The Cuddlier Gentleman’s Guide to Chafing

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WARNING: This post will give you more information than you ever wanted to know. We’ll be discussing the dark, moist places of chafage hell. If you are concerned about ever looking Glenn in the eyes again DO NOT READ ON. You have been warned.

When I think of a mountain runner the image of the classic fell runner comes to mind.

With a body like a muscular whippet crossed with a gazelle, tall and long limbed, they float effortlessly over the rough terrain wearing a vest, a tiny pair of shorts, and the determined grit of an angry honey badger. The theme tune to Black Beauty can be heard in the ether.

Joss Naylor, now 84, a shepherd from Wasdale and one of the sport’s most celebrated figures © Laura Pannack from ft.com

I also love to run in the mountains. And it is here that the similarities end.

I am built more like a hobbit, only with wider, hairier feet. My gait is more a controlled falling action than a flow. The soundtrack that accompanies my running is the sound of rasping breath and Anglo-Saxon expletives, possibly a bit of comedic tuba.

And whilst I love the notion of the minimalist approach to fell running, the shorts and vest, it’s wholly impractical for me.

I’m not the typical runner shape. I have thick thighs that rub together, ginormous calves that act like ankle weights, and feet so broad the inside of my shoes looks like a scene from Escape From Alcatraz with my toes desperately trying to burst free from the sides.

So what to do if your body type says shot-put but your heart says Ultra-marathon? I say ‘screw conformity!’.

By far my biggest hurdle to face with running all day in the mountains (outside of training volume and injury etc.) is chafing.

What is chafing?

If you’ve never experienced it then you are one of god’s chosen few. Chafing occurs when we have a combination of friction and moisture. The friction can be skin on skin, or skin to fabric etc. What develops is a sore redness that can become a rash. In severe cases it can lead to swelling, bleeding, crusting and death.

Okay, maybe not death, but it’s pretty horrible. Classic chafing for runners often involves the thighs, intergluteal cleft (arse-crack), feet and toes, nipples, and other unmentionable areas*.

* I will of course be mentioning them.

How to avoid it?

There was never a circumstance that the adage ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ was ever truer than with chafing.

Our initial tactic is total avoidance.

As moisture is one factor in chafing it stands to reason that we need to limit it. By far the easiest thing to do is wear moisture wicking fabrics. My fabric of choice is high quality merino wool. Wool might sound like the last thing you want to avoid friction but merino is super soft, and wicks moisture away from the skin really well. It’s also odour resistant so great for the longer, multi-stage runs.

There are also a number of hi-tech moisture control fabrics on the market these days, you are sure to find one that works for you.

Avoid cotton. This soaks up moisture and is likely to exacerbate chafing.

Other people swear by various powders to soak up moisture. Now before you start powdering up your balls etc, be aware that Talcum powder may contain some minerals, like asbestos, that have been linked to cancer. Though few studies seem to have made a definitive link, the caution is there.

Powders only work to a point. They often start clogging up and eventually become an agent of the chafe.

Next up is friction. My number one piece of advice is to lycra up.

I fought the lycra clad option for a while, partly due to self confidence issues. Spending a week walking around looking like a cowboy who had shit himself after each run soon over-rode any lycra hesitancy.

Nowadays, if I’m not head to toe in spandex and as smooth in appearance as a porpoise, I’m not running.

dolphins jumping over the sea

Lycra/spandex/any other tight fitting fabric acts like a second skin. It’s this second skin that takes the brunt of any friction, so your actual skin doesn’t have to. There is also no flapping bits of fabric to bunch up and cause issues.

If you are super conscious of being out in public dressed like a budget superhero then wear it under other clothes.

Here are my top choices of running clothes. I’m not paid to recommend anything, these are just what I use:

DHB merino wool long sleeve half-zip baselayer from Wiggle. It’s my go-to winter running top. I’ve had it for years and it’s still going strong.

For summer running I like lightweight short sleeve t-shirts from Inov8. They are gossamer thin and light and the zip helps to regulate moisture.

And my leggings of choice (I generally always wear full length leggings) are the Alpkit Koulin Trail Tights. Good wide waistband, back pocket big enough to take modern smartphones and, most useful of all, side pockets. Not sure why all running tights don’t have side pockets.

These really help with chafing of the thighs.

Whilst I love the haughty freedom of going commando, it has issues for me when running. If I thought thigh chafing was bad, chafing of the cradger was like entering the 9th ring of Hell.

CRADGER: a portmanteau combination of the words crack and todger to describe the perineum, as in ‘that place between my crack and my todger’.

Maybe it’s a combination of age and gravity, but this never used to be an issue. Nowadays if I make the wrong choice in underpants it’s like running with a cheese grater down my shorts. Praise be for Under Armour BoxerJock 9 inch seam underpants.

These are perfect for me. Tight and silky smooth in the legs and gusset , long enough to cover the thigh problem zone, yet loose and airy around the lunchbox area. Just be warned, if you are chunky of thigh you might need to go a size bigger in the longer leg versions compared to the 6 inch seam.

A word on Runner’s Nipple. This chafing condition can be crippling for some. I will never forget my friend Rob crossing the finishing line of a race with two red and bloody stains on his running vest, right where his nipples used to be. I thankfully have never suffered this affliction. For those that do, specialist nipple guards are available. The old skool classic approach to runner’s nipple is to cut two holes in your t-shirt so no fabric is on those bad boys. Not a great look. Unless you are at a BDSM party, then have at it.

from runsociety.com

The feet are another chafing hotspot (pun intended) for some. Here, correct footwear choice is vital.

As far as socks go there are many anti-blister/anti-chafe brands available. My biggest issue in the past has been chafing between the toes. For this I can’t recommend toe socks highly enough. Not only do they add an extra layer of protection between your pinkies but they also allow your toes to splay naturally, providing your shoes are wide enough, thereby reducing the cramped condition.

My favourite toe socks are the mid-weight merino sock from Injinji

But as stated above, their benefits are reduced if your shoes are squishing your feet. This is why my shoes of choice for mountain running are ALTRA King MT.

Zero drop and foot shaped, meaning they are beautifully wide in the toe box to allow my hobbitses toes to do their thing. They also have a Velcro strap across the top and a peculiar ‘shark-skin’ fabric in the heel to minimise shoe movement and therefore chafing.

You can read my review of the ALTRA King MT here.

So now we have covered clothing, and this brings us on to another technique of avoiding friction; lubrication.

There are innumerable anti-chafe lubricants on the market from the old fashioned Vasoline, to more modern takes on it like BodyGlide.

Whatever you use the theory is the same, we are aiming to reduce friction by lubricating the surfaces in contact with each other.

The first time I tried this was at the start line of my very first half marathon. Standing around watching other men liberally grease up their gluteal clefts, I felt the age old sensation of peer pressure descend upon me.

“What if they know something I don’t?”

I had never suffered with bum-crack issues before, but there I was greasing up like the rest of them.

To be sure, lubricants offer a huge benefit for many, but the main issue I have is what many of them are made from. And this brings me to ‘Glenn’s Rules for Life #278’.

If I’m not prepared to put it in my mouth I will not put it near my balls.*

*except for Sudocrem

It’s a rule to live by I feel.

Now, there are some natural varieties, such as Squirrels Nut Butter, but I prefer to simply use plain old coconut oil. I use it pre-emptively before heading out and I also fill up an old lip-balm container with some for a mid run application. Being edible it also passes as a handy emergency snack.

Don’t double dip!

There sadly are times where no amount of precaution can prevent the dreaded chafe. At these moments the quicker you can deal with it the better. Whether it’s a re-application of lube, an adjustment of underwear, or a semi-surgical procedure of blister care, take time to stop, even mid race, and sort it out. You’ll be quicker in the long run if you are not hobbling along, legs akimbo.

For blister care I carry a specific kit separate to my normal first aid kit. I have a needle for drainage, a small set of sterile scissors, some antiseptic wipes, a small phial of Tincture of Benzoin, some Sudocrem, and kinesiology tape pre-cut to cover the area.

For possibly the most detailed guide in taping blisters, see the Fellrnr.com wiki here.

Sudocrem works like magic on chafed areas, which is why it’s used for nappy rash. It’s so good that I had to put in an ammendment to the Life Rule #278. I carry some of it with me on runs, again in an old lip-balm container. Just be sure to not get it mixed up with the coconut oil if you do need extra calories.

So there you have it, the Cuddlier Gentleman’s guide to chafing. It’s not exhaustive but it works for me. If you have any other advice let us know in the comments.

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