Athletes often point to the health benefits of their active lifestyle, and for good reason. Staying active with running, swimming, cycling or even daily walks often prompts people to analyze their overall lifestyle, from exercise to nutrition. As the temperature rises, though, athletes need to be aware of the potential health issues that come along with summer weather.
Chicagoans expect extreme weather in the winter, but praise the beautiful conditions during summer. While warmer temperatures encourage people to get outdoors, athletes in particular shouldn’t overlook possible health conditions that can arise when working out in the sun and heat of summer.
“Athletes are probably underrepresented when it comes to sun safety. They are high risk,” Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld says. “There are a lot of factors that show being outdoors is part of a healthy lifestyle, but the best way to avoid the problems is to take certain precautions. I think it’s an area that people really need to pay attention to, especially endurance athletes because they are typically young. Not paying attention can have consequences later in life.”
Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, encouragse athletes to find balance. Typically, he advises people to stay in the shade, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and cover as much skin as possible. This isn’t particularly realistic advice for athletes, though, Lichtenfeld says. Instead, they need to work to protect themselves from sun and heat damage.
While applying a layer of sunscreen before venturing out on a sunny day may seem sufficient, unfortunately this is not always enough. The sun can burn and hurt skin even on a cloudy day, and dehydration can occur at any point of a workout.
The biggest risk outside of sun damage comes from heat-induced illness, says Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, a sports medicine physician at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. This happens on a spectrum and can cause immediate and worsening effects. The first stage, Mjaanes says, is muscle cramps followed by heat exhaustion, causing nausea and vomiting. The final and most dangerous stage is heat stroke, Mjaanes says, which happens when the body’s core temperature reaches 106 degrees and is a true medical emergency.
To prevent any damage from the heat, Mjaanes advises staying fully hydrated before, during and after any physical activity and with water and a sports drink that will replenish the sodium lost through sweating. Athletes should also pay attention to the signs their bodies give them. Because heat sickness is on a spectrum, you can both anticipate and, more importantly, prevent the following symptoms by knowing when to stop your workout.
“If you get heat cramps, then you feel nauseous or start vomiting, it’s time to stop,” Mjaanes says. “You don’t want to push through that and get to heat stroke. If you’re starting to have the early signs, it’s time to stop.”
While hydrating ahead of time can prevent problems, Mjaanes says it is crucial not to pre-medicate with ibuprofen or naproxen. Found in nearly all the common drug store pain killers like Advil, Motrin or Aleve, these otherwise benign pills can overwhelm the kidneys on a hot day’s workout, increasing the risk of heat-related illness.
In addition to planning out hydration, Lichtenfeld also emphasis applying and reapplying sunscreen before and during workouts. To prevent sun damage, athletes should apply at least an ounce of sunscreen regularly: roughly a palm full or a shot glass full of sunscreen. Lichtenfeld recommends using SPF 30, broad spectrum and water resistant sunscreen, all labelings controlled and regulated by the FDA. Anyone with blonde or red hair and naturally pale skin needs to pay extra attention to application as they are at the highest risk of skin damage from the sun, Lichtenfeld says.
“A tan skin is not a healthy skin. It’s the body’s response to the sun. The type of athletes that we are talking about here say they are going outside and getting a tan. The reality is that they are not healthy,” Lichtenfeld said.
The exact type of sunscreen can usually be a personal choice, he says. While the specific ingredients don’t typically change how sunscreen protects the body, people can check ingredients on various environmental websites. As far as spray cans go, Lichtenfeld says the jury is still out. While he personally has used it and found it effective, the FDA is still testing and working with these products.
If uneven application, greasy feel or reapplication challenges have kept you from using sunscreen while active, a new product, Adventuress’ YouVee’s sunscreen wipes looks to combat these problems. The wipes are coated with UVA/UVB water resistant SPF 30 sunscreen and applied on a single use finger pad. Athletes can easily keep multiple wipes on hand to reapply every few hours and evenly wipe them over the exposed skin without fear of skin irritation. The fragrance-free high performance sunscreen works even on the fairest skin and fits in pockets, pouches or any small bag without the user having to worry about carrying a bulky bottle.
Lichtenfeld says too many athletes think because they applied sunscreen at the beginning of a workout, they are protected for the rest of the day. This common mistake can result in burns and long term damage. The wipes also make it easy to apply sunscreen at any time. Lichtenfeld says that many people think that just because they are going outside for a little bit that they are not at risk. To prevent skin damage, though, it’s wise to apply sunscreen even if you don’t expect to be outside for long.
Your clothes can also help keep you safe from harmful UV rays. Long sleeves offer the most protection, but Lichtenfeld says this isn’t realistic, especially for athletes. Instead, consider a UV-protected wicking athletic shirt. Wearing a hat, especially a wide-brimmed hat when possible, also protects your skin from the sun.
Athletes who want to be even more proactive can the UV index and heat index before heading outside. Any UV rating over 2 can be problematic, and once it passes into the 6 or higher range it becomes flat out dangerous, Lichtenfeld says.
Lichtenfeld says he would like to see races start to be more proactive when it comes to sun protection and have it available both before and during race day, just like they work hard to provide adequate water and sports drink options. With all of the science, Lichtenfeld says it usually comes down to plain old common sense.
“Usually young people spend a lot of time outdoors, not only training but living outdoors and doing fun things,” Lichtenfeld says. “Use common sense, always balance caution with common sense.”