For the most part, I don't regret signing up for my first half marathon. Sure it's a mad thing to attempt, but I’m enjoying the challenge and rhythm of running long distances regularly. The only time I’ve really thought twice was about a month ago. It was a freezing day so I did my long run at the gym on a treadmill, wearing my favourite blue leggings (they stay up without adjustments, they have a side pocket for my phone, and they're comfortable). When I finally finished a plodding but triumphant 15k I went to stretch before realising, with horror, my leggings were now soaked through at the crotch. I do not use the word soaked lightly. And I had no change of clothes (my gym is in walking distance) and no post-run food in the house.
Which is how I ended up walking to and around my local Sainsbury’s while rapidly cooling sweat continued to make me look like I’d wet myself. Later when I got home my wife (kindly) asked "are you sure you didn’t piss yourself?" Cool!
I am not easily embarrassed. Arguably, I’m frank about myself and my body to a fault. But as I clutched my purchases to my hoodie in the sterile orange aisles I felt humiliated. It didn’t matter that I knew it was crotch sweat. It didn’t even matter that you would too if you thought about it for three seconds – my salmon pink face, slick hair and raggedy demeanour should have given that away. The fact was that the space between my legs was wet and that is a mortifying way to walk around in public.
So when I’d finally paid, despite my exhaustion, I ran home faster than I had in weeks.
Training for any kind of race or team sport will make you well acquainted with how your body sweats. It’s a general rule that you will sweat (unless, of course, you are a certain royal son) but how much and where often varies person to person. The type of sweat also varies around the body – places like your scalp and your armpit have apocrine sweat glands, while the majority of your body which has eccrine sweat glands. And it is the apocrine glands that secrete thicker sweat which, when mixed with bacteria, can have an odour. This is the sort of gland you can find in the crotch area. In fact, Chris Adigun, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in North Carolina, previously told Women’s Health that “your groin is not really all that different from your underarm”. An interesting visual.
That means if you’re one of the lucky ones like me, exercise-induced crotch sweat is as much a fact of life as damp armpits on a sunny day.
Running, however, is a particularly sweaty sport. The fact that it is a ‘leg-together’ workout (like cycling) means that your already elevated body temperature has less chance to cool off – the air can’t reach between those thighs. Then there’s the fact that you store more fat around your lower middle. According to exercise physiologist Marta Montenegro, “since fat insulates your body, any extra throughout your hips and thighs can also keep your groin’s temperatures up”. And the longer you go without pausing, the greater the build up of heat without opportunity to cool down.
I only really realised this when I started running longer than half an hour at a time. In the new year I’d wanted a physical challenge that wouldn’t encourage hyper focus on my body, but would have clear goals and a distinct end point. Running long distance with a half marathon a few months later, which I’d never really tried before, fit the bill. As it turns out, I loved it.
Every time I would run further or faster I felt like I’d unlocked a secret to the universe: it turns out you don’t need to kill yourself going too fast at the beginning. In fact the slower you go at the beginning the better. It was one of those discoveries that reads like an annoying aphorism until you discover it for yourself – when you go easy on yourself you not only survive longer, you can thrive too.
And yet, often when I’d meet an arbitrary goal or have another cheesy realisation, I would also have to reckon with unavoidably visible crotch sweat.
Often any satisfaction I felt at running that long distance was usurped by a particularly regressive kind of humiliation. ‘Wetting yourself’ is fundamentally embarrassing.
On the days I’d be running for over an hour, the front and back of my leggings (often no matter what colour) were flooded with sweat moments after I stopped. It was less visible with the darker colours but still unavoidably there. As running at home isn't an option (unless you’re a Peloton treadmill girlie) this would always happen in public at least 10 minutes away from my front door. During which I just had to accept that this was the way it would be.
I know it is silly to get so wrapped up in this. It’s just a body doing what it does when you move it for this long. And naturally, not every fabric is going to be suited to mask your enthusiastic apocrine glands – the marketing of particular fabrics as ‘sweat-wicking’ is not for nothing. And yet, often any satisfaction I felt at running that long distance was usurped by a particularly regressive kind of humiliation. ‘Wetting yourself’ is fundamentally embarrassing. Even when you’re six and you just couldn’t get home from church fast enough so you had to wee in your garden (speaking from experience) you understand that this is something you should feel ashamed about.
The fact that we use bathrooms and don’t just go wherever is one of the main differentiators between man and animal. It is, I’d argue, a good one. But it means that if you do pee (or look like you have done) it suggests a loss of bodily control that either stems from immaturity, a mental disconnect or a wilful rejection of set standards. And any of these is something to be rejected.
Bodily functions are embarrassing. We’ve only made peace with the gross jarring messiness of the human body in very particular ways and in specific contexts. We’ve barely reached a point when actual skin texture can be seen on social media apps. So skin slick with sweat is rarely acceptable. And sweat that looks like wee? Absolutely not.
The oozing, fleshy, unpredictable gushiness of every human body is still very carefully wrapped up. Any suggestion of dirtiness is not only repulsive but can be used to denigrate someone – minoritised people who don’t reach a certain standard of cleanliness are deemed uncouth, disgusting, outside of the norm. In my case as a woman, visceral uncleanliness is too disruptive to the still held standards of womanhood. And it is all of this that gets bundled into a looming sense of shame whenever crotch sweat happens.
If this was women’s media in 2017 I might have ended this with a call for us to reclaim crotch sweat and embrace it as a sign of how powerful your body can be. If you feel that way, more power to you. But in 2022 that feels like a flattening conclusion – these things are not either empowering or shameful. They’re both and neither simultaneously and reckoning with our bodies spurts and smells is largely personal.
For my part I have found that making my peace requires both better leggings and a shift in mindset. I've been lucky to try various leggings recently for long distance + crotch sweat resistance and I'm particularly fond of the Nike Dri-FIT Run Epic Luxe Leggings that are not only genuinely sweat wicking and great fitting but have a massive THREE pockets. `The New Balance Q Speed Tights are similarly robust but thicker for colder days and come in a fun red colour holds up against sweaty thighs; Lilybod and Varley's running leggings brought me no shame on runs; and Everlane's Perform legging didn't withstand longer distance and had to be regularly hiked up but were decidedly sweat-wicking.
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It is important to be mindful that excessive sweat can be a sign of other conditions like diabetes or hyperhidrosis, both of which should be investigated with a medical professional. There are also other potential solutions including consulting a dermatologist, topical antiperspirants, sweat wicking fabrics like those I mentioned above, and breathable cotton underwear.
So when sweat does break through the new leggings (which it has done on a two hour jog in the sun) it encourages me to question when our repulsion against bodily functions is justified and when it is learned. Sometimes I want to allow for women to be disgusting; other times I to embrace that we instinctively adapt around and try to mask this fact of life. But as I accept 'wet crotch' as just another way my body pushes against conventional womanhood, my physical self’s willingness to humiliate me honestly becomes hilarious. And on those days I'll find myself standing in the Sainsbury's aisle, pretending I got so excited at finding a bar of Mini Eggs chocolate for sale I wet myself. Stranger things have happened.