Will a Sun Tan make You FASTER? (Part 1)
Let’s face it, who doesn’t look forward to a sunshine filled summer and the chance to get out in the great outdoors unencumbered by layers of warm and waterproof clothing? It is also a chance to get that healthy looking ‘go faster’ tan.
There’s a link between attractiveness and skin tone, and as the proliferation of tanning salons on the high street would suggest it’s far from just athletes and sports people that crave that healthy look. However, if you believe a 2014 study ‘A relationship between attractiveness and performance in professional cycling’, an ‘attractiveness’ boosting tan could be the latest ergogenic aid. Researchers did after all find a positive relationship between facial attractiveness and physical performance (Postma, 2014)
However, before you rush out for that factor zero turbo tanning lotion and expose yourself to potentially dangerous levels of UV radiation in search of that elusive go faster ‘tan’, it is worth considering the potential risks and rewards. Never mind exploring the probability of any causal mechanism, beyond a deep tan being a sign significant training volume.
Whilst many people regard skin as simply an outer shell to keep the rest of the body together, it is worth remembering that the skin is the largest organ of the body and has important functions for the senses, thermoregulation and for the production of vitamins. Given these important functions, it would not be surprising to find links between skin health and performance. Skin is most commonly associated with vitamin D. It is difficult to consume optimal amounts of vitamin D in the diet without supplementation, and many people are thought to be deficient because they do not have sufficient sun exposure for the body to synthesis its own. In many latitudes for much of the year the sun is not strong enough to help the body produce vitamin D. When it is, there is potential for 30 minutes of full body exposure to produce over 20,000 IU’s so this may be a useful way to top up this important hormone like vitamin.
Given the link between optimal vitamin D levels and muscle function, perhaps there is something in that go faster tan, however, once you step back and view the big picture, as ever things become more complicated. Recent research in photobiology indicates that whilst sun exposure may increase vitamin D, it may decrease other performance linked vitamins such as folic acid and vitamin B12 (Cabrera et al 2014). Athletes often get tanned very quickly on the areas of skin that are routinely exposed to the sun. The increased melanin concentration then makes it more difficult for the body to produce vitamin D. This can also be a real problem for naturally dark-skinned individuals who often struggle to produce sufficient vitamin D with only sporadic sun exposure.
It is also worth questioning whether a sun tan, caused by the body increasing the concentration of melanin pigment in the skin to protect against burning, is really an indicator of health and attractiveness. Recent research has differentiated between skin shades produced by melanin pigments and the golden colour produced from a high content of carotenoids. The conclusions were summed up nicely in the title of a research publication;- ‘Fruit over sunbed: carotenoid skin colouration is found more attractive than melanin colouration
Carotenoids are phytonutrients such as lutein, lycopene and carotene found in fruit and vegetables. These are consumed in high amounts in a Mediterranean diet and this is partly responsible for the olive complexion of Mediterranean populations. It is also possible that a true go faster ‘tan’ is likely to be found in the vegetable aisle rather than the tanning salon! Recently the short term effects of a Mediterranean diet on performance were studied in fit healthy students, basically eating more fruit and vegetables than in a standard western diet improved 5km times by 6% in 4 days (Baker et al 2019)
There is probably an innate evolutionary mechanism associate with partner selection for reproduction that links high visual levels of carotenoids in the skin with attractiveness (Stephen et al 2019). High levels are associated with improved immune defence, photoprotection and reproductive health, factors also likely to benefit sports performance.
So, eating more fruit and vegetables may give your skin a golden glow that may truly be associated with sports success, it may also help to protect against molecular damage caused by vitamin D producing sunlight.