those examined, 24 of the marathon group and 14 of the control group were referred for surgical treatment of non–melanoma cancers as a result of the study. The study cites research revealing that endurance athletes exceed recommended sun exposure by more than 30 times during competition and that sweat facilitates sunburn risk by increasing the skin’s photosensitivity.
The authors conclude that endurance athletes—like you—should reduce UV exposure by training and competing at times of minimal sun exposure, wear sun–protective clothing, and regularly apply water–resistant sunscreen.
Now this is clearly an oversimplification of the study and its findings, but the researchers comments are clear.
“UV radiation,” they write,” is the most important environmental risk factor for melanoma and non–melanoma skin cancer.”
Block up, cover up, and schedule appropriately
So you should only run indoors at night in full warm–up gear, right? Not exactly. But you and I should plan and prepare a little more to protect our skin from UV exposure.
Here are the basics on reducing your risk:
As much as possible, train and race when the sun is less intense. Before 10:00 a.m. and after 4:00 p.m. are ideal.
Apply water–resistant sunblock and lip balm (at least 35 UPF) before donning your gear, even on cloudy days. And reapply every couple of hours. Sunscreen wipes are an easy option.
Don’t dress like a sun worshipper. At least while training, cover your shoulders, wear a running hat, and choose UV–resistant eyewear.
Stay away from tanning beds. Tanned skin is an injury response. So are freckles and liver spots.
Finally, if you wonder about any irregular moles, spots, lesions, etc. you already have, go see your doctor.
Some of us will undoubtedly suffer from the conditions discussed here, and none of us can quantify all of the risk factors. We can, however, act to combat the most obvious of them: UV exposure. It’s safely said that can reduce your risk and avoid a conversation with your health care provider about that spot on your arm if you take precautions to prevent it in the first place. Hopefully, it’s not too late.