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May 7, 2014 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I can't sweat on one side of my face - What are the implications for endurance sports/running a marathon?

I'm a newbie runner and my secret long term goal is to run a marathon and my secreter longer term goal is to qualify to run the Boston Marathon 5-10 years after that. I had surgery on my neck on a nerve that is apparently linked to the fight or flight response, the cervical sympathetic nerve. I apologize if I get technical about this part because I find it fascinating and I have been reading all about my body's thermoregulation systems and neural responses, which are interesting. Anyway, the surgery deactivated the nerve function on that side, with the effects that I am unable to sweat on that side of my face (face only - doesn't affect neck or scalp), don't flush on that side of my face in response to heat/exertion and it has some other un-sports related effects on my taste and ability of my pupil to dilate and tear ducts. So when I go out for a hard run, one side of my face remains totally dry and non-salty while the other one gets sweaty and I get really red on one side and pale on the other, with the effect that I look like the jack from a deck of cards or the villain from Batman with two faces or like there was a strange tanning bed mishap. Also, I noticed that the temperature of the surface of my skin stays very cool on the non-flushing non-sweating side and on the other it gets quite hot.

I was trying to figure out, on the range of totally negligible to significant risk of heat stroke, where this would land if I wanted to run a marathon, or if I worked up to longer runs. I was reading that the function of flushing is that your capillaries at the surface of your skin open up and expand so that your body can dissipate the heat building up internally. I wondered if, given that the total surface area of that part of my body is small in relation to the rest of my self, it makes much difference at all, or if on the other hand it is significant since it seems like the head/face is an important area to be able to get rid of heat from. Or if it's like something to worry about only on hot days, or to keep in mind in general.

So, is it something can be pretty much fully accounted for by getting a spritzer water bottle and doing my runs out of the sun or are the body's thermal regulation mechanisms more fine tuned and finicky than that? Especially in a setting like the marathon where people collapsing is not that uncommon. I can ask my surgeon or talk to a neurologist but I thought it might be interesting to get the multidisciplinary perspective from metafilter.
posted by mermily to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a physician, and this is not medical advice. (I am a doctor, but not that kind of doctor!)

I think the fact that it's a small portion of your total body area, and that the non-sweating side stays cool (presumably because the capillaries aren't expanding), means it won't be a problem. I tend to sweat much more from my scalp than my face when running; I wear a headband to keep it out of my eyes, even when I'm running in temperatures just over freezing.

Collapsing is not actually that common in marathons except among the untrained, outside of extreme heat conditions. If you sweat copiously from other parts of your body, wiping that side of your face with a little sweat from time to time might help with evaporative heat cooling in high temperatures.

I'd be more concerned about your overall sweat production. I sweat like a racehorse and used to do 10-15 mile runs in 95 degree weather at over 90% relative humidity (summer in Chicago - how I don't miss you!). My wife, who is not a copious sweater, has to be a lot more careful when exercising in the heat.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:10 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Swearing various greatly from runner to runner; the tiny area of your face is trivial in comparison to a whole body's worth of sweating/dilation; nonetheless it will hopefully prompt you to be aware and practice safe heat management.

By way of example my partner and I are both runners with similar bmi etc; I sweat probably twice as much as her, twice as long with comparative runs, it's just the way I'm made. I also feel the heat more than her and it also affects my times more than her. But her relative lack of sweat hasn't hurt her. Indeed, I'm jealous of it at times!
posted by smoke at 8:14 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

FYI I understand sweating varies quite a lot, too. A heh heh.
posted by smoke at 10:12 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Collapsing in marathon isn't all that common. And those who do collapse are usually fine within a half hour. Also I think you'll be fine because it's such a small surface area and you won't be redlining it where 2% difference in sweat would be the difference between running and injury or collapsing.
posted by crawltopslow at 9:26 AM on May 8, 2014

Best answer: I'm not a doctor either.

The small surface area involved may or may not make a significant difference, but as others upthread have mentioned, people differ in their heat tolerance.

Have you measured your sweat rate? Doing this a few times will give you an idea of what's normal for you.

Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of heat stress, heat stroke and heat exhaustion and take the necessary steps to keep yourself safe.

Wear the best moisture-wicking clothing you can find. I've noticed differences in wicking ability among various brands.

Wear sunblock. Good, sweat-proof sunblock that's broad-spectrum and has a high SPF. Put it on any part of you that may be exposed during your run. (I have learned this the hard way.)

If you can stand to wear a visor, do that. It'll shade your face but still give the breeze a chance to cool your scalp, (sunblock your part line if you have thin hair, though).

I've found it helpful to run shirtless; my belly is a natural radiator.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 3:02 PM on May 8, 2014

Response by poster: Brilliant, thanks everyone.
posted by mermily at 5:27 PM on May 8, 2014

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