Burned beach bodies were all the rage in the 80s but we’re all a little smarter now and do our best to avoid burning, slopping sun cream on every time we so much as peek out into the sun. Trouble is, we may have actually gone too far - latest research is showing that sensible sun exposure can actually improve health and athletic performance.
Wacker and Holick, from Boston University Medical Centre, explain how, “the lack of appreciation of the importance of sensible sun exposure... has led to a worldwide vitamin D deficiency pandemic.”
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Benefits of Vitamin D
The sun is our best source of vitamin D by miles, and our vitamin D levels have a profound impact on our physical and mental health.
Yet the more we restrict sun exposure, it’s something we’re increasingly deficient in.
Vitamin D has a range of benefits:
- Improves muscle function
- Creates a stronger skeletal system
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves recovery time from training
- Decreases injury occurrence
- Decreases chronic disease occurrence
- Improves brain function
- Regulates hormone production
That’s some far-reaching effects from just one vitamin!
Vitamin D and sports performance
At the core of training is stress: we provide stress stimuli to our body which we then (hopefully) recover from.
Repeat this day in, day out and our bodies get stronger. The ability to recover quicker is at the heart of improved fitness and Vitamin D is well known to improve both muscle and skeletal repair.
Cycling in the sun will increase your Vitamin D levels
As one study states: “Undoubtedly, adverse risks are associated with vitamin D deficiency that will affect athletic performance directly and indirectly.”
More research – this time published in the Sports Health journal – further demonstrates the importance of Vitamin D within sports performance:
“There is strong correlation between vitamin D sufficiency and optimal muscle function. Increasing levels of vitamin D reduce inflammation, pain, and myopathy while increasing muscle protein synthesis, ATP concentration, strength, jump height, jump velocity, jump power, exercise capacity, and physical performance.”
And just in case you were still on the fence here, another study took 967 participants and had them perform a 1.5 mile run and a maximum deadlift test.
Researchers found a correlation between Vitamin D status and endurance performance with a 5% variation between those with high compared to low levels.
Vitamin D levels affect injury risk
Last but not least vitamin D deficiency is also linked to injury occurrence.
The article referenced earlier in Sports Health also said that “for athletes presenting with stress fractures, musculoskeletal pain, and frequent illness, one should have a heightened awareness of the additional likely diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency.”
So why are athletes deficient in Vitamin D?
- Excessive sunscreen use which blocks UVB rays - this is the big one, and best of all is easily addressed safely
- Training early morning or late evening
- Increased time training indoors – either to avoid the sun or for convenience
- Wearing protective clothing during training/racing
Wearing long sleeves could result in a Vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D and sunscreen
We’ve long been drilled now by ads, government campaigns and more that if we’re heading into the sunlight, we need sunscreen.
That’s fine, but sales of sunscreen have increased in direct relation to skin cancer incidence.
We’re not suggesting causation, but indirectly there could be an effect: once the sunscreen is lathered, we feel invincible to the sun’s power, often resulting in unnatural overexposure.
Alongside this, sunscreen reduces Vitamin D absorption – a deficiency in which increases skin cancer incidence.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests low Vitamin D levels are associated with sunscreen use. Even in Australia – you know, that country that receives its fair share of sunlight – it’s now recognised that years of sunscreen use has led to 40% of the population having a Vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D and other health issues
Vitamin D has a well-known impact on calcium metabolism and bone health and, as a study in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine states, Vitamin D also has “increasingly recognized associations with chronic health problems such as bowel and colonic cancer, arthritis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
This kind of sun exposure – intense, infrequent doses – can have severe health consequences
Exercise can help reduce skin cancer risk
We also can’t avoid the topic of skin cancer here, which is of course very serious, but as a great sporting side benefit exercise enhances a process called UVB-induced apoptosis - the killing of sun-damaged cells.
Allan Conney of Rutgers University states “While UVB is triggering the development of tumours, exercise is counteracting the effect by stimulating the death of the developing cancer cells.”
In short, exercise alone can help mitigate skin cancer risk.
A further study in Cell Metabolism researched the impact of exercise on three different types of cancer.
The results were startling: tumour incidence reduced by a whopping 60% across five different cancers in those allowed to exercise.
Even the British Medical Journal demonstrated that low levels of Vitamin D from lack of sun exposure was “as damaging to our health as smoking, inactivity and obesity.”
How to improve your Vitamin D levels
There are two main sources of Vitamin D:
1. The Sun
The recommended dosage of sun exposure is “five to 20 minutes per day to 5% of exposed skin at a UVB radiation of 290-315nm two to three times per week” according to an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
As your skin tans - which is a healthy side effect of sun exposure - longer periods are needed to build D levels. In fact, the more you tan the less likely you are to burn and the more your Vitamin D levels rise, the less likely you are to burn. Win win.
Approach it right, and sensible sun exposure will improve your health and performance
In real terms, this means capitalising on short exposures without sunscreen on a relatively frequent basis, and being sure to never burn.
Not sitting in the for eight hours on the first day of summer, scorching yourself!
2. Your diet
Vitamin D is found in a range of plant and animal food sources. While they’re generally not potent enough to increase levels, ensuring you consume rich Vitamin D sources can help maintain levels.
We don’t generally encourage supplementation beyond a healthy diet focused on nutrient dense whole foods but for athletes, particularly in winter, Vitamin D supplementation is a wise investment.
Sensible sun exposure and athletes – conclusion
It’s an emotive subject, but wider reading certainly gives perspective on a topic which isn’t as one-sided as it’s often presented.
The sun is not the enemy. Inadequate and erratic exposure clearly impacts Vitamin D levels which has far-reaching health consequences.
Stick to short-term, regular and natural exposure without burning and you’ll get the ideal dose of a powerful vitamin to boost both overall health and sports performance too.
If you are heading out to train under the sun, be sure to consume sports nutrition which contains electrolytes to replace those lost through sweating. Better Fuel is not only made from solely natural ingredients but also contains potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium
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