As the popularity of cold water submersion explodes thanks to the likes of Ross Edgely and Wim Hof. We must know what is available to help make our cold water swims safer and more efficient.
But when it comes to using grease, what are the benefits? Of course, the primary benefit, especially for long swims, is the anti-chafing protection that grease provides.
The most common types of grease that cold and open water swimmers use are;
- Duck or Goose fat
- Vaseline/petroleum jelly
The secondary benefit grease can provide is buoyancy from using fat-based products in freshwater, especially saltwater. This is because fat is less dense than water.
So was the legendary Captain Matthew Webb (the first person to make the English Channel swim) on to something when he slathered himself in lanolin?
Let’s dive in and find out!
Lanolin for cold water swimming
Lanolin is technically natural wax (not a wool fat) secreted from the glands of wool-bearing animals (most commonly domestic sheep) with waterproofing properties.
In the context of swimming long distances, it has two key benefits. The first is that it provides excellent protection from chaffing caused by prolonged exposure to saltwater. And secondly, it is undoubtedly good for your skin due to its natural qualities.
Lanolin can also only dissolve in warm water, but at the same time, cold water will cause it to coagulate. So if the swim will cause further continuous skin friction, it will need re-application in areas such as the armpits or back of the neck.
Duck fat for cold water swimming
Fat from ducks is another way the pioneers of open water swimming prepared themselves for a channel swim. In addition to the chafe protection, there is an added benefit of buoyancy due to fat being less dense than water.
These days it is less common for swimmers to use duck fat as the ease of putting vaseline on exposed areas has become the preferred method.
Goose fat cold water swimming
Similar to the properties of duck fat, but the use of goose fat is more widespread. The insulating benefits are still hotly debated. However, buoyancy and anti-chafe properties are undoubtedly key benefits for using goose fat for cold open water swims.
Some athletes will even go so far as to concoct their own blends of goose fat and vaseline, although this is also up for debate about whether there is any improved performance.
Using any type of fat is a messy business, and you will want to avoid greasy hands. So unless you have someone on hand to rub the fat over your entire body, you will need some spare towels handy or disposable gloves.
Does Vaseline help with cold water swimming?
Vaseline or petroleum jelly is the most popular of all the open water swimming lubricants out there.
Vaseline has a wide range of anti-chafing uses for many sports, and open water swimmers love the added protection it provides for this. And although petroleum jelly is proven to protect from cold weather, there is no evidence to support the claim that it provides any thermal effects when submerged in water.
The main assistance for open water swimming is protecting exposed skin from salty seawater and the abrasive effect that it can have.
Another important consideration to remember is that anti-chafing lubricants made from petroleum jelly will destroy neoprene over time. So if you are using a swimmer who uses a winter wetsuit, this is something to consider before purchasing anti-chafing lubricants.
Other products on the market for open water swimmers
Ocean Grease is an Australian based company that aims to solve the issues an open water swimmer faces. Namely chaffing and how to protect the skin.
They make a range of products, from 100% anhydrous lanolin to anti-chafing lubricants made from a mixture of wool wax and petroleum jelly.
Applying Ocean Grease is done the same way as any other grease or fat. Use the Ocean Grease sparingly and remove excess ocean grease with a spare towel to avoid greasy fingerprints on your goggles.
The first company to start using plant-based waxes to provide chafe protection for athletes. And because it is plant-based means, it is practically insoluble in water, unlike wool fat or petroleum-based remedies.
Body Glide features a range of different products they make designed for external use to keep you chafe-free. In addition to a solution primarily composed of plants, the range is not harmful to or ever tested on animals.
Why do swimmers put grease on their bodies?
So after looking at all the methods that athletes have used for open water swimming to understand why they use grease. We can say that there are two main reasons:
- It provides the swimmer with a way to minimise chafing for prolonged open water exposure.
- There can be additional benefits in helping buoyancy by applying grease in some cases.
How do you prepare your body for cold water swimming?
The simplest and most effective method to prepare yourself is mentally. This can be in the form of a pre-swim ritual whereby you focus on staying calm. In addition to the mental aspect, the act of repeated exposure is an effective way to prepare your body through acclimation.
Does Grease Protect from the cold water?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific proof that using grease on the body prior to cold water entry has any thermal benefit. However, there may still be a placebo effect that you or your fellow swimmers benefit from, believing that the grease may hold onto some of the bodies warmth.
Open water swimming has used fats, grease and waxes for as far back as 1875, particularly to aid athletes taking on cold long-distance swims.
And whilst it has been previously thought to help in retaining body heat, the two major benefits of using grease are:
- To prevent chafing
- And to a lesser degree, help with buoyancy.
A range of anti-chafing products is now available to help open water swimmers take on a North channel crossing to winter warriors doing winter laps in the local lido.