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Why athletes need to embrace sun protection

Written by 
Published in Athletics
Saturday, 18 June 2022 07:46
Spencer Duval from England Athletics offers advice on how to keep your skin safe this summer

With athletes spending hours under the sun while training and competing, you’d think they would be used to protecting their skin?

As it turns out, sun protection – in all formats – is often not seen by athletes as a necessity, in fact it can be unpopular or just forgotten about. Protective clothing can sometimes be restrictive, inhibiting movement, hats can fly off, sunglasses can dislodge, and sunscreen can be greasy, and when combined with sweat, it can cause a stinging sensation in the eyes. So it’s not a surprise that a lot of professional athletes neglect protecting their skin when training and competing, but at what cost?

Forgoing sun protection, as we know, is just too risky. Prolonged sun exposure will cause early ageing of the skin, wrinkles, age spots and solar keratosis, which can look unsightly. Accumulated exposure can cause many types of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) the most common cancer in the UK. And at worst, melanoma, which can spread to other parts of the body.

To create awareness and solutions to these issues, the Melanoma Fund created Sunguarding Sport, a free resource containing guidelines, sport specific advice and a toolkit of materials designed specifically for all in sport and outdoor recreation.

Spencer Duval, an Olympian and Commonwealth Games endurance runner and the current national endurance lead for England Athletics, answers some questions about running in the UK. He is also a Sunguard ambassador for the campaign, and is keen to help spread awareness around the issue, to inspire more athletes to take another look at their skin health, and cut rates of skin cancer.

We talk to Spencer to find solutions to the most common issues, helping eradicate the excuses that many athletes use to avoid protecting themselves.

Why did you agree to become a Sunguard ambassador?

My role at England Athletics is not just about creating a safe environment for the teams that I work with, but also identifying risks to ensure everyone is educated and informed. Sun protection has been off the radar in sport for far too long, and with rates of melanoma up by 140% since the 1990s this needs intervention and more education.

I am delighted to bring my knowledge and experience to this new role, creating awareness as a spokesperson for the campaign, to help inspire athletes and all in sport to take a fresh look at their own habits. If you look after your health, which athletes should always do, then don’t forget your skin health!

In your role of national endurance lead, have you always promoted sun protection to your teams?

Endurance runners often spend a lot of time out in the open air when they are training and competing. There are warm weather camps and altitude trips that form part of the preparation of athletes . Being out in the sun is a necessity of the endurance runner.

At England Athletics we always try and educate the athletes not only about training and racing opportunities but also about their general health and wellbeing. We try to highlight any issues or concerns that may impact on performance and one of the obvious ones is over exposure to the sun.

Athletes are warned to try and stay out of the midday sun and to always cover up as much as possible but sometimes it is impossible due to race and training schedules. This is especially important with the younger runners as reinforcement is often needed. Sun protection is as important as hydration and recovery and should be taken seriously.

As a professional athlete, what challenges have you faced around sun protection?

I have trained under hot, humid and frequently high-UV (ultraviolet radiation) conditions to acclimatise for competition. Often I was not in control of the schedules and locations for events and practices, which were typically without shade. Clothing was often minimal in protection but has got better through the years due to innovation. As an athlete we are concerned with performance, and remembering to protect skin seemed to come way down the line in priorities, which of course is wrong. Sun protection should be considered one of the essential training aids and used regularly.

What solutions do you have for these challenges?

As a solution, I would say:

What other risk factors are there in athletics?

As well as unprotected sun exposure, there is an increasing trend among young people to use sunbeds. Athletes often feel under pressure to conform to aesthetic preconceptions, especially in today’s social media environment, where image is important. Many perform their events in minimal clothing, and so it’s important for them to feel confident, and a tan can be quite flattering.

If you still want to tan your skin, opt for a professional spray tan, or buy a bottle – which is cheaper, and I’m told does a sterling job!

What tips do you have for athletes about creating better sun protection habits?

It is up to each individual to take responsibility for their performance, wellbeing and health, and that includes skin health. We are aware that all skin types and colour are vulnerable to skin cancer, however some are more susceptible than others, so get to know your skin and plan ahead!

I recommend that all athletes visit the Sunguarding Sport website and simply educate yourself on the facts. There are some really useful guidelines and sport specific tips that you can start to take on board. Building habits is never easy, but by simply being aware, you can start to make small changes. Skin cancer is like any other cancer diagnosis. It’s your health, so look after it.

How can athletes become role-models for younger athletes?

In today’s society we can all be influencers. Professional athletes can play a positive role in inspiring young people both with their performances and their healthy habits. UV exposure in childhood and adolescence plays an important role in the development of skin cancer, with just one sunburn doubling the risk of melanoma in later life.

Many health behaviours are formed and established whilst young, and are more easily formed, so why not create habits that inspire young people to copy?

What are your five top tips for staying sun protected?

You will find lots of tips on the Sunguarding Sport website, however these are some personal tips that have served me well!

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