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Running Under the Sun

As we get longer hours of daylight, it is important to protect yourself from extended sun exposure. Truthfully, sun care is important all year long but extended daylight hours during late spring and summer makes it particularly worth thinking about at this time of year.

Runners became much more aware of the dangers of skin cancer in the summer of 2003 when Deena Kastor, the top U.S. female marathoner, was diagnosed with melanoma. She was on her way to compete in Europe when her dermatologist told her to turn around and return for surgery. Happily, Kastor’s surgery was successful. Although skin melanomas kill around 7,500 people every year, early detection helps to make skin cancer both treatable and highly survivable. (The five-year survival rate for people whose melanola is treated before it spreads to the lymph nodes is 99 percent.) In the aftermath of her surgery, Kastor recounted that she “got lot of thank you’s from people who had melanoma removed after hearing my story.” Kastor remains vigilant, making frequent trips to her dermatologist and embracing preventive measures such as wearing hats (always!), donning long sleeve shirts regardless of the weather, and applying sun screen liberally.

It’s rare to see Deena Kastor without a cap

Skin cancer comes in two forms: melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma has the most potential for being lethal, but it is also curable if detected early. Non-melanomas are more common and include basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. These types of skin cancers typically don’t spread to other parts of the body and can be easily removed by surgery. Basals are usually characterized by a newly appearing fleshy mole that bleeds easily. Squamous carcinomas are red, crusty and generally appear when one is older. If in doubt, it’s best to check it out: schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.

Through the last decade, there has been some debate about whether runners are more susceptible to skin cancer than the regular population. A study from 2006 seemed to confirm the connection, although the sample size was small. The study’s immediate conclusion was that sweating increases the sensitivity of the skin to ultraviolet radiation because moisture on the skin reduces UV light to shorter wavelengths that are more easily absorbed. Ominously, researchers also speculated that in addition to increasing their sun exposure, high mileage runners were also suppressing their immune systems, which made them more susceptible to skin cancer. ( In any case, it is clear that extended sun exposure is something that runners need to avoid.

What can we do to prevent the growth and development of skin melanomas and carcinomas? First, remember that the sun’s most damaging effects take place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends avoiding sunlight during these hours. Yes, it’s yet another good reason to do your running early in the morning.

What if you can’t avoid the sun during your run? Use sunscreen. Don’t merely buy the sunscreen; APPLY the sunscreen. Let me say this again: USE SUNSCREEN! An SPF of at least 30 should do it.


Be sure to wear a hat –– there are many options




You should also wear a hat and start wearing running apparel that is SPF rated. The big problem here is that UV rays can filter right through t-shirts and lightweight running clothes ( If in doubt as to the SPF rating of your clothing, it’s a good idea to spread some additional sunscreen around (No, I do not work as a lobbyist for the sunscreen industry…).

The important thing to remember is that you always need to be thinking of ways to limit your sun exposure while running. In addition to a hat, long sleeves, and sunscreen, Deena Kastor will also move to the shady side of the street when given the opportunity.

Can limiting sun exposure too much have dire health effects? Some people (Owners of tanning salons, for instance…ok, I jest) insist that sun exposure is critical to the body’s synthesis of vitamin D, which, in turn, is necessary for calcium and phosphorus absorption. Calcium and phosphorus are critical for maintaining strong bones. When Kastor broke her foot early in the 2008 Olympic Marathon, it seemed that her aggressive sun avoidance strategy had backfired. Indeed, Kastor admitted, “Blood results proved that I had plenty of calcium in my system, but almost no vitamin D to absorb the calcium into my bones.” Lacking vitamin D, Kastor’s bones became brittle.

The takeaway, however, should not be to hit the tanning bed. Instead, if you are aggressively avoiding sun exposure, be sure to supplement your vitamin D intake through the consumption of fortified cereals, oily fish such as tuna and salmon, and fortified milk, cheeses, and yogurt. Ultimately, the skin cancer risk outweighs any imperative of using sun exposure to up your body’s vitamin D production. (

Cod Liver Oil is really high in Vitamin D
(It also comes in pill form, whew!)

While seeking tips on other vitamin D benefits and ways to increase vitamin D absorption while avoiding too much sun, I asked Fleet Feet’s resident nutritionist, Katherine Kilrain-Hayes, to further elaborate (Thanks, Katie!):

Be sure to check nutrition labels when looking for vitamin D fortified products, because it might not be in your favorite yogurt. It is, however, essential for runners to have adequate levels of vitamin D. This fat-soluble vitamin acts as a hormone when activated. Vitamin D does more than just help with bone health. Those prone to stress fractures, including many runners out there, require calcium and vitamin D to protect their bones. The DRI (daily reference intake) is 600 IU (international units). One tablespoon of cod liver oil provides 340% of your daily value. Eight ounces of fortified orange juice has roughly 34% and fortified dairy has 24-31% of your daily value of vitamin D. Besides dietary intake, it has been suggested that vitamin D be obtained from sun exposure for approximately 5–30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen. As argued above, however, there is an ongoing public health concern about skin cancer, particularly among runners and there are no studies determining whether UVB-induced synthesis of vitamin D can occur without increased risk of skin cancer. Ultimately, if you choose exposure as a route to synthesizing vitamin D, pay extremely close attention to your time in the sun.

I’ll take the fortified orange juice, thanks

Remember to do your long-term health a favor this spring and summer (and fall and winter, for that matter) and consciously try to avoid extended sun exposure. Try to run in the morning and evenings, apply at least a 30 SPF sunscreen, wear a hat, and look into using SPF-rated running apparel. Don’t worry about giving yourself a vitamin D deficiency; you can offset any vitamin D shortfall through diet and mindful controlled exposure to the sun.

Be sure to develop a plan for protecting yourself from UV rays. Your skin and your future running self will thank you.

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