Swimming Times, March 1966, pp. 88-89

Grease and the Marathon swimmer

Dr Hiram Baddeley

Medical Advisor to the British Long Distance Swimming Association

The use of grease on the skin is widely favoured by most experienced swimmers and weird and wonderful are the several prescriptions I have seen! One very fine swimmer uses an old Red Indian prescription dating way back beyond the intrusion of the first white face. I have treated cases suffering torments of burning irritation which so frequently follows upon the prolonged contact with the skin of highly concentrated "chile pastes." Rubefacients may give a very smoothing and false feeling of warmth and can only conduce to the loss and not the production of conservation of heat by the body.

We have all sympathised with the man who, on nearing the completion of his Channel swim, was obliged to retire from the water. His mutton fat had attracted a large shoal of hungry fish with poor powers of distinguishing between him and his insulation! His voodoo was perhaps ill-chosen but voodoo it is of one kind or another and great faith attaches to each and every one. When man has so little between him and the elements he attaches magnified importance to the little he has and quite rightly, too!

Prolonged Trials

I have made personal and prolonged trials right the way through lanoline and olive oil to the heavy water-resistant car greases. Tried the best the chemists could produce to make the stuff stick to the skin and have even kept it in situ by a multiplicity of garments and elastic contrivances.

Theoretically, a layer of grease only 1 mm thick evenly spread over the body surface would be equivalent to raising the temperature of water from 58F to 60F for the average swimmer. a very, very attractive prospect indeed for the swimmers but unfortunately full of snags.

1. All greases appear to emulsify with water after prolonged immersion and lose their stickability and insulative powers.

2. Within a very short time the smooth outer surface of the grease begins to ridge and then to form large blobs of grease. This leads to much increased resistance in the passage of the body through the water and cuts the speed of swimming. The blobbing also leads to uneven insulation and therefore decreased efficiency in thermal conservation.

3.. All greases very soon part company from the very places where one might rightly think they could do most good. The upper thorax and the shoulders and upper arms are very soon denuded in all cases I have seen.

4. If the grease is to be held within a garment it is perhaps wise to utilise a wool vest - thick and tight to the body and soaked in heavy "Freon" gas before applying the greases to each of its sides. The heavy gas when it has fully replaced the air in the tiny interspaces of the wool will increase the insulative powers of the garment by as much as three to five times ! However, the inroads of emulsification and the unsticking of the grease from the skin soon gives huge pockets for the cold water to penetrate and the insulation is lost. If a heavy chemically-inert gas could be maintained in thick wool or fur and such a garment could be made impervious to water then such a garment would have far greater insulative powers than 10-times its thickness of pure grease !

5 As the grease softens beneath the garment it moves to the pressure of the water and is pushed slowly but inexorably around and away from the submerged parts and concentrated on the surface which is clear of the water. In other words, it "floats" beneath the garment and makes its way to the surface. A criss-cross of elastic bands can in some small way prevent this floating and unsticking of the grease.

6. With great care, there is absolutely no reason why grease should spread beyond the confines of the body surface in the case of the marathon swimmer. In actual fact, with even greater care, it always does - into one eye and then the other - into food and drink - on water watch and wrist compass so that time and direction as well as vision and nourishment disappear quite early in the swim. On boats, friends, new and treasured clothing, books, papers, cars, as well as the usual but deprecated contamination of towels and underclothing. Indeed, it is only when you come to wash it off that you find the stuff sticks and sticks ! By the way - don't use Gunk on tender parts !

7. A layer of grease on the skin surface protects the cold receptors from the initial sensation of surface cold which is so necessary to full constriction of the blood vessels and the development of full insulative powers by the superficial fat organ. This clouding of the cold receptors by surface grease is virtually equivalent to reducing the thickness of the insulating fat layer of the body to a mere millimetre or two ! The skin reflexes lie dormant beneath their quite inadequate grease protection and then - quite suddenly - out of a fine but false sense of feeling of warmth - comes the first cold shiver down the spine - that deadly sensation which spells the unexpected message of lethal heat debt - a sensation which never comes to a well-trained, ungreased body.

Grease in any useful quantity likely to act materially in preventing heat loss from the swimmer's body is therefore seen to hamper rather than help and can be quite dangerous if its implications are not fully appreciated and requisite action taken.

To prevent the masking of the cold-reflex by grease it is advisable to leave the arms and legs free of protection so that the cold reflex might arise from this source and perhaps the face, too - with a temporary douche of cold water. Practice too, in the use of grease might allow the conditioning of the skin reflexes to cause effective constriction of the whole body. But it is a very messy business and quite devoid from an otherwise naturally clean sport !

Insulative Head Guard

After a great amount of suffering I would advise a useful insulative head guard and leave the grease completely alone for the other man to worry about. Sam Rockett - a famous Channel swimmer and now a fine coach and adviser, who has written an instructive book on Channel swimming - It's Cold in the Channel - also advocates, I understand, the minimum use of grease in preventing heat loss from the body. Many other outstanding swimmers use only minimum amounts of the substance.

On a credit side I would suggest that jelly-fish stings are very much less if a thin smear of a heavy water-resistant shell grease is used on the body and limbs. It also, for me anyway, acts like a voodoo against sharks. I imagine that the grease might well give an unattractive chemical stimulus to the shark's receptors during its accustomed run in alongside your body for the "rub-taste" before it makes up its primitive mind to come in on its preset course with fixed snap-ready jaws agape !

Adequate Cold Water Training

I would sum up by saying that 1 mm of extra fat under the skin is worth more than 1 cm of the stuff precariously stuck on the surface. The latter will always move, blob, and emulsify, and separate very soon after a swim commences. It will prevent adequate and uniform constriction in the insulative shell at the most vulnerable period of the swim - the beginning - when thermo-regulation is being rapidly instituted for the rest of the journey. In my opinion and in the opinion of many others its use can be obviated by adequate cold water training.

The exaggerated use of grease protection could with great technical skill be extended to a degree which might, in the foreseeable future, prove more efficient than many complete frog-suits of modern design. I believe that the BLDSA and allied sports associations would deprecate such a trend as being contrary to the principles of the sport.


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