Getting Ahead of Chafing

Ah, the pleasure of a nice shower after a hot, dirty run. Sweat-soaked running clothes rest on the bathroom floor; dirty legs seem to end in wrinkled flesh-colored shoes. You slip under the spray, turning to get the full effect of all that wonderfully refreshing water.

Photo of runner's dirty legs and feet after taking off shoes.

The peace of the moment is shattered by a blood-curdling scream worthy of a Quentin Tarantino Psycho remake. Your back arches as you skitter out from under the spray. That pulsing water just raked across raw, bloody skin neatly bisecting your back.

You’ve been chafed.

Chafing can derail a run faster than just about anything. It never fails — somewhere out around the farthest point, I realize the irritating seam I’ve been absentmindedly futzing around with has rubbed me raw. Or that new equipment clearly doesn’t sit quite right. And my new sports bra is digging a hole above my diaphragm.

What Causes Chafing?

It’s simple: chafing is the result of friction caused by skin rubbing against something else to the point of irritation. No spot is immune.

There are, however, a few common areas for runners: nipples, inner thighs, the upper torso (chest and back), and inner arms. Men suffer from nipple chafing – it’s why you see bloody streaks down shirtfronts at races. Chest and back chafing fall primarily to women abused by sports bras (though anyone wearing some sort of chest strap can fall victim). Everybody deals with inner thigh and upper arm chafing, caused by fabric and proximity.

There is also what I like to think of as “specialty” chafing, places unique to a certain type of activity. Trail runners get “hot spots” on the bottom of the feet. They’re caused by sliding within shoes, typically during extreme or extended downhill sections. However, hot spots lie somewhere between chafing and blistering, as the skin is usually not broken and raw, nor are blisters (also caused by friction) formed.

Long-distance runners often get chafed between butt cheeks. Note: If you feel this is TMI, then you are clearly not a long-distance runner. This kind of stuff – as well as where, when, and how bathroom breaks occur — is a lot of what passes for interesting endurance conversation. (This, and the obligatory “look how gross my toe nail is” show-and-tell.)

A Little Bit of Lube Goes A Long Way


The best way to avoid chafing is to eliminate friction. That means adding lubrication to potential problem areas before exercising. My favorite choices for lube have evolved over the years, often influenced by the type of exercise I was enjoying at the time.

Petroleum Jelly

Back in the 1990’s, I just didn’t know anything better. Petroleum jelly works, is inexpensive, and can be purchased just about anywhere you might shop. The downside is that prolonged use stains garments (as well as other items, like car seats). If you’re applying Vaseline (mostly petrolatum) or Aquaphor (about 40 percent petrolatum; the rest is lanolin and glycerin) between the thighs before every long run, sooner or later those favorite shorts will always look like you recently messed your pants. Along with the stain comes a faint odor. And triathletes, petroleum jelly should not be used with a neoprene wetsuit.

Body Glide

This great product has none of petroleum jelly’s negatives: no staining, no odor, no petroleum or animal products, and no dipping fingers into a jar to apply. Body Glide is plant-based, and the handy roll-on tube makes it as easy to apply as deodorant (in fact, I often sleepily roll it on my armpits by mistake). It also doesn’t seem to melt in the hot Texas sun, so I keep a tube in my car. Body Glide even has teeny tiny tubes that fit in a Nathan vest pocket. Non-athletic use: I often put it on the bottom of my feet to prevent blisters when heavy-duty walking is on the agenda. Most sporting goods and running gear stores carry Body Glide.

Chamois Butt’r

Ironman training introduced me to a new level of chafing. Seat, inner thighs, girlie bits – those centuries all require additional chafing protection. I found that Chamois Butt’r went beyond Body Glide’s prevention to provide gentle, soothing aftercare. Because I have all kinds of sensitive skin issues, I liked having a paraben- and gluten-free product with no artificial colors or fragrances on this delicate area, and Chamois Butt’r can also be applied directly onto the chamois pad in bike shorts (hence the name). I also preferred having one product for my public bits (Body Glide) and another devoted to my private parts. Cycling shops carry Chamois Butt’r, which now comes in several specialty formulas (such as Chamois Butt’r Her, especially for the ladies).

Dr. Smith’s Diaper Rash Ointment

Ultra marathons, not my children, introduced me to this miracle treatment, my ultimate anti-chafing weapon. Unlike the other products, this cream contains zinc oxide (you know, the mineral in heavy-duty sunscreen). Developed to prevent and heal diaper rash in babies, Dr. Smith’s Diaper Rash Ointment is gentle enough for sensitive skin, a great lubricant, and perfect for preventing that painful post-chafing shower. Zinc oxide blocks moisture and helps heal, so if you have developed a very bad case of chafing, it will still help. Apply liberally, keeping the area covered with ointment (and exposed to air, if you can appropriately do that). I’ve had bad cases resolve overnight with Dr. Smith’s. The negatives: Though it doesn’t seem to stain, it is bright white and messy (it also contains petrolatum and animal products, such as lanolin). But I thoroughly apply before and, if necessary, during an ultra, as I carry a tube — along with a pre-packaged wipe for clean up — just in case. You’ll find it anywhere baby items are sold.

Words to the Wise on Sharing

If you forgot your lube, don’t ask to use someone else’s. This request creates an awkward situation for the person with the lube, who has to decide, “Do I want anyone else rubbing my stuff on their body?” and then find a graceful way to say, “No, I don’t think that’s good hygiene practice among friends/strangers.”

And think about it…you don’t know just where that lube has been now, do you?



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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I'm a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I've come to learn it. In addition to my blog "Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life" at, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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