Encouraging More Adults to Swim
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Open Water

Aye! There's the Rub

Skin chafing is one of open water swimming’s biggest issues

Elaine Howley | May 4, 2015

As I approached the 6-mile mark in my first 8-mile Boston Light Swim in 2006, I just couldn’t take it any more. My bathing suit straps had rubbed raw, bleeding wounds into my shoulders that ached every time I reached an arm towards the finish line. Determined to finish anyway and unconcerned with modesty, I finally decided I’d had enough; I slipped my straps off and rolled my suit down to my hips, letting my whole torso swim free. The salt water still stung the wounds on my shoulders, but at least they weren’t getting deeper.

One of the most lasting lessons from my first marathon swim was that I needed to be better prepared for the abrasive effects of salt water on my sensitive skin. I needed to find a suit that fit better and wouldn’t shift around so much. The chafe wounds on my neck, shoulders, and under my breasts were painful reminders for many days afterward that I needed to figure out a solution to chafing.

What Exactly Is Chafing?

Chafe wounds are raw lesions that form where repetitive contact with another body part or other substance, such as a swimsuit, has worn away the tough outer layer of skin, revealing the tender epidermis below. Chafing becomes a very common problem among open water swimmers, particularly those spending long hours in the ocean. The higher the salinity of the water, the more abrasive it can be, with the salt acting like sandpaper. Depending on how bad the chafe is, it can start bleeding, but in many cases, chafe wounds are simply red, painful lesions that can take quite a while to heal.

For some swimmers, chafe wounds can leave lasting scars of adventures past. After his first attempt to swim the English Channel in 2012, Anthony McCarley, a 55-year-old Triple Crown marathon swimmer who swims for Delaware Valley Masters, says he has a permanent scar on his left wrist from the watch he wore during the swim. McCarley was in the water for 12 and a half hours and had neglected to lubricate a segment of skin under his watch. He also says that he gained weight for that swim and hadn’t put enough lubricant between his thicker-than-usual legs, an oversight he regretted afterwards. “I couldn’t walk comfortably for a couple weeks,” he remembers.

When Does Chafing Occur?

Chafing occurs when something makes repetitive contact with your skin and irritates it. That can be skin from another area of the body, clothing, a watch, a bathing cap, hair, or anything else that makes contact with skin. Ill-fitting bathing suits and wetsuits make the potential for chafing much worse.

Stubble can pose a serious problem for men, particularly if they over-reach in their freestyle stroke, causing their chin to rub against their shoulder or upper arm. This was another area where McCarley learned to plan carefully ahead of a swim.

At the Boston Light Swim in 2011 he arrived at the finish line with bloody patches on each shoulder. “I was so nervous before that swim, I woke up at 1 in the morning and I shaved really closely. But by the time the swim started, I had 5 or 6 hours of growth on my face.”

When McCarley swam the Santa Barbara Channel in 2014, he opted to shave closely just prior to starting the swim. He estimated his swim time at about 8 hours and was hoping to finish before the chafing got bad. “But it just didn’t work. I ended up getting just enough growth that I was raw again, and I learned that it’s not about preparing for the first 2 hours of the swim, it’s about preparing for the 5 o’clock shadow that comes in several hours later.”

Now, in advance of any long swims, McCarley, who runs a small software company, lets his beard grow in for at least a week, until “the whiskers are soft. … I have to schedule it so I don’t have any big business meetings just before the swim, as I can’t come in looking too scraggly,” he notes.

How Can I Prevent Chafing?

Aside from making sure your suit fits perfectly and you’re as close to hairless (or bearded) as possible, open water swimmers use a variety of anti-chafing products, including lanolin, Vaseline, Sport Stick, Bag Balm, Aquaphor, Body Glide, TRISWIM, and a range of other triathlon-specific anti-chafing products on the market. Over time, you’ll learn where your typical chafe points are and how to protect them.

It’s difficult to over-lubricate chafe points. And it’s important to think ahead of all the potential places where a rub might occur. For men, consider every point of skin-to-skin contact (armpits, groin, etc.) and every place where your bathing suit or wetsuit makes contact with your skin. (Wetsuit hickies—those horrible rubs along the back of the neck—are not a good look, so lube up.) For women; armpits, the groin, and along suit straps and seams are also delicate places that should be coated in lubricant before a long swim. Well-endowed women may also find that the undersides the breasts rub against the upper ribs, creating a painful chafe. Don’t be shy about reaching inside your suit with a handful of goop before a long swim.

Over the several years he’s been swimming in open water, McCarley, who swears by Aquaphor, has learned how to cope best with chafing. “I err now on the side of applying too much lube. Instead of thinking about what hurt last time, I just put it everywhere there might be a friction point. I coat my beard, armpits, tops and bottom of my swim suit, between my legs—everywhere.”

Making careful selection of what you wear in the water can also alleviate the severity of chafe wounds. For many swimmers, Lycra bathing suits—which are softer than their longer-lasting polyester counterparts—are more comfortable over a long swim. McCarly says he no longer wears a watch while swimming in open water as he once did, partly in deference to “upholding the purity of marathon swimming rules,” but also because of the painful wound he received in the English Channel.

How Should I Care For A Chafe Wound?

If the sore is open and bleeding, treat it as you would any other wound—keep it clean and dry and use antibacterial soap and ointment to help with the healing process. If it’s really bad, see a doctor. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help take some of the sting out of the wound, too.

For closed chafe wounds, keep the area clean and treat it like any other burn. Apply antibacterial ointment and avoid rubbing the area further. If a bathing suit caused the rub, try wearing a different bathing suit for a few days. If the rub came from skin-on-skin contact, take a couple days off to let the wound heal and come back next time with more lubricant on that area.

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About the Author—Elaine Howley

Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including AARP.orgAtlas ObscuraespnW, and U.S. News & World Report. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she has contributed to SWIMMER magazine since 2009 and USMS.org since 2012. Contact her via her website: elainekhowley.com

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