Sun Safety for Runners

sun safety for runners

By Phillip J. Keith, MD

The sun is rough on runners. Any time you go outdoors, your skin is at risk of damage from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Sun damage not only causes wrinkles and discoloration but greatly increases your chance of developing skin cancers – including potentially fatal melanoma.

Oftentimes runners don’t think about this, or sometimes do but downplay the concern – “I’ll only be in the sun for an hour,” or “I’ll be running on a shady road.” Even if it’s a cloudy, rainy day, UV rays are still present. While they are worse during peak times of 10am – 4pm, you can still damage your skin earlier in the morning or in the evening. UV rays affect our skin anytime we are outdoors. Sun damage is cumulative, so it adds up a little more every time we’re outside unprotected.

Depending on the weather, runners run in varying amounts of clothing, so the skin is exposed particularly in the summer. During the winter, runners may cover up most of their bodies in layers of clothing, but anything that remains exposed – like face, neck or hands – is still at risk.

A study published in JAMA Dermatology monitored runners and non-runners for signs of skin cancer. Most runners wore shorts and shirts, and roughly half regularly used sunscreen. Most of their backs and extremities were exposed. In the end, runners had a higher incidence of atypical moles, solar lentigines, and other features that suggest nonmelanoma skin cancer development, especially on the back, legs and arms. The development increased as the length and frequency of runs intensified. In fact, high-intensity running was shown to reduce immune functioning, giving skin cancer a greater chance to grow – a finding that was also echoed in another study. Researchers concluded that runners are at increased risk for both nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancers, and recommended runners implement a regimen to protect their skin from the sun every time they run.

Thankfully, protecting yourself from harmful sun radiation is simple. It only requires developing a regular habit of using sunscreen when outdoors – for running or anything else – and as much clothing as possible to shield you from the sun. And the best chance of successful skin cancer treatment comes with early detection, so runners should educate themselves about what skin cancer looks like and where it’s frequently found.


Develop a Plan to Protect Yourself from the Sun

#1 – Sunscreen: Whenever you head outside, you should apply sunscreen to exposed skin. Broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 30 is best. Don’t forget your lips; there are moisturizing or elemental protective balms and other products that contain SPF. To make the most of your sunscreen usage, ensure you’re applying it in the right way. This is especially important if you’ll be outdoors sweating heavily for a long period of time. We have plenty of tips for you!

#2 – Protective Clothing: There are lines of clothing developed specifically to shield your skin during outdoor activities, such as Coolibar. While the idea of running in long sleeves in the middle of summer may seem unappealing, much of this clothing is designed to be lightweight and breathable for maximum comfort. Whenever possible, wear as much clothing as you can to minimize the amount of radiation reaching your skin. Check for exposed skin that will also require sunscreen. Even small pieces of your neck that show when wearing a scarf, or spaces of skin between gloves and sleeves, need protection. When applying sunscreen to your face remember your ears, too! We recommend wearing a wide brim hat whenever possible to shield your head, face and neck. If you don’t wear a hat, bear in mind your scalp will also need coverage. Your eyes also need protection, so use sunglasses too.

#3 – Stay Safe: Sunscreen needs to be reapplied regularly during long periods of time outside. A good rule of thumb is every 2 hours. If you’ve been sweating, you’ll need to reapply sooner – as soon as you dry off. It’s wise to choose a water-resistant or waterproof sunscreen if you’re going to be sweating heavily. Also, take into account when you run. As mentioned before, exposure to the sun is most dangerous during the hours of 10am – 4pm. Try to run early in the morning or just after sunset.

Keep an Eye on Your Skin

Early detection is critical to curing skin cancer, so set up annual appointments for a skin screening with your dermatologist. In between these screenings, regularly check yourself for signs of new moles or lesions, or changes in existing ones. Memorize the ABCDE’s of melanoma – asymmetry, border, color, diameter and evolution, which we explain in more depth here.

Make note of any new moles and closely monitor them. If they show any of the ABCDE’s, contact your dermatologist for an exam right away. If they exhibit any changes, it’s a good idea to get an exam. Bear in mind that skin cancer can grow on existing birthmarks or moles. When in doubt, show any skin changes to your dermatologist, just in case!

There are certain factors that may increase your risk of skin cancers. Fair-skinned people are at greater risk, as are people with blonde or red hair, or blue or green eyes. Those with a family history of skin cancer should also be extremely vigilant, as should people who’ve experienced severe sunburn in the past or have a lot of moles. Skin cancers can affect anyone at any age.

Running is great exercise, and even though it presents a greater risk of sun damage, you shouldn’t feel deterred from continuing to run outdoors. Just develop your skin protection plan and stick to it every time you go outside, and remember to check your skin often



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