How To apply lubrication for distance sea swimming

I think I may have reached a new level of banality with this one. Or have I? Can I get more banal? After all, I’ve previously told you how to wash your swimsuit. And yet when ever I write a banal HowTo post, it ends up being useful to someone. Funnily enough, at MIMS this year someone said exactly that to me; “I’ve got to love a blog that tells you how to wash your swim suit”.

So everything is useful to someone. On my first ever visit to Dover, I think I’ve mentioned this previously, I recall getting changed under the shelter, (you Dover swimmer know the one, the one which actually provides no shelter because there’s no glass in it.) When a couple of guys came over and wanted to know what Danny Walsh and I were doing putting Vaseline under our armpits. It transpired that were there to do a Channel relay. I can understand we all have to learn, but try to do it before you get to Dover… and to that end…

I’ve covered the different types of grease generally previously (there were a couple missing from the list, emulsifying cream and something called Aquaphor). I’m sure where grease or lubrication is involved, people are inventive when faced with an immediate lack thereof coupled with a desire to swim. 🙂

Let’s recap quickly though. For long distance swims people primarily choose petroleum jelly, lanolin, Channel grease, or a silicon lubricant.

  • To mix Channel grease you can use anywhere from a 50/50 mix to 90/10 lanolin to petroleum jelly.

The two big problems with applying pure lanolin are the fact that it gets almost solid when cold, and that it leaves a huge mess. Warming the lanolin or mixing up Channel grease solves the first problem, but not the second. So before you do anything you need to make sure either your hands are covered, or that you can completely clean your hands afterwards. Disposable gloves are the simple solution. I myself prefer to carry a damp dish-washing liquid with me to wipe off my fingers afterwards. For a big swim, like a Channel swim, I think it’s best to have both ready. Having recently seen this, let me clarify the process of applying grease for a Channel swim:

  • If using pure lanolin, sit the tub on a car dashboard, in the sun or (closed) in warm water to soften it first.
  • Do NOT apply petroleum jelly first and then try to apply cold lanolin on top of it.
  • Mix your grease first then apply, or apply only one or the other.

So you’ve got your grease and your gloves. Where do you put it?

  • The primary location that causes the most problems is under the armpits because the salt build up quickly. Make sure to get down a couple of inches below the armpit and in front if it’s along swim. If you are unsure how much to add, more can’t do you any harm.
  • For many people (e.g. me) the neckline behind the head under the hairline is an area of particular difficulty, even on short swims.
  • For some, depending on whether you have a beard, stubble or are clean shaven, you may want to lube along the jawline AND on top of the shoulders where the jaw may rub.
  • Some areas are more of personal preference. For men and women for long swims, between the thighs may be area of concern. If you have a particularly narrow stroke and are likely to touch your face to your arm on full extension, then possibly some grease on the outside of your shoulder may help,
  • Similarly, you may like to do a  thigh-scrape with your your recovering thumb on every stroke, in which case some grease on the outside of your thigh may be useful.
  • For men, for a Channel-duration swim, I suggest putting grease under the edges of the swimsuit, and around your genitals.
  • A female friend reminds me that for women, nipples can also be a serious chaffing problem on long sea swims.
  • For women, the straps of swimsuits often cause huge problems for long swims, with many women swimmers having to do a lot of experimentation to find a suitable swimsuit. Application of lanolin to these areas is also required for marathon duration swims.

What other factors are important?

  • For fresh water swims of over 4 hours I apply lubrication just because of pure skin-on-skin friction.
  • Salinity varies by location. The English Channel at 5% salinity is 20% more saline than the 4% salinity south coast of Ireland. Allow for the difference if you come from a lower salinity location.
  • As well as using Channel grease to allow for colder weather, also allow for warmer weather. In warmer climes lubrication easily runs off the body prior to swimming, as happened to a lot of people before this year’s MIMS.

What can happen if you don’t apply sufficient swim lubrication? Here’s a picture of a well known and respected marathon swimmer who ran into some problems. I haven’t touched the colour of the healing skin on the shoulders. Also look at the chaffing on the neck. Chaffing of this level comes with a significant amount of pain and a slow recovery and almost certainly long-lasting scars.


This post is dedicated to English Channel Record Holder Trent Grimsey!

13 thoughts on “How To apply lubrication for distance sea swimming

    • Hi Sergio, there is no commercial product, you mix your own from Vaseline and pure lanolin. (Which I get online as it’s very expensive to buy in small amounts in pharmacies). But one 500gm tub should last years.


  1. Very interesting article.
    I use petroleum jelly. I’ve been told that a 50/50 or 60/40 mix with lanolin is useful to protect from cool water.
    I’m in the process of “learning” how to swim in skins all the year round, so I would need some advice from an expert. I live in Barcelona (Spain), so water is 14ºC in January-February, an 17ºC in December and March (quite warm for you, I guess!). Last winter I’ve been swimming with a short-leg no-sleeve 2mm wetsuit. For a swim of about 2 hours, at which temperature would you start using lanolin/jelly mix for cold protection, swimming without wetsuit? (if you would…).
    Many thanks!
    PD. I love your blog, but it takes some time to read that many good old posts.


    • Thanks Bruno. Any lubrication, Channel grease (lanolin/petroleum mix) or otherwise, does nothing to protect from cold. That is an old myth.

      I don’t wear any once the water drops below 8C or 9C when I won’t be swimming more than 30 mins because I don’t get chuffed from the salt in that time.


      • Thank you very much. This is such a surprise: this myth is widely spread among my fellow swimmers! (though they all swim in wetsuits). Of course I’ll take your word on it.


  2. Thanks a lot. Really helpful for me.
    Whatever you think is banal, there are always idiots for who it is helpful information 😉


  3. Pingback: Channel and Marathon Swimming Articles Index & adding a Donate to, the world’s most popular open water swimming blog option | LoneSwimmer

  4. For swims of up to 4 or 5 hrs, I tend to use 100% petroleum jelly, for the simple reason that I hate lanolin! Any swim of 6 hrs or longer I will use a 1:1 petroleum jelly to lanolin mixture to be sure to be sure… Now, who could possibly have tried putting on petroleum jelly first and then applying cold lanolin afterwards???


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