It's almost impossible to be a part of the cycling multi-verse and not have heard the term "marginal gains." This term was made popular in 2015 by the commentators of many big bike races, most notably Le Tour de France, as they discussed Team Sky's approach of making sure every detail was taken care of. According to CNBC,
"Sir Dave Brailsford, former performance director of British Cycling, revolutionized the sport using the theory of marginal gains....
As this thinking became a culture and a philosophy shared by all members of Brailsford’s team, they kept searching for any and every area where they could make tiny improvements. Their goal was a marginal or 1% gain in every aspect of their training and environment.
Individually, each incremental change may have seemed unnecessary or random, but collectively, they helped create a powerhouse with a level of success that became the envy of the cycling world."
Well, this post is certainly about something relatively easy and "small" that we all can do, but its impact might not be so marginal.
I'm referring to making sure that, as we head out for 30 minute quick ride or an all day adventure, we put on that sunscreen and/or protective layers.
On a very surface (no pun intended) level, getting sun burnt just hurts. It's uncomfortable, can make sleeping tough, and generally make you feel more tired than you are.
From a performance standpoint, if your body is using significant resources to repair damaged skin, and then those resources are not available to repair your body from the effects of training. Sun burn is a form of inflammation, something we typically want to minimize.
Continuing along the lines of performance, if the burn is uncomfortable enough to disrupt sleep, you have now robbed your body of that most crucial time of repair and adaptations. The poor sleep can also negatively impact your next training session, and the snowball effect continues.
But the most important consideration is the long term damage that sun burn does to our skin, which can lead to much more serious implications down the road.
From the MD Anderson Cancer Center:
"How your skin changes during a sunburn
When ultraviolet radiation from the sun reaches the skin, it damages the skin cells and causes mutations in their DNA.
“Our bodies have a lot of amazing mechanisms to prevent and even correct these mutations,” George says. “But if the skin cells get more UV exposure than they can handle, the damage may be beyond repair, and the cells die off. Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow and bring immune cells to the skin to help clean up the mess. All this causes the redness, swelling and inflammation we associate with a sunburn.”
The sunburn will eventually heal, but some of the surviving cells will have mutations that escape repair. These cells could eventually become cancerous.
Can you reverse sun damage?
Some beauty products claim they can reverse sun damage or even stimulate cell repair. But no research has shown that any topical skin care product or lotion can reverse sun damage.
“There’s no simple way to undo sun damage yet,” George says. “But there are lots of simple ways to prevent it by being sun-safe and avoiding sunburns.”"
So that's the key right there: prevention.
I am much more careful now than I was in the past, using both chemical and mechanical forms of sun protection. I got these arm skins (arm coolers) from Champion Systems pictured to the left a couple of summers ago and love them for their speed and effectiveness. Speed? Yes, much faster than applying sunscreen to my arms for a sunny jaunt on my bike.
Are they hot? No, I'm not going to say they're "cool", but up to mid 80's they don't bother me too much. There's lighter options and colors out there, too. They make them for your knees and full legs, too.
Do watch with your kit. Some jerseys these days are almost see-through and don't provide much of a Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF).
In addition to my clothing, I hit the sunscreen religiously now. Most on the time I use the goopy zinc based stuff, but I figure if I'm going for it, I probably should use something healthy and decent. For those super long days out in the sun, I'll even throw a small tube or stick in my pocket and re-apply.
I know, I know. It's just one more thing as you're trying to get out the door for your 60 minute lunch ride or squeezing in 75 minutes before that next client meeting. But the 5 minutes you take to protect your skin, can turn into hours and hours saved by not having to go to the dermatologist. And that of course can transition from an inconvenience to a serious problem very quickly.
Here are some good articles with sunscreen options, how and when to apply, as well as more information and tips:
And this podcast really only touches on the issue, but if you've been in the mountain bike world for a while like I have, it might really hit home with you, too. Travis Brown was one of the mountain bike superstars from the 90's into 2000's, and to hear him talk about his scare with cancer was very, very real:
Colby Pearce on Fasttalk
So let's all take care of our largest organ so we can keep riding our bikes and enjoying other out of door activities for the rest of our lives. As a coach, I want to foster life-long cyclists so let's all stay healthy.
There are so many options now with sprays, creams, sticks, etc. that we really don't have an excuse. Do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones, and, at the very least, do it for performance.
Coach B.L. is the head coach at BJL Coaching and an avid racer and cycling enthusiast himself.