Skin Dipping

Safety in the sun can be pretty dull: “Have you got a hat on darling?” We have been force-fed this message since we were kids. But there’s one thing duller than listening to the theme, ‘slip-slop-slap-slide’ for the millionth time – that’s sitting in a cancer ward having chemotherapy. Apparently, it’s a real drag. If you’re the type to flick the page because this doesn’t apply to you, at least take a good note of all the tips in the summary box. It might save your life.

Protecting your skin from the sun is not that complicated, but there are some fail-safe little tricks I want to share. Also, a discussion on what athletes with more sensitive complexions can do to look after their allergies or dry skin in the context of a sport that is run and won in the elements. Cue images of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii; the day after with athlete’s numbers sunburnt onto their deltoids like a chalk outline in a crime scene…

Without a doubt, training in the heat of the day is well covered by most athletes. But everyone makes mistakes. On a hot day, you rush out of the house without sunglasses or remembering to apply sunscreen. Write yourself a little list and keep it on the shed wall for that ‘leaving’ moment. Getting home with red sleeves is avoidable. I keep a little single-use sachet of sunscreen in my bags/bike bento box for the time that I forget to put on cream.
It has been a skin saver many a time.

If you are at the beach/pool solo to have a cheeky open water and don’t have any cream on your back don’t get in the water! There is a solution. Sure, you’re probably single because triathlon has taken up all of your time and you now have no one to sensuously and lasciviously apply sunscreen to your supple skin…ooooh! Spray cans of sunscreen are perfect for this very purpose – it gets to the hard-to-reach areas. With spray cans, you can even ask a complete stranger to apply sunscreen to your back without feeling creeped out by their grubby hands touching you. (The last option – put your profile on Tri-Tinder and see if there’s someone else out there just like you!)

Consider using a swim skin for the times you are training post dawn (i.e. after 10am). Your back and neck get a lot of sun over the years – a swim skin will help to keep you sun smart. Also, don’t forget to re-apply sunscreen when you get out of the pool for your next session or your recovery lie down. Here’s the thing – an application sunscreen is supposed to last for four hours, but this rating will have been affected by sweating inside the pool or suit. So it really needs another robust application. If you don’t, you’re going to hurt. Not to mention the fact that being sunburnt is a barrier to optimal recovery for your next session – valuable energy is being spent on repairing your skin instead of your muscles.

In general, this is the element that is poorly managed by athletes. Everyone puts on sunscreen (if it’s been added to their list of required items in the kit bag) just prior to the race. Then they pull a wetsuit over their skin, dislodging most of the cream that hasn’t been wiped in. The skin needs to be given time to absorb the cream, so it isn’t immediately protecting the inside of the wettie instead of you!

Once you have lathered yourself in sunscreen, make sure you don’t forget to protect the more sensitive parts of your body as well. Use a barrier cream on the perineum where you are likely to get friction on the bike. Be liberal. Add some to your nipples, under-arms and neck.

The edge of the wettie has taken so many victims’ necks over the years…mine has been a notch in the belt many a time. I find the swim specific products simply not up to scratch for the longer races – even if it still there at the end of the swim, it’s gone when you need it on the bike and run. I would prefer to replace a wetsuit every couple of years than an excoriated neck. Also, suits never tear at the neck; it’s always at the seams or where you grab at them to get them off in a hurry.

After the swim, reapply your sunscreen in transition or on the bike. Remember: you must reapply! See my earlier comments on how sunscreen time ratings don’t apply in training. Avoiding burning is performance enhancing. Blood sent to the skin for burns (however mild) is taking valuable circulating volume for your exercising muscles. Not only that, but any skin lost to neck rub leaves your dermis even more exposed to UV. I prefer to apply sunscreen at 40km/hour on the bike rather than stationary in transition, so I keep a sachet in my race suit pocket for the bike and run. Besides, the volunteer ‘helping’ you in T1 will almost certainly blind you in one eye with what feels like acid based sunscreen!

Sensitive issue: Having sensitive skin and swimming can for some be like oil and water … they dont mix. However, there are solutions.


Athletes with allergies to chlorine know how frustrating life can be after a visit to the pool. Even those with mild sensitivities can get itchy skin and mucous membranes after a long session in the chlorine or ozone. My tips are to take your own soaps – the liquid soap provided at the pool is almost certainly meant for terminators only. Bring your moisturiser with you to the pool and apply it immediately after your swim to optimise sensitive areas like skin creases at the backs of knees and arms. Use a cream laced with sunscreen for double protection.

Another useful item for those with mucus-membrane sensitivities is a hayfever relief product (an antihistamine) for immediately after the swim. Do this as soon as you get out of the pool to avoid the sneezing that invariably will afflict you in the hours after a splash. Of course, the best way to avoid chlorine allergies is to, well, avoid chlorine – use the open water when you can over the summer period.


  • Have a tick-a-box list of elements for training and racing
  • Glasses/goggles are protection against UV
  • Apply cream at least ten minutes before you put on your wetsuit
  • Apply cream well inside the areas of the race garment
  • Spray-on cream for singles
  • Keep a ‘to do’ list on your shed wall
  • Have cream in all bags/bento boxes
  • Reapply, reapply, and reapply
  • Papaya on the undercarriage/underarms
  • Early moisture for sensitive skin
  • Use your own soaps/meds post swim


Mitch Anderson

Dr. Mitch Anderson is one of the premier sports doctors in Melbourne working out his practice Shinbone Medical in North Melbourne. The former professional triathlete is your go-to triathlon doctor.

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