Sun Exposure, Vitamin D, and Sailing

Published on August 2nd, 2017

Sailing Performance Training, a global fitness company which provides services for sailors, shares this report on why sun exposure is vital to your health and performance.


The nature of our sport requires that we work, train, commute, compete, and socialize in the outdoors. Of all the outdoor sports, we likely have one of the highest exposure times to the sun consistently through the year than any other.

What does this mean? Are we at higher risk for skin cancer? Or are sailors actually deficient of Vitamin D, which plays an important attribute towards improved athletic performance?

Well, to be honest there is not a lot of research being done about this within our community. However, what we do know is that one of the most direct correlations between the developments of melanoma in the sailing community is from the incidence of sunburn during childhood.

A majority of one’s total lifetime exposure to the sun comes during the first 18 years of life, especially with junior sailing programs training kids under the sun all day, every day during the summer months.

Thus, there definitely is a higher risk of skin cancer for our sport with the extreme duration of sun exposure during a lifetime of sailing. And certainly best practices for decreasing sunburn while sailing should be implemented.

With longer days and shorter nights signaling the beginning of summer, most sailors are either embracing the summer months and hours on the water with either little concern for sunburn or total coverage 24/7. Both of these attitudes are unhealthy but how much is enough when it comes to sun exposure?

Our life is influenced by our orbit around the sun making sunshine important to our health and physical potential. Sunlight can help regulate our sleep cycle and promote deeper recovery. Another important benefit that comes with sensible sun exposure is Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps strengthen your bones, which can prevent bone fractures and chronic muscle pain.

But don’t just take our word for it. Pro sports teams are now wise to the athletic benefits of Vitamin D too.

A 2015 study of the Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL) published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that Vitamin D levels were significantly lower in football players with at least one bone fracture. Players who were released during the preseason due to injury or poor performance also had significantly lower Vitamin D levels than those who made the team.

Another study conducted on the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) proved consistent sun exposure strengthened fast-twitch muscle fibers, stopped inflammation, and reduced the chances of contracting a respiratory infection among the hockey players.

Enette Larson-Meyer, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming who studied the Blackhawks notes said, “We know lack of Vitamin D can compromise athletic performance. The week before a fit event, you may want to get some sun.”

But how much sun is required for optimal athletic performance?

OPEX Coach, Sean McGovern explains it depends on the shade of your skin. “Generally speaking, the paler you are, the less time you need to spend outside in the sun to get the suggested amount of Vitamin D. The darker you are, the more time you need to spend outside.”

Darker skin is a protective evolutionary adaptation response to excessive sunlight, while paler skin is an adaptation response to less light in the environment. This means two things, those with darker skin won’t burn as quickly in the sun, but require more time in the sun to produce optimum amounts of Vitamin D. Conversely, those with paler skin will burn more quickly in the sun, but don’t need as much time in the sun to get the optimal level of Vitamin D.

The distance from the equator, season, and time of day also dictate whether Vitamin D is available from the sun. Cloud cover, pollution, sunblock, sun protective clothing and age also influence production of Vitamin D from the sun.

Even with individuals such as sailors, who spend ample time outdoors, may still need vitamin D supplementation to maintain adequate levels during the winter months. While the sun is the most plentiful source of Vitamin D, there are also some dietary sources.

Some common foods contain significant levels of Vitamin D, naturally, including salmon, fatty fish, and egg yolks. While these dietary sources may appear significant, the process of absorbing dietary Vitamin D is only about 50% efficient; therefore, much of the nutrient value is lost during digestion. The lack of dietary Vitamin D is yet another factor that increases the risk of Vitamin D insufficiency.

That is why as OPEX coaches we look at each individual athlete’s case to determine how nutrition, digestion, sun exposure and supplementation might play an effect in an athlete’s levels of Vitamin D for performance.

Reaching your performance goals requires an awareness of what takes place outside of the gym, as well as in it.

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