After growing up through countless cold and wet Irish winters (and springs, summers, autumns...) my husband Malachy and I made the move Down Under in search of sun, sand, and adventure. Six years later and we are still living the Aussie dream in Melbourne, officially voted the 'World's Most Liveable City' after topping the poll for a record six years in a row. Melbourne is prone to somewhat changeable weather, we regularly experience ‘four seasons in one day’ where it can be beautiful one minute and pouring rain the next. Temperatures soar in summer and can drop drastically in winter, but once you’ve experienced an Irish winter it changes your frame of reference so we can certainly tolerate those so-called ‘cold’ Melbourne days.
Now as far as skin tones go, you could most accurately describe us as 'Pale'. Quite pale. So pale in fact there isn't really an Emoji smiley face white enough to convey the extreme ghostly pallor with which we were blessed at birth. Pale enough to be admired and photographed by throngs of excited Indonesian kids on a beach in Bali, or mobbed by amused locals on our travels in Thailand. We do not tan. When the sun comes out we vary between shades of slightly less pale, to a delicate pale pink, to an angry darker pink and so forth. So as you can imagine, the sudden change in climate on arriving in the merry old land of Oz came as a bit of a shock. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
Training for triathlon and racing are tough enough at the best of times - training and racing under the Aussie sun poses a whole new set of challenges. Growing up in Ireland sunscreen wasn't exactly high on anyone's shopping list. On a ‘good’ day in summer, we might have splashed on a bit as an afterthought, but it was never anything higher than SPF15. On moving to Melbourne, where temperatures sit around mid-30s (80s in Fahrenheit) in peak summer, we quickly learned the hard way that sunscreen is a daily requirement and SPF 50+ soon became part of our routine.
With triathlon season now in full swing I've had no choice but to brave the elements and train through a long, hot Melbourne summer. Here are a few tips and tricks I've learned along the way on coping with the heat and protecting my skin. (After all, one must remain in tip-top photographable paleness in case of any upcoming overseas holidays, wouldn't want to disappoint the locals.)
- Where possible in training and racing I wear something made from an SPF50+ material. It saves time applying sunscreen under my kit because believe it or not, the sun doesn't care what you are wearing and if your tri-suit / cycling jersey is not made from a sun protective material then it still gets through and you will burn. Yes, I am speaking from experience! A hat or visor and sunglasses will also go some way to protecting your face.
- Make SPF your BFF. I'm not just talking about applying it in all of the obvious places. Don't forget about under your chin, behind your knees, and backs of your hands when wearing a wetsuit, I've often come out of the water with lovely red hands after open water swimming in the sun. The back of the neck and ears are also prime areas for getting burnt and are very common sites for melanoma to develop so beware. Don’t forget to use a lip balm with SPF, and be careful with race numbers and temporary tri-tats - they look great but as soon as they start to rub off during the race, it leaves the skin below exposed to the sun and can lead to some oddly shaped sunburn....one year I had a nice rectangle with a perfectly shaped number ‘0’ burned onto my arm for the whole summer following a race.
- Hydration is key. Pre-hydrate the day before a long training session or race. Alternate between water and electrolytes to keep your electrolytes balanced and help prevent dehydration on the day. If you know you will be racing on a particularly hot day, freeze your water bottle the night before and leave it in transition on race morning. By the time you finish the swim and head out on the bike, you’ll appreciate a cool drink. Obviously, the sun needs to be up for long enough for this to work so only do it if you’re racing somewhere hot and you’re sure the ice will have time to melt before you get on the bike!
- Choose your race wisely. Some people enjoy training and racing in the heat, some don’t. Be sensible, if you’re not comfortable riding and running in high temperatures then don’t sign up for Ironman Western Australia for example (FYI - this is the race I was referring to in the beginning, in 2017 temperatures reached almost 40 and the swim was actually abandoned after great white sharks were spotted in the water....). Perhaps you go better in cooler conditions, in which case Tri-Tyrone, a 70.3 race in the middle of Northern Ireland in ‘summer’ might be more up your street!
- Training times - where possible try to get your training out of the way early in the day before the sun reaches its peak. On those long training days, you often have no choice but to finish a long ride or run in hotter temperatures as it gets later in the day. I try to choose a route where I know there will be lots of drink stations or water taps along the way, or at least somewhere I can stop to buy something if I need to.
- Awareness of the dangers of sunburn has increased in Australia over the years. The introduction of ‘Slip-Slop-Slap’, a widespread public education campaign in the 1980s to encourage the use of sunscreen and reduced sun exposure has gone a long way in helping to lower the incidence of certain types of skin cancer in Australia.
I am very much a ‘fair weather athlete’, I don’t enjoy being cold and would rather train through summer than winter whenever possible. As long as I am well prepared for it and do what I can to protect my skin I will continue to make the most of it. After all, this is Melbourne, it might be 30 degrees this morning and cold and raining again by this afternoon! Time to slip-slip-slap and get out there.
Written by Roisin Friel, Siren Luminary
Follow Roisin on Instagram! @roisinmcgirr