Runner’s Face: What It Is And 8 Ways To Avoid It

Exploring the Factors Behind Skin Damage and Steps to Prevent it.

There are certain maladies that runners are prone to and thus become familiar with over their years of running.

Examples include injuries like shin splints and plantar fasciitis, or conditions like delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and the dreaded runner’s trots.

“Runner’s face” might not be a term you’re necessarily familiar with, but if you’ve been running for many years, it may be something you’re unknowingly dealing with.

But what exactly is runner’s face? Runner’s face refers to the characteristic skin changes that lifelong runners may experience over time.

Is it a natural consequence of our beloved sport, or is there something we can do to prevent it? Let’s explore its causes, potential treatments, and, most importantly, practical tips to preserve the health and vitality of your skin.

A person with runner's face, holding her cheeks in her hands.

What Is Runner’s Face?

Runner’s face is a term used to describe the characteristic skin changes in the face that lifelong runners may experience over time, such as leathery, saggy-looking skin, premature wrinkles, sunken eyes, and an overall gaunt appearance.

Does Running Damage Your Face?

Although running does quite a few wonderful things for the body—and in many ways keeps your body young and helps with anti-aging—it’s not particularly kind to the skin.

Although there’s a lack of evidence supporting this theory, some dermatologists and plastic surgeons say —mobile, unsupported skin and fat tissue being subjected to repetitive pounding stride after stride, kilometer after kilometer.

But, in the absence of significant evidence demonstrating this association, many other skincare professionals say that it’s safe to assume that running itself doesn’t cause runner’s face.

A close-up of a person's face while they take our their headphone.

What Causes Runner’s Face?

How does running affect facial skin elasticity over time?

Besides the controversial idea that the jostling and pounding of running can damage the skin over time, there are other more substantiated factors that contribute to developing runner’s face. 

Sun exposure, free radicals, and low body fat are the primary factors that can cause runner’s face, or at least contribute to the premature aging of your facial skin.1Couppé, C., Svensson, R. B., Grosset, J.-F., Kovanen, V., Nielsen, R. H., Olsen, M. R., Larsen, J. O., Praet, S. F. E., Skovgaard, D., Hansen, M., Aagaard, P., Kjaer, M., & Magnusson, S. P. (2014). Life-long endurance running is associated with reduced glycation and mechanical stress in connective tissue. AGE36(4). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11357-014-9665-9

Sun Damage

Daily sun exposure while long-distance running can certainly cause skin damage if you’re running without wearing sunscreen on your face.

The UV rays of the sun cause oxidative damage by generating free radicals in the body.

Sun exposure without UV protection can cause wrinkles and sagging skin because the free radicals damage collagen in the skin.2Flament, F., Bazin, R., Rubert, V., Simonpietri, E., Piot, B., & Laquieze, S. (2013). Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology6, 221. https://doi.org/10.2147/ccid.s44686

Collagen and elastin are the two primary structural proteins that give skin its structure, elasticity, and turgidity.

As we age, our skin naturally produces less collagen and elastin, and exposure to UV rays from the sun further speeds up this process.

When the UV rays damage collagen, the skin begins to sag because the foundation has crumbled.

Sun exposure can also thicken skin, which creates an uneven tone and leathery texture of your face. UV rays can also cause more concerning issues like sunspots, pre-cancerous spots, and even skin cancer lesions.

The sun.

Exposure to Free Radicals

In addition to the free radicals caused by ultraviolet rays with unprotected sun exposure, running outside can subject your face to additional free radical exposure.

Your body produces free radicals when it is under some type of stress. 

Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause damage to other molecules, such as proteins, fats, and nucleic acids like DNA and RNA. Free radical damage can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.3NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. (2019). National Cancer Institute; Cancer.gov. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/free-radical

Free radical exposure can also cause some of the adverse, visible changes in your skin with runner’s face due to destruction and damage to the structural proteins in the skin and the fat that keeps your facial skin plump, nourished, and taut.4VinÑa, J., Gomez-Cabrera, M.-C., Lloret, A., Marquez, R., MiÑana, J., PallardÓ, F., & Sastre, J. (2001). Free Radicals in Exhaustive Physical Exercise: Mechanism of Production, and Protection by Antioxidants. IUBMB Life50(4), 271–277. https://doi.org/10.1080/713803729

Antioxidants can help combat the deleterious effects of free radicals because antioxidants act as free radical scavengers in the body, destroying these unstable molecules before they can damage other cells and tissues.

However, when the toxic load of free radicals surpasses the army of antioxidants in the body (the body creates antioxidants, and you can consume them in nutritious plant-based foods), oxidative damage will occur in the body.

Again, in terms of the skin, oxidative damage can destroy the collagen and elastin in the skin, which are the structural components that give your skin its normal stretch, bounce, texture, and form.

This, in turn, leads to symptoms of runner’s face like sagging skin, a leathery facial texture, and wrinkles.

A person taking a reading of the body fat on their abdomen.

Low Body Fat

Running tends to lean out the body. As a form of exercise, running burns a lot of calories.

While runners certainly come in all shapes and sizes, there are plenty of runners who have very low body fat percentages or who have lost a lot of weight, even if their body fat is still within an average range.

Either scenario can contribute to getting runner’s face.

Body fat is generally demonized, but it also has several beneficial functions in the body, one of which is adding plumpness and structure to the face.

Body fat gives your face its shape, forming your cheeks, softening your features, and filling in what would otherwise be wrinkles in your skin.

When your body fat is low, your face sags, and you look gaunt, with angular features, sunken eyes, and pointy cheekbones.

Furthermore, when you lose a lot of weight, your skin tends to sag because the fat tissue decreases, leaving the skin stretched out from the prior volume.

The collagen and elastin fibers can recoil somewhat, but often not fully, which is why you might have droopy cheeks and wrinkles.

A runner crouching down on a track.

8 Tips To Prevent Runner’s Face

You certainly don’t want to stop running just to avoid the potential risks of developing runner’s face.

How do you get rid of runners face? Fortunately, there are some effective prevention strategies to keep your face looking and feeling healthy.

Here are some tips to prevent runner’s face:

#1: Avoid Running In the Sun

Although it’s lovely to run on a sunny day, avoiding sun exposure is one of the best ways to prevent runner’s face. 

Run in the morning before the sun rises or in the evening after it sets.

Even if you choose to run when the sun is up, you can limit your sun exposure by avoiding running between peak sun hours (roughly 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM) and running on shady roads or trails.

A person squirting sunscreen into their hand.

#2: Protect Your Skin

Wear sunscreen for sun protection!

If you run in the daytime when the sun is up at all, you should always run in sweat-proof sunscreen. Yes, even on cloudy days.

Look for a broad-spectrum mineral-based sunscreen that is designed for sports so that it is both sweat and water-resistant. 

Apply it about 30 minutes before you head out for your run to allow ample time for the spf sunscreen to be absorbed by your skin.

You may even want to bring some with you on long runs and reapply halfway through if your face is sweating a lot.

You should also wear sunglasses and a hat or visor to keep the sun off your face. These items will help prevent squinting and scrunching your face, which can exacerbate wrinkles.

UV protective clothing will also be good for your body at large, though it won’t have a significant effect in terms of reducing the risk of runner’s face.

Can you reverse sun damage? Your best bet here is to focus on prevention.

#3: Moisturize Your Skin

Are there any skincare tips for runners to prevent skin damage?

If you want to slow the signs of aging, applying a moisturizer every day when you get up and every night before bed can help ensure your skin is nourished and hydrated and maintains its elasticity.

Look for moisturizers with vitamin C, and nutrients such as nicotinamide, which can help expedite skin cell turnover and combat oxidative damage.

A variety of fruits and vegetables.

#4: Eat Your Vegetables 

A diet high in antioxidants can help combat free radicals and prevent oxidative damage.

Fruits such as berries, nearly all vegetables, dark chocolate, coffee, and green tea are high in antioxidants. 

Eat the rainbow, from dark leafy greens and broccoli to red pepper, beets, and pumpkins; make sure to eat a diet high in phytonutrients and antioxidants.

#5: Stay Hydrated

Hydration is key.

Water is important not only for your running performance but also for forming the cytoplasm in all of your cells and giving them elasticity and shape.5Choi, J. W., Kwon, S. H., Huh, C. H., Park, K. C., & Youn, S. W. (2012). The influences of skin visco-elasticity, hydration level and aging on the formation of wrinkles: a comprehensive and objective approach. Skin Research and Technology19(1), e349–e355. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0846.2012.00650.x

When you’re dehydrated, your skin will sag and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles will look worse.6Cheuvront, S. N., & Kenefick, R. W. (2014). Dehydration: physiology, assessment, and performance effects. Comprehensive Physiology4(1), 257–285. https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c130017

A person holding a tub of moisturizer over one eye.

#6: Wear a Mask

If you’re running in a particularly smoggy area with lots of air pollution, wear a bandana or balaclava over your face to protect your skin. 

Better yet, consider running inside on the treadmill.

#7: Fat Is Your Friend

Foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3 fatty acids) as well as vitamin E can nourish skin cells and protect your cell membranes.

Examples include avocados, salmon, flaxseeds, almonds, olive oil, and pumpkin seeds.

#8: Cleanse Your Face

When you’re back from your run, wash your face to remove sweat and prevent clogged pores. A gentle facial scrub also promotes circulation to the face, which delivers oxygen and nutrients to combat free radicals.

Just because your face may take a bit of a beating over time, running is still such a beneficial form of exercise for your body overall. 

Taking a few precautions can help ensure you’re protecting your skin as much as possible, which will hopefully help prevent runner’s face and keep your face looking as young and healthy as you feel.

Running is great; it’s fun, great for your physical health, can aid in weight loss, and is a great way to socialize. But it’s important we take skin damage seriously. You won’t regret it.

Use sun protection serums on your face, arms, and lower body anywhere that is open to the sun!

If you are looking for tips for summer, check out:

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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