One thing that gnaws at me nearly every day is my run last year at Ironman Louisville.  I honestly thought I felt good off the bike, but completely crumbled one mile into the heat.  Since that day I have been searching for a reason why and may have finally shed some light on this perpetual nagging.

I was talking with a friend who cycles a lot with a woman (we’ll call her Susan) who is a six time KONA Qualifier.  She was trying to articulate just how and why KONA is such a hard race, and said it all boils down to the heat, humidity, wind, and sun.  She said, “You have to have your body ready for those elements, and that includes your skin.”

I’ve always been skeptical of sunscreen, in fact, I’ve always thought it causes more problems than it solves. Evidently Susan agrees.

She said, “Whenever I see Age Groupers lathering up with sunscreen in transition, I think to myself, ‘they’re fucked.”’

“What else did she say?” I eagerly asked my buddy.

Her point is that sunscreen doesn’t let the skin breath or cool itself by freely sweating.  It’s like a car engine running without a fan.  It keeps getting hotter and eventually cooks itself from the inside out. And the car engine is at its absolute hottest right after it stops.

Ahh, like in T2 right after the bike.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used sunscreen for a race, except at Louisville, and trust me, I lathered it on (maybe too much?).  It’s a tough call when you know the 95 degree sunshine will bake you for the next 10 hours because sunburn isn’t an effective race strategy either.

Sunburn and sunscreen during triathlon
The aftermath of Ironman New Orleans 70.3

I will never be certain, but this sunscreen theory makes a lot of sense to me.  I “thought” I felt good off the bike because the wind in your face can mask overheating.  Then I stopped and literally walked into an oven on the run.  At mile one, I was cooked.  Done.  I can honestly say I don’t know if I have ever felt hotter in my life.

It was a persistent and brutal heat that never went away.  It made no sense to me at the time.  How can you not cool down when you have ice on your head, on your stomach, and in your tri shorts?  I covered my arms, shoulders, and neck with a substance that didn’t allow my body to sweat and cool like it normally would.  Add excessive water consumption to the equation and you can see how that could turn your stomach into a boiling cauldron.

It’s not like I didn’t train in similar conditions, either.  I purposely spent a lot of time in the Nashville sun including long floats in my pool to build a base tan.

On top of the heat issue, this article claims that 75% of sunscreens are toxic.

In this video, triathlete Ben Greenfield talks sunscreen, including why he rarely wears it, but he does say he applies it during races, but only certain kinds.

Like most things, this is a risk/reward scenario.  Even Susan said she knows it’s probably not the healthiest thing for her skin, but she always tries to train in the sun and even spends time in the tanning bed.  Her reward is being competitive and 6 visits to KONA.  Her risk is potential skin problems, but then you have articles like this that say sunscreen may actually accelerate the risk of cancer.

Hell, I don’t really know, and I’m certainly not a doctor, but I also think a lot of doctors perpetuate concepts that fuel their business.

In the meantime, here’s a link to buy sunscreen for  your dog.


Sunscreen and Racing Triathlon



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