Friction!

Inner thighs. Butt. Nipples. Underarms. These are the common sites for the nastiest of nasty sporting afflictions – chafing. It results from the repetitive rub-rub-rubbing of skin against skin or skin against fabric and if you don’t deal with it when you first feel stinging then you’ll end up with a red and raw wound that will not only make every movement an excruciating experience but could end your race. The glass-half-full side of chafing is that it can be prevented and, if you’re quick, you can stop a little skin irritation from developing into a bleeding welt.

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Running

For running, there are four approaches to chafing:

  • Wear the right clothing that fits properly
  • Keep prone areas dry
  • Use a lubricant as a preventative or solution
  • Maintain your hydration.

Common to guys and girls is rubbing of the inner thigh – and it doesn’t take having thunder thighs to be victim. Sometimes this chafe results from skin-on-skin rubbing – determined by the length and cut of your shorts – but is also caused when seams catch. This is usually in the crease of the groin, upper part of the inner thigh or in line with the hem. Light weight, technical, quick-dry fabrics with a smooth finish are not fail-safe.

Lycra knee-length shorts (or tights in winter) usually solve all thigh-rubbing issues but make sure they’re not the padded, cycling version. Try a few sizes and cuts to get the right fit because too tight shorts will get you in the groin and, interestingly, cause rubbing between your butt cheeks. Too loose can be just as bad. Guys, try on women’s lycra shorts too. They’re a bit more generous in the waist and thigh. Ensure that the elastic in the hem fits snugly as it keeps the material from riding up and causing folds that could irritate.

Talcum powder is top of the list to dry the skin. It is best dusted on to prone parts (underarm, groin and also feet) pre-run. Although talc can deal with early signs of irritation, it is ineffective once the skin is raw.

Lubricants, a.k.a. lubes, work by eliminating friction to allow skin areas to slide smoothly past each other. As a preventative, apply the balm to prone sites before you head out the door – you may need to reapply later so keep a small vial with you.

Vaseline is certainly the most popular and inexpensive favourite. Natural bee’s wax and Bodyglide® are used by Triathlete Caroline Koll to ease her wetsuit on and off, especially for sea swims. “Both of these are so good that I use them for running too,” she adds. A veterinary balm designed for cow udders is a less traditional but highly-effective, anti-chafe option.

If your chafing situation is looking bad, consider taking off your shorts and turning them inside out (seams now on the outside), rearranging the fabric away from the site of rubbing or taking them off completely. Undies can help to limit movement of the family jewels.

Many male runners come across the finish line with bloody blotches on their vests from chafed nipples. This is an issue of fabric type and fit of the vest (too loose or too tight). Lubricant or plaster applied pre-race is the easiest solution.

Where sports bras protect women from nipple chafe, they cause problems in other areas. Under the rear hook-and-eye fasteners, underarm and beneath the front bra line are common chafe sites. Backpacks aggravate the issue. To reduce the chance and severity of chafing, make sure your sports bra is a good fit to minimise bounce and as lubes are ineffective here, tape areas prone to rubbing. Adventure racer Tatum Prins agrees: “I use a seriously sticky, waterproof tape that doesn’t come off easily to prevent chafe from my sports bra and backpack”.

By drinking water regularly during exercise you’ll continue to sweat freely. On a hot day perspiration-damp, moisture-wicking clothing is a good thing. If perspiration slows and your garments dry the small, gritty, salt crystals that form will increase the likelihood of irritation and chafing.

Blisters on feet result from the same three gremlins as chafing – heat, moisture and friction.

Biking

Bike riding and a chafed nether region may seem inevitable, but they aren’t. One word: lube. Caroline favours baby-bottom creams for long hours in the saddle. “I particularly like Woodward’s Baby Cream. Otherwise, cycling stores also have Chamois Butter, which is also good, but a little pricier,” she adds. Balms can be applied to your skin or as a thin coating on the chamois of your cycle shorts.

If chafing is a recurrent problem for you, consider your bike setup too. Adventure racer Tatum Prins had the following experience: “The worst chafe I have ever in my life had was during the Cape Epic in 2007. I won’t be too graphic but think ‘ladies nether regions’. Suffice to say that the chafe was so bad that it was bleeding. The race doctor said that I should pull out of the race and I thought that there was nothing I could do until I realised that my seat was too high. This was Day 5 and it was a very painful lesson to learn. Since dropping the saddle and having the correct setup I have never had another chafing issue”.

Tatum’s teammate Graham Bird (Team Merrell Adventure Addicts) has found that the weight of his backpack causes chafing around his private parts and bottom on biking legs, even though he is unaffected in training. “I do a good application at the start of a long mountain bike leg and normally this will see me through the stage with no problems. We always carry one tub between us during the race for any situations that arise,” Graham explains.

Also consider trimming the hedge… Horror stories abound about race medics who have had to snip away knotted bum hair to treat badly chafed between-the-cheeks areas. Moisture build-up and friction in the genital regions is reduced when hair is trimmed or removed.

Paddling

Although thighs and bottoms can take a hammering on the water, especially when salt water gets in, hands are usual victims. As with feet, blisters are the hand’s equivalent of chafing and they are best prevented by gloves. Tatum explains: “Paddlers think paddling with gloves looks uncool. At the four-day Berg River Canoe Marathon last year I saw people who wouldn’t wear gloves and their hands bled from all the popped blisters. I wore cycling gloves and had no issues at all. If the choice is between looking uncool versus the enjoyment factor of the race, I’d take uncool so that I’m able to race harder and be pain free”.

The Rules

Team Cyanosis’ Ryno Griesel is an accomplished ultradistance multidiscipline athlete and he has never experienced chafing in training or racing. Ever. Apply his ‘rules’ and neither will you.

  1. Aim for the prevention of chafing because, like sunburn, it will unnecessarily add to the challenges of a long race.
  2. Respond immediately to any area of friction. Use plaster, powder, lube or duct tape to sort it out. Even if it costs you a minute or two now, you’ll benefit later.
  3. If you know that you are prone to chafing in certain areas like blisters on feet or rubbing on the side of your neck from a backpack, start the race with those areas protected.
  4. Try different shoes and apparel during training to identify those that reduce irritation and chafing. Never try new kit for the first time during a race.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Originally published in Go Multi Magazine, March/April 2012